Thursday, August 09, 2012

Pascal Vrtička and Patrik Vuilleumier - Neuroscience of Human Social Interactions and Adult Attachment Style

Regular readers of this blog will recognize in the title three of my favorite topics - neuroscience, social psychology, and attachment theory. Best of all, this paper is open access at the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience site.

I recently posted a rant against the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual - the diagnostic bible for mental illness) and proposed the foundations for a more relationally-based diagnostic model - this research is essential to the possibility of developing such a model.

Neuroscience of human social interactions and adult attachment style

  • 1Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 2Laboratory for the study of Emotion Elicitation and Expression (E3 Lab), Department of Psychology, FPSE, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 3Laboratory for Neurology and Imaging of Cognition, Department of Neuroscience, University Medical Center, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
Since its first description four decades ago, attachment theory (AT) has become one of the principal developmental psychological frameworks for describing the role of individual differences in the establishment and maintenance of social bonds between people. Yet, still little is known about the neurobiological underpinnings of attachment orientations and their well-established impact on a range of social and affective behaviors. In the present review, we summarize data from recent studies using cognitive and imaging approaches to characterize attachment styles and their effect on emotion and social cognition. We propose a functional neuroanatomical framework to integrate the key brain mechanisms involved in the perception and regulation of social emotional information, and their modulation by individual differences in terms of secure versus insecure (more specifically avoidant, anxious, or resolved versus unresolved) attachment traits. This framework describes how each individual's attachment style (built through interactions between personal relationship history and predispositions) may influence the encoding of approach versus aversion tendencies (safety versus threat) in social encounters, implicating the activation of a network of subcortical (amygdala, hippocampus, striatum) and cortical (insula, cingulate) limbic areas. These basic and automatic affective evaluation mechanisms are in turn modulated by more elaborate and voluntary cognitive control processes, subserving mental state attribution and emotion regulation capacities, implicating a distinct network in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), superior temporal sulcus (STS), and temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), among others. Recent neuroimaging data suggest that affective evaluation is decreased in avoidantly but increased in anxiously attached individuals. In turn, although data on cognitive control is still scarce, it points toward a possible enhancement of mental state representations associated with attachment insecurity and particularly anxiety. Emotion regulation strategies such as reappraisal or suppression of social emotions are also differentially modulated by attachment style. This research does not only help better understand the neural underpinnings of human social behavior, but also provides important insights on psychopathological conditions where attachment dysregulation is likely to play an important (causal) role.

Full Citation: 
Vrtička P, and Vuilleumier P. (2012, Jul 17). Neuroscience of human social interactions and adult attachment style. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 6:212. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00212

Here is the introduction to the paper and the first section that introduces attachment theory with a brief overview.


In mammals, including humans, attachment is a major dimension of behavior that can come into play in several domains (Fisher et al., 2006). This includes bond formation and maintenance between children and parents (parental care), love and sexual fidelity between long-term partners (partner attachment), but also various social links between individuals in a group. How much people value and react to interactions with others is undoubtedly a major ingredient of human life and emotions. In recent years, important progresses have been achieved by neuroscience research concerning the brain circuits involved in basic sexual and parental bonding (Insel and Young, 2001), as well as the close functional interactions between social and emotional/motivational systems in the brain (Lieberman, 2007), but the neural processes subserving affective attachment of humans to others in various conditions still remain to be elucidated.

The notion of attachment is a central feature of a prominent theoretical framework of social-emotional behavior in developmental psychology, known as attachment theory (AT) (Bowlby, 1969, 1982). This framework relies on the assumption that every human being is born with an innate attachment system, whose biological function is to obtain or maintain proximity to significant others in times of need or presence of threats, and thus to regulate support seeking behavior. Such a function is crucial for survival in early life, as a child cannot live on its own without the care of his/her primary attachment figure—mainly the mother. This is especially vital in mammals, as the mother is the main resource for food, and even more so in humans, because the time span during which an offspring is dependent on external care is particularly long. Importantly, however, AT suggests that repeated interactions with attachment figures (e.g., parents), and the responses of the latter to the proximity seeking attempts of the child, will induce the formation of differential cognitive schemes for representing the self and others, and for behaving in interpersonal relationships later on in life. These processes are thought to lead to the establishment of so-called internal working models of attachment (IWMs), encoding expectations of care and allowing a “mental simulation and prediction of likely outcomes of various attachment behaviors” (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007) when interacting with significant social partners. This will then constitute the foundation of a person's individual attachment style, which remains fairly stable into adulthood and may provide a template for determining how people perceive and react during various types of social encounters. Thus, although adult attachment style (AAS) may influence response patterns during close relationships with other individuals (e.g., romantic partners), it is considered to also operate during interactions or social appraisals with unknown people, as well as during a range of different emotional situations throughout life (Niedenthal et al., 2002; Fraley et al., 2006; Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007). The impact of individual differences in AAS on social and affective functioning is therefore thought to go far beyond the specific behaviors associated with parental and partner attachment (Fisher et al., 2006).

Although very prominent in developmental psychology (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007) and some psychopathological theories (Fonagy and Luyten, 2009), the social-affective phenomena associated with attachment style as well as their impact on human behaviors and their neural mechanisms have only rarely been investigated in a human neuroscience perspective. The current review therefore aims at providing an overview of recent investigations that combined an AT perspective with cognitive and neurobiological approaches. Doing so may offer novel and promising avenues for future research, not only to better understand normal social behaviors in humans, including individual differences in AAS; but also to illuminate some conditions or pathologies associated with disturbances in social emotional functioning, such as autism (Andari et al., 2010), schizophrenia (Abdi and Sharma, 2004; Marwick and Hall, 2008), borderline personality (Fonagy and Luyten, 2009; Fonagy et al., 2011), or violence and sociopathy (Decety et al., 2009; Blair et al., 2011a,b). In this review, we will first introduce the general theoretical aspects of AT and discuss how it may offer a fruitful framework in social cognitive and affective neuroscience. We will then mainly focus on the functional neurobiological mechanisms of social and affective processing that may underlie individual differences in attachment style.

