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Is Your Attachment Anxiety Messing With Your Memory?

Research explains how anxiety can create false memories.

Key points

  • A new study uncovered that anxiously attached individuals falsify memories far more than the average person.
  • People with anxious attachment styles are also more likely to get facts wrong about everyday social situations.
  • Researchers suggested that moving toward a more secure attachment style can positively affect memory processes.
Guillaim de Germain / Unsplash
Source: Guillaim de Germain / Unsplash

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology uncovers an uncomfortable fact about the anxiously attached individual: their minds falsify memories far more than the average person. In fact, people with anxious attachment styles are more likely to get facts wrong about everyday social situations, like when a person is relaying information to them in person or on a video call.

The paper, authored by Southern Methodist University’s Nathan Hudson and Michigan State University’s William Chopik, focused on adults with attachment anxiety, i.e., people who frequently worry about being rejected or abandoned by those closest to them.

The study randomly assigned participants to watch a 20-minute video of a woman talking about her tumultuous breakup with a man or another topic, like a shopping trip or the ecology of California wetlands. Other participants got the same information from audio only or by reading a transcript. All groups took a memory test immediately after receiving the information, regardless of how it was delivered.

The study found that anxiously attached participants who watched the video were more likely to get the details of the information wrong compared to those who received the information through other mediums.

According to Hudson, seeing the speaker might be a factor in memory distortion because anxiously attached people tend to be hyper-vigilant in monitoring facial expressions. They also 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,” said Hudson. “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.”

These findings explain how our personalities can meddle with accurate memory recording and recall.

Hudson explained that memory-making as a process is inherently error-prone.

“It’s important to understand that our brains don’t store verbatim audio or video clips of events that happen to us,” he said. “Instead, our brain stores snippets of information about our experiences. When we attempt to recall a memory, it combines stored bits of related information and makes its best guess about what happened.”

Add to this an attachment-anxious personality’s belief that they are not worthy of love and care, their intense fear of rejection, and their tendency to over-analyze their relationships, and we can understand why sometimes two people in the same relationship have dramatically different stories to tell about the same events.

According to the authors, their study can serve as an alarm bell for people with attachment anxiety. These findings can draw their attention to interpersonal situations where they are likely to experience false memories — for example, during online or in-person lectures, conversing with classmates and friends, or watching political debates.

In such situations, Hudson suggested that supplementing information received during face-to-face encounters with reading and listening activities can likely improve memory accuracy for individuals with an attachment-anxious relationship style.

Hudson added that most people wish to temper their attachment anxiety, and interventions may be able to help them do this, leading to improved well-being. His research suggests that moving toward a more secure attachment style can positively affect memory processes, and he hopes that future research can help people move in this direction.

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