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Abstract and Figures

Although the benefits of human-animal interactions (especially pets and companion animals) for humans are becoming increasingly well-known and implemented, less work has been done examining how such interactions affect the animal. Understanding the owner-animal dynamic is more important than ever as the quality of this relationship may affect the level of care an animal is able to provide the owner. In the present research, we expected owner attachment dispositions to affect caregiving and attentiveness. A community sample of 510 pet owners completed surveys on their global attachment and pet-related measures of rejection sensitivity, caregiving, and attentiveness. Results indicate that individuals high in attachment anxiety reported significantly higher levels of caregiving and attentiveness to their animal regardless of type of pet. In contrast, highly avoidant individuals reported significantly lower levels of caregiving and attentiveness behaviors. In both cases, the level of care is driven by pet-related rejection sensitivity; specifically owners' concerns that their pet may be negatively evaluating and thinking poorly of them. These findings are consistent with previous work on attachment theory that suggests these evaluation concerns may lead to care and attentiveness that is actually excessive for highly anxious individuals and neglectful for avoidant individuals. Implications for human-animal interventions and future research are discussed.
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Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin
2018, Vol. 6, No. 1, 14-31
14 | HAIB
Treating Pets Well:
The Role of Attachment Anxiety and Avoidance
Anthony E. Coy 1 & Jeffrey D. Green 2
1University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee
2Virginia Commonwealth University
Although the benefits of human-animal interactions (especially pets and companion
animals) for humans are becoming increasingly well-known and implemented, less
work has been done examining how such interactions affect the animal.
Understanding the owner-animal dynamic is more important than ever as the quality
of this relationship may affect the level of care an animal is able to provide the
owner. In the present research, we expected owner attachment dispositions to affect
caregiving and attentiveness. A community sample of 510 pet owners completed
surveys on their global attachment and pet-related measures of rejection sensitivity,
caregiving, and attentiveness. Results indicate that individuals high in attachment
anxiety reported significantly higher levels of caregiving and attentiveness to their
animal regardless of type of pet. In contrast, highly avoidant individuals reported
significantly lower levels of caregiving and attentiveness behaviors. In both cases,
the level of care is driven by pet-related rejection sensitivity; specifically owners
concerns that their pet may be negatively evaluating and thinking poorly of them.
These findings are consistent with previous work on attachment theory that suggests
these evaluation concerns may lead to care and attentiveness that is actually
excessive for highly anxious individuals and neglectful for avoidant individuals.
Implications for human-animal interventions and future research are discussed.
Keywords: Attachment, Human-Animal Interaction, Rejection Sensitivity, Caregiving, Pets
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Anthony E. Coy, Email:
coya@usf.edu
Author note: This research was supported by a grant from the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at
Virginia Commonwealth University.
In recent years, the human-animal
relationship has received increasing attention
from a variety of fields. Psychologists have
explored how animal companions can reduce
anxiety, assist individuals with PTSD
navigate social settings, and even facilitate
close human relationships (Barker, Barker,
McCain, & Schubert, 2016; Barlow,
Hutchinson, Newton, Grover, & Ward, 2012;
Green, Coy, & Mathews, in press; May,
Seivert, Cano, Casey, & Johnson, 2016). In
addition, the medical professions have
ROLE OF ATTACHMENT ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE
15 | HAIB
examined how therapy animals can improve
patient morale, ultimately leading to better
health outcomes, and properly trained
animals are now regular visitors at many
hospitals (Cole, Gawlinski, Steers, &
Kotlerman, 2007; Johnson, Meadows,
Haubner & Sevedge, 2008; Leonor, 2005).
However, as research accumulates on the
benefits pets can have for people, far less
work focuses on how people treat their pets
and the factors that predict this behavior. The
human-animal relationship is a set of
dynamic and interlocking behavioral and