Attachment Theory

Distinct individual profiles in attachment style have been described and can be identified in adults by specific questionnaires or semi-structured interviews (see Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007 for an overview). In the case of an available and responding attachment figure providing a “secure base” for restoring emotional balance in times of distress, a positive model of others linked with supportiveness and trustworthiness can be developed, paired with positive self-attributes such as worthy, competent, and lovable. This allows the formation of a secure attachment style. In contrast, an insecure attachment style will emerge if attachment figures are repeatedly experienced as unresponsive or inconsistent in their responses in times of need and stress. Two major patterns of insecurity have been classically distinguished: either avoidant or anxious attachment, associated with the establishment of attachment system de-activation or hyper-activation as secondary attachment strategies, respectively, (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007).

In the case of attachment avoidance, proximity seeking is perceived as futile or even dangerous because of the distress felt by failing to achieve proximity to an attachment figure. Consequently, avoidant individuals develop a dismissive approach to and a negative model of others, operating through the denial of positive traits in others. They disavow needs for attachment, avoid affective closeness and intimacy, but seek independence with the goal to prevent the felt rejection by others. Concomitantly, they tend to suppress negative aspects of the self and boost their positive features instead, leading to the emergence of a positive self-model. In addition, attachment avoidance is associated with a preferential use of (expressive) suppression to regulate emotions (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007), allowing the individual to keep the attachment system in a low activation state and to prevent others of perceiving their internal emotional states (Vrticka et al., 2012a).

The other main form of insecurity is attachment anxiety, where a perceived failure to handle threats autonomously will encourage subjects to intensify their support-seeking attempts despite the fact that attachment figures are experienced as inconsistent. In this case, others are still viewed as (partly) positive due to the desire for attention and protection. However, repeated experience of rejection leads to an increased sense of helplessness and vulnerability, paired with doubts about self-worth and -efficacy, leading to a negative internal model of the self and poor self-esteem. Such individuals become highly vigilant to potential threats and rejections. This style is also thought to imply a distinctive emotion regulation strategy, with preferential use of re-appraisal but in the “wrong” direction: instead of decreasing the impact of negative emotions, these subjects actually tend to intensify the impact of negative social signals due to their hypersensitivity to the latter (Bartholomew, 1990; Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991; Griffin and Bartholomew, 1994; Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007).

Besides these three main categories of secure, avoidant, and anxious attachment styles, a fourth attachment orientation has been proposed, referred to as fearful or disorganized (Main et al., 1985; Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991; Griffin and Bartholomew, 1994; Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007). It is either characterized by the presence of both avoidant and anxious attachment traits, reflecting negative models for both the self and others, or by disoriented attachment behaviors indicating the lack of a coherent attachment strategy. The latter type is also called unresolved attachment, in contrast to the resolved/organized attachment orientations corresponding to the secure, avoidant, or anxious styles. Such a dissociation between resolved versus unresolved attachment categories is particularly prominent in psychopathology research, where it has been proposed that attachment dysregulations in terms of an unresolved attachment orientation might lay at the core of some emotional disturbances, including borderline personality disorder (BPD; Fonagy and Luyten, 2009), as well as schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and major depression (Berry et al., 2007).

On the ground of such descriptions of secure and insecure AAS, Mikulincer and Shaver (2007) have proposed that an extensive list of human social behaviors might be importantly modulated by these psychological traits. This includes (1) romantic and sexual behavior, (2) self-regulation and personal growth, (3) emotion regulation and coping, (4) interpersonal regulation, as well as (5) family functioning and parental care. In addition, AAS may also influence more general behaviors related to affect and motivation, including pain and medical care (Meredith et al., 2006; Hooper et al., 2012). Thus, attachment dysregulations are nowadays recognized as important contributors to various emotional and social disturbances, a fact which bolsters the need of better understanding their cognitive underpinnings as well as their neural substrates.

However, the current distinction of AAS into three, four, or even five main categories has been questioned by some researchers who proposed instead to conceive these individual differences along a single continuum of emotional security (e.g., Fraley and Spieker, 2003a). For example, attachment and affective social behaviors might be mapped on two independent dimensions of anxiety and avoidance (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991), with the secure style corresponding to both low anxiety and low avoidance, and the disorganized style to high traits in both anxiety and avoidance. Thus, it remains to be clarified whether individual differences in AAS mainly refer to a true taxonomy of personality traits or to some underlying mechanisms that might result in distinct patterns of attachment behaviors. Nevertheless, this issue does not undermine the general assumptions of AT (Waters and Beauchaine, 2003), and both classification schemes seem equally useful for analyzing individual differences in attachment security and social interactions (Fraley and Spieker, 2003b).

Furthermore, some aspects of AAS might partly overlap with other important psychological dimensions associated with individual personality traits, such as neuroticism, reward dependence, and novelty seeking (Chotai et al., 2005). Hence, it also remains to be better determined what the specificity of these different constructs really is. Importantly, functional neuroimaging studies might help to address this issue, for example by showing that differences in attachment anxiety and avoidance correlate with functional modulations in distinct brain systems. Moreover, some of these effects on brain activity may be specific to attachment traits and do not correlate with other personality or anxiety measures (see Vrtička et al., 2008; Vrticka et al., 2012a). Yet, as we describe below, we are only just beginning to unveil the cerebral architecture of various components that are potentially at play in the emotional and behavioral features of AAS.

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