Measuring any personality trait is a tricky business, and attachment security is no exception. As I mentioned before in this post on attachment, sometimes a person could have a mild or moderate level of insecurity, which is quite different from being extremely insecure. It may not be completely accurate to categorize people into one of three groups when there is so much variation in people’s behavior.
So what’s the best way to measure someone’s relationship security? Psychologists used to use categories (people would rate themselves as “secure,” “anxious-ambivalent,” or “avoidant”), which meant that people were forced to classify themselves as either secure or insecure. More recently, psychologists have switched to measuring attachment with a series of short questions that result in a wider range of scores. The “Experiences in Close Relationships” scale1 (the most widely used attachment survey) measures how avoidant and how anxious a person is in their relationships by asking participants to respond to 36 questions, on a 1-7 scale. Many people fall somewhere in the middle (3 or 4) on one of the insecure traits; less often do people score themselves as highly insecure. Allowing people to vary on particular ‘dimensions’ of attachment can give us a more accurate picture of how people feel and behave in relationships.
Other personality traits besides attachment are measured similarly. For example, the introversion-extroversion trait (also known as being “shy” or “outgoing”) is also measured on a 1-7 scale. So a person could be in the middle (or moderately shy) rather than one or the other. Measuring attachment in this way is beneficial for another reason: it allows researchers to gauge whether someone is both highly anxious and highly avoidant, or neither. Someone who is high on both anxious and avoidant attachment is really insecure, while someone who is low on anxiety and avoidance is secure. This “two-dimensional” model of attachment is illustrated nicely here (also see image below).
However, some attachment researchers say that we should not be using surveys at all! Developmental psychologists are quick to point out that it is difficult for anyone to be aware of their own insecurities, and people might give inaccurate information on a questionnaire. These psychologists believe it is better to use indirect methods like interviews, reaction time tasks, or word prompts. Using such methods, people’s responses are “coded” or scored for security/insecurity. These coded responses do NOT correlate at all with results from a questionnaire.
This is similar to “implicit vs. explicit” measures of racial prejudice. Researchers at Harvard found that some people would not admit to holding prejudiced views against African Americans on a survey, but when they completed the “Implicit Association Test” (IAT), their reaction time responses revealed a mental prejudice outside of their conscious awareness.2 In a similar study on attachment, less than half of the people who were judged to be insecure actually rated themselves as insecure.3 Just as some people held prejudicial ideas without being aware of it, some people had relationship insecurities that they were unaware of. Now, before you judge these people for being in denial, would you admit to being insecure? Think about it.
1Brennan, K. A., Clark, C. L., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson, W. Rholes, J. A. Simpson, W. Rholes (Eds.) , Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 46-76). New York, NY US: Guilford Press.
2Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1464-1480.
3Crowell, J. A., Treboux, D., & Waters, E. (1999). The Adult Attachment Interview and the Relationship Questionnaire: Relations to reports of mothers and partners. Personal Relationships, 6(1), 1-18.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.