- Researchers found that anxious attachment, but not avoidant attachment, predicted excessive acquisition.
- In the absence of healthy relationships, people might collect things for comfort.
- Both anthropomorphism and distress intolerance explained the association between anxious attachment and excessive acquisition.
Loneliness has become an epidemic. Currently, over half of Americans are lonely, with higher rates of loneliness among younger adults.
At the same time, technology has made it easier to acquire things, often with little or no social interaction. Events like "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" further encourage consumerism rather than spending the holidays with loved ones.
Accordingly, compulsive buying behaviors have increased over the past few decades and currently affect an estimated 5 percent of Americans. Might people be turning to material items as substitutes for healthy relationships?
Past research suggests that this is likely the case for some people. For example, hoarders have fewer and poorer quality relationships and are comforted by their collections. Furthermore, Norberg et al. (2018) suggest that unlike avoidant attachment, anxious attachment plays an important role.
Perhaps due to their need for a greater social connection, those who are anxiously attached are more materialistic, more attached to objects, and more likely to hoard. They are also more likely to anthropomorphize objects, or to see them as human-like, much like how, in the absence of human companionship, Tom Hanks’s character in "Cast Away" (2000) bonded with the volleyball “Wilson."
The researchers further posit that those with anxious attachment are higher in distress intolerance (i.e., difficulty dealing with distress) due to maladaptive coping strategies such as rumination and self-blame. Thus, Norberg et al. (2018) sought to test the roles of anxious attachment, anthropomorphization, and distress intolerance in the excessive acquisition of items.
The researchers acquired a sample of 361 participants (78 percent women) with subclinical to clinical symptoms of excessive acquisition. Participants responded to a survey that included measures of hoarding behaviors, acquisition behaviors and attitudes, attachment style, tendencies to anthropomorphize “comforting possessions," and distress intolerance.
Results indicated that, as expected, anxious attachment predicted both excessive buying and excessive acquisition of free items. Anthropomorphism and distress intolerance served as mediators, each explaining the association between anxious attachment and excessive acquisition.
In other words, it appears that those higher in anxious attachment are more likely to see “comforting possessions” as human-like, which might lead them to acquire more such items. Similarly, those who are anxiously attached may struggle to cope with distress, which may lead them to acquire things. On the other hand, avoidant attachment was not associated with excessive buying or acquisition of free items, likely because those who are avoidantly attached do not desire to be closer to others. Importantly, given that the study was not an experiment, these causal relationships are speculative.
Given the results, the researchers suggest that reducing anthropomorphism tendencies and distress intolerance might be effective ways to treat excessive acquisition. They also suggest therapy to help individuals build stronger interpersonal relationships, therefore alleviating their need to turn to objects.
This solution gets closer to the root of the issue—but is therapy sufficient for building healthy social connections? As society becomes more individualistic, social bonds become shallower, and we continue to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, will we see a greater turn to objects for comfort? On the flip side, can some degree of imaginary social bonding be viewed as an adaptive and healthy way to cope with anxiety and loneliness?
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Norberg, M. M., Crone, C., Kwok, C., & Grisham, J. R. (2018). Anxious attachment and excessive acquisition: The mediating roles of anthropomorphism and distress intolerance. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7(1), 171-180. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.7.2018.08