Everybody has attachments to specific people in their lives. When young, people are attached to their caregivers. As they mature, people may develop strong attachments to mentors, coaches, close friends, and even intimate partners. In adulthood, one of the most significant attachment figures an individual has is that person’s spouse, or committed romantic partner. Attachment relationships can be positive or negative. Strong, loving relationships are deemed positive attachments and promote harmony, respect, and individuality. Emotionally abusive, intimidating, and violent relationships can create negative attachments that lead to avoidant and anxious behaviors. Both types of attachment have a significant influence on psychological health. Research has shown that positive attachments can increase well-being and positive affect while negative attachments can increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Very few studies have examined the effect of attachment figures on memory recall. And until now, no study has looked at how visualizing an attachment figure affects stress and affect when recalling upsetting experiences. To address this gap, Emre Selcuk of the Department of Human Development at Cornell University in New York compared how viewing a picture of an attachment figure impacted the negative affect of an individual when asked to recall upsetting memories. In a series of experiments, Selcuk examined how attachment visualization prior to recalling a disturbing memory, during the memory, and after recalling the memory affected affect in a sample of participants.
The results revealed that when the participants visualized or looked at a picture of a supportive attachment figure during the memory recall they realized larger decreases in negative affect than when they visualized a stranger. The findings were less significant in the participants with avoidant attachment styles, suggesting that negative experiences with attachment figures dampen the psychological benefits of recalling them during stressful periods. Selcuk also discovered that thinking about or looking at attachment figures before thinking of a disturbing memory did not improve affect, but recalling the attachment figure after the memory task did. Overall, the findings showed that the greatest benefits were realized when the participants thought about positive attachments with romantic partners. Selcuk added, “In sum, the present findings aid in understanding the protective health benefits of attachment relationships.”
Selcuk, E., Zayas, V., Günaydin, G., Hazan, C., Kross, E. (2012). Mental representations of attachment figures facilitate recovery following upsetting autobiographical memory recall. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028125
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