Attachment and Cooperation

When we want to improve upon our ability to reach any mutual goal that involves more than one person- businesses, sports teams, government, and even 1 on 1 personal relationships- attachment theory can be particularly helpful in improving human cooperation.

Attachment Theory is more complicated than any one article, but when we focus on the process of building human relationships and day to day interacting, it becomes clear that this process is largely responsible for how we feel about ourselves, which then influences how we interact with others. That is to say: Self-image = how we feel others perceive us.

Our gift as human beings is our ability to fit into and contribute to social groups effectively, without rocking the preverbal boat by interacting in ways that are not conducive to the interaction ‘style’ of the group. If we imagine our brains as computers that need to be programmed so that we can have a final ‘version’ of ourselves by adulthood, it would then be obvious that our childhood, adolescent, and early adulthood experiences have much to do with developing our social style, via developing our self-image.

While genetics do predict certain predispositions to certain ways of behaving, let me dispel the myth that genetic traits predict who we are all the way throughout adulthood and drive humans to become ‘fixed’ beings. This is nonsense, and backed by what we call ‘neuroplasticity’: the ability of the brain to adapt to the input that it is receiving at every moment throughout our lives. If we change our environment, the people we interact with, or if bad things happen to us, our brain literally creates NEW neural pathways to adapt to new circumstances. Why does it seem like we can become ‘fixed’? Well, the more we continue on in our current circumstances, these neural pathways become stronger, which causes whatever behavior we are doing to become more of habit and way easier to do- rather than change.

One thing, however, is fixed. We all have the same capabilities for honest, compassion-driven communication, but unfortunately evolution does not care about our abilities to be compassionate, rather, our continuing to breathe, eat, sleep, and reproduce. This does not necessarily require compassionate interaction. Thankfully, the world of psychology is a developing field that can provide us various loopholes to develop a more compassionate style of interaction, and this starts with understanding various “styles” of interacting, how they came to develop, and what this means for our interactions with others as adults.

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But Broderick- one theory or train of thought cannot possibly capture all of the intricacies of human interaction. While this may be true in other fields, in the psychology business it is literally our job to research the most economical ways to understand human behavior across many individual research participators- which means broadly-based theories that capture most of the complexities of the human psyche. The best way to go about this is to develop theories which allow us to understand human behavior under an umbrella.

For the purposes of this article, “Attachment Theory” is one (very well-researched) theory that captures one of the most seemingly complex facets of human life: Social interaction. Your brain has created neural pathways based on a “social learning history”, that biases your behavior, and types of people you interact best with, based on these pathways. Our self-image is largely the result of interactions with caregivers, which then predicts how we interact with other humans, which then obviously influences the peer groups we are likely to seek out in adolescence/early adulthood, which then predicts the types of interpersonal relationships and communication styles we have as adults.

I’m sure you can see how these events snowball on each other- and the brain literally creates and strengthens neural pathways that it uses the most. So, it is likely that your caregivers had similar styles of relating to each other, which was the result of THEIR caregivers interacting with them in a particular way, and so on and so forth. Then, you likely lived with and interacted with your caregivers throughout childhood and teen years (maybe along with similarly behaving siblings) – literally shaping the way your “social brain” views other people, as well as how you view yourself in relation to others.

Let us get more specific with different “Attachment Styles”, how they tend to develop, and what implications they have for you NOW. You know, practical stuff. Now, most people will say (and correctly so) “I’m already good enough at listening to others and expressing myself.” While we are all “good enough” and special snowflakes, we are all nothing more than a tightly-packed bundle of lazy neurons that have been coded to respond to certain types of people in very fast, yet predictable ways.

Let us run through each style and its learning roots, while keeping in mind that 1) problematic “styles” do not necessarily translate into a psychological disorder, and 2) these are a best ‘fit’ of styles, and people may even demonstrate a mix of these:

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1) Secure:
Speaks for itself. In interpersonal interactions, people with a secure attachment style are likely perceptive, open, emotionally available, and effective at sharing thoughts and feelings with others. When these individuals are asked about their childhood, they have a detailed, balanced memory. This is likely due to their caregivers’ willingness to ask about their thoughts and feelings while growing up. The message communicated from age 0-18? You matter. In infancy (and adulthood) these individuals seek closeness with others, and is easily soothed when emotionally upset. They likely have a positive view of themselves.

