Study Finds Attachment Anxiety Can Lead to False Memories

Adults with attachment anxiety were more likely to misremember facts when they could see the person speaking.

A recent study suggests that adults with attachment anxiety, which involves persistent concerns about rejection or abandonment by loved ones, are more likely to misremember details of a conversation depending on who is speaking.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, noted that attachment anxiety can lead to false memories more frequently than other personality types, such as neuroticism or attachment avoidance. The study authors noted that adults with attachment anxiety were more likely to remember facts wrong only when they could see the person relaying the information vs reading or hearing the same information.

The research included 3 separate studies with college students, with the number of participants in each ranging from 200 participants to more than 650. Study participants were randomized to watch a 20-minute video of a woman either speaking about a difficult breakup with a partner or about another topic, such as a shopping trip.

Other study participants were given the same information from audio only or by reading a transcript. All of the participants took a memory test immediately after receiving the information, regardless of how it was delivered.

The studies found that highly attachment-anxious people were the most susceptible to creating false memories when viewing a video of a person, regardless of whether the subject discussing a relationship breakup or something less personal. The study authors said the findings show participants had more accurate memories when reading or hearing the same details as people who scored lower in attachment anxiety.

Study author Nathan Hudson, psychology professor at Southern Methodist University, said seeing the speaker may play a role in memory distortion because highly attachment-anxious people tend to be hypervigilant in watching facial expressions and tend to misjudge the perceived emotional states of others.

“We believe that highly attachment-anxious individuals are likely intensively analyzing what is being said in the videos we showed them,” Hudson said in a press release. “Their own thoughts and feelings about the video may have gotten ‘mixed up’ with the actual video contents in their minds. Thus, they experienced false memories when we gave them a test regarding the video's contents.”

He added that these findings illustrate how personalities can potentially affect accurate retention of memories.

“It’s important to understand that our brains don’t store verbatim audio or video clips of events that happen to us,” Hudson said in a press release. “Instead, our brain stores snippets of information about our experiences, and when we attempt to recall a memory, it combines stored bits of related information and makes its best guess about what happened. As you might imagine, this process can be quite error-prone.”

The study authors noted that prior research suggests attachment styles may predict the likelihood of forgetting certain details, specifically in relationships. However, the current study is among the first to illustrate that attachment anxiety actively makes people more likely to misremember events or details that never happened, according to the authors.

The researchers compared adults with attachment anxiety with people who had 1 of the “Big 5” personality traits, such as neuroticism or extraversion. They also analyzed individuals who ranked high for attachment avoidance, because these people avoid relationships to limit emotional closeness and potential hurt.

The researchers used the 9-item Experiences in Close Relationships- Relationship-Structures to assess the college students’ attachment style. Those not in a relationship were asked to consider their prior romantic relationships or relationships in general.

Participants with high levels of attachment anxiety were more likely to strongly agree with statements such as “I often worry that my romantic partner does not really care for me.” Meanwhile, those who were highly attachment-avoidant strongly agreed with statements such as “I prefer not to show my romantic partner how I feel deep down.”

Hudson said that students who identify attachment-anxious traits may gain immediate personal benefit from the study by becoming more aware of situations in which they are likely to create false memories.

Providing information received during face-to-face encounters with reading and listening activities may improve memory accuracy for individuals with an attachment-anxious relationship style, according to the study authors.

REFERENCE

Seeing you distorts my memory. SMU. November 15, 2022. Accessed November 17, 2022. https://www.smu.edu/News/Research/Seeing-you-distorts-my-memory#:~:text=People%20with%20attachment%20anxiety%20more,can%20see%20the%20person%20talking&text=DALLAS%20(SMU)%20%E2%80%93%20Adults%20who,information%2C%20a%20new%20study%20suggests

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