Can Others Tell Your Attachment Style in Just One Meeting?
An anxious attachment style may be easy to spot.
Posted February 14, 2023 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- New research shows that people can tell if a prospective dating partner has an anxious attachment style after one brief encounter.
- If others see that you have an anxious or avoidant style, they may be less interested in going out with you or getting your contact information.
- You can learn to adopt a “secure mindset” before meeting people to increase your chances of being socially “chosen.”
Let’s face it, dating is tough; and online dating is tougher. From creating your profile to the initial messaging, to arranging a meeting, and finally to an-in person interaction, you are evaluating others and they are evaluating you.
Because adult attachment styles are fundamental to how people experience and respond to romantic partners, being able to detect a prospective partner’s attachment style quickly would put one at a distinct advantage when it comes to choosing to move forward or to hit the breaks. Most people with anxious attachment styles, for example, state that they would like to stop picking partners with dismissing/avoidant attachment styles. This is because those with preoccupied/anxious styles (preoccupied is the adult label for the more general "anxious" style that refers to adults or children) typically need a lot of emotional intimacy, closeness, validation, and reassurance… all things that dismissing partners struggle to provide.
People with dismissing styles would generally prefer to avoid people with preoccupied/anxious styles because they perceive that the other person will be too needy and demanding of their time and affection. Besides, those with preoccupied styles may appear too eager and present less of a challenge. Being less of a challenge generally lowers the pursuer’s anxiety level and, hence, they feel less attraction. Even people with preoccupied styles often prefer to avoid dating people who are more preoccupied than they are (for the same reasons).
Finally, many people will try to avoid dating someone with a fearful/disorganized attachment style because these people often come off as being rather inconsistent, reactive, and unpredictable.
But just under half of the US population have one of these 3 insecure styles (44%; see Shorey & Snyder, 2006) and most of these people want romance and would like a successful dating experience. For this reason, many people will try to hide their more anxious/needy or avoidant/shut-down traits during the early phases of dating. But can other people really tell your attachment style and can you tell theirs?
Past research has shown that people can accurately infer attachment styles by looking at pictures of people’s faces (Alaei, Lévêque, MacDonald, & Rule, 2020). These researchers simply assessed people's attachment styles and had other people look at pictures of their neutral faces. Raters were able to identify their attachment styles at better than chance levels.
New research by Eric Tu and his colleagues (2022) at York University indicates that people can detect if someone has a preoccupied/anxious attachment style on a first encounter. In their speed dating study, the researchers had each participant go on 13 3-minute speed dates with a member of the opposite sex (they did not collect data on sexual orientation, etc.). Researchers assessed each person’s attachment style before the study and then had each person rate the people they had met in terms of the degree to which they were “insecure and needy” (for anxious attachment) or “uncomfortable with closeness” (for dismissing attachment). Each person was also asked if they had an interest in going out with the other person and if they would like their contact information (which they were given if both people matched in saying yes).
Results indicated that participants were able to accurately detect a prospective dating partner’s anxious attachment but not avoidant attachment. Overall, when someone thought that the prospective dating partner was either preoccupied/anxious, or dismissing/avoidant, they expressed less interest in seeing them again and even less interest in getting their contact information.
So, although the researchers did not identify just how people were able to do it, it does appear to be true that people can tell when someone else has an anxious attachment style. But the researchers did not test if people can hide their anxious attachment styles if they wanted to (or were instructed to). My suggestion is that people can do this…at least to some degree.
The AA adage “fake it till you make it” might be useful here. Attachment styles hard to update, but they can be updated nevertheless. It is a positive mental health (and social) goal for anyone with an insecure attachment style to move in the direction of attachment security. And you can learn how to do this.
You can learn about how securely attached people see the world, behave, and interact socially. Trying to pretend or put on an act, based just on this knowledge, however, is likely to feel awkward and inauthentic. A better option is to actually put yourself in a secure frame of mind.
Putting yourself in a secure frame of mind:
- The person you are meeting has good parts and bad parts, just like you. You won’t know after one date if this person will meet your needs for love and romance. So, don’t expect them to.
- Tell yourself that the person you just started dating is not the one (even if they eventually end up that way). If you think they might be “the one” you will worry too much about looking strange and losing them (which will make you look strange and lose them).
- In a dating context, you should always be prepared in your mind to walk away and lose someone. It doesn’t mean that you will do that, but the mindset is important.
- Build a good life for yourself with hobbies, interests, and friends. That way, when you meet someone, you can invite them to join and share in the goodness of your life… without having to get your good feelings from them.
- Learn to have conversations by showing interest in other people and asking lots of good questions. People like people who are interested in them. When we are feeling preoccupied and needy, we tend to be self-focused and will have a tendency to talk about ourselves too much.
- Learn to separate your emotions into the physical/body part, and the mind part. If you get anxious, let your body freak out while your head stays clear. It’s only a sensation and emotion and won’t have any more impact on the situation than you give it.
- Have fun and focus on enjoying your experience more than on what the outcome of any one date might be. And have an “after-plan” for what you will do to cheer yourself back up or distract yourself if a date goes bad. But, please, don’t spend a lot of time sitting around trying to figure out what you might have done wrong.
Above all, keep practicing and learn to love yourself in all of your good and not-so-good parts.
Alaei, R., Lévêque, G., MacDonald, G., & Rule, N. O. (2020). Accuracy and bias in first impressions of attachment style from faces. Journal of Personality, 88(5), 940–949. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12540
Tu, E., Maxwell, J. A., Kim, J. J., Peragine, D., Impett, E. A., & Muise, A. (2022). Is my attachment style showing? Perceptions of a date’s attachment anxiety and avoidance and dating interest during a speed-dating event. Journal of Research in Personality, 100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2022.104269
Shorey, H. S., & Snyder, C. R. (2006). The Role of Adult Attachment Styles in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy Outcomes. Review of General Psychology, 10(1), 1–20.