2) Avoidant:
In interpersonal interactions, people with an avoidant attachment style are likely distant and rejecting of others. When asked about their childhood, these individuals likely have poor recall, are rejecting, dismissive, and either minimize or idealize their childhood experiences. This is likely due to their caregivers’ rejecting of their child’s thoughts and emotions, likely because the caregivers also had their thoughts or feelings rejected during childhood. Without this space to safely express their thoughts and feelings from age 0-18, these individuals perceive that others do not care about their thoughts or feelings, and may take this to mean that sharing such information is not important. As adults, these individuals may not seek closeness with others, and may try to hide interpersonal dissatisfaction from others, because: my thoughts and feelings weren’t an important thing when I was being programmed by caregivers, so I have underdeveloped neural pathways to allow me to do this. These individuals likely deny emotional experiences, and appear to be “logical”-which allows them to fool themselves into believing that their feelings truly do not matter, because they literally lack a neurological capacity.

3) Anxious-Ambivalent:
In interpersonal interaction, people with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style likely ebb and flow between secure and avoidant attachment styles, which can be very confusing for the anxious-ambivalent person as well as those they interact with. When asked about their childhood, they either idealize or are enraged about their experiences, have pressured speech with a lot of verbal output, and seem preoccupied- this sounds confusing, and this is because they themselves are confused as to how they feel about their caregivers, because their caregivers sent messages to them that were inconsistent regarding their child’s worth. Specifically, their caregivers were inconsistently available when the child was emotionally upset, or when they wanted to express their own thoughts and needs. These individuals likely seek proximity and closeness to others, but are not easily calmed down when upset. From age 0-18, these children are sent the message: you can never know for sure whether or not others will accept or reject you. This develops interpersonal insecurity and hypervigilance of rejection cues- via biological pathways that are strengthened over time. They may even seek a lot of reassurance that others do indeed like them.

4) Disorganized:
In interpersonal interactions, people with a disorganized attachment style are likely disorienting and frightening to others. Now, disorganized attachment styles are typically due to traumatic childhoods, so if this sounds like you, I would highly recommend seeking clinical services- even just as a consultation (besides, we could all use therapy). Throughout childhood interactions, these individuals were often driven toward seeking proximity to their caregivers, but their caregivers’ emotional or physical abuse likely caused much conflict for our evolutionary drive toward seeking out our caregivers (e.g., I want safety and love from the people who hurt me). As you can imagine, memories of childhood interactions are likely disoriented, maybe involving poor memory due to intense traumatic interactions and conflictive behavior. The message from caregivers which translate into day to day interactions? I cannot seek closeness to others or they will definitely hurt me. I’ll let you fill in the blanks regarding how this type of person might view themselves as an adult.

Now that we understand attachment theory, using it to improve our relationships involves your favorite thing: pain-staking effort! Kidding. But seriously, altering your long-standing neural pathways is as difficult as it sounds. Fortunately there’s this thing called neuroplasticity, which allows us humans to alter our neural pathways by making conscious decisions related to social interactions, responding, rather than reacting.

In the next article, I will discuss ways to improve our interaction ‘styles’ to improve our ability to authentically communicate with others we need to cooperate effectively with. This will focus on creating neural pathways to:

1) truthfully express one’s thoughts and feelings to others,
2) listen with the intention of clearly understanding the thoughts
     and feelings of others,
3) develop a willingness to be changed by what we hear when listening to the thoughts and
     feelings of others.

Broderick Sawyer, MA

Broderick Sawyer, MA

Guest Author

Broderick Sawyer, M.A., is a fourth year doctoral candidate in the clinical psychology PhD program at the University of Louisville, currently completing his predoctoral internship at SUNY Stony Brook University. Broderick’s main interests are the psychological effects of interpersonal and systemic oppression on historically oppressed groups (e.g., racial/ethnic minority, LGBTQ, women). Further, he is interested in the use of mindfulness meditation and compassionate communication to improve working relationships, job satisfaction, and productivity within systems and organizations.
Broderick has published several book chapters and peer-reviewed articles surrounding differential symptom expression in ethnic minority clients, and provided clinical lectures for mental health and medical professionals on racism-related stress and trauma, and connecting with minority clients. In his work with psychotherapy patients Broderick is integrative, blending mindfulness and acceptance, functional analytic, compassion-based, psychoanalytic, attachment, Buddhist, developmental, systems-based, neuroscientific, and Afrocentric theories. In addition to research, clinical, and lecturing activities, Broderick has made several radio appearances to discuss minority mental health, and enjoys writing blogs which address common behavioral problems faced by individuals and organizations through the lens of different psychological theories.


Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing                      social brain (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.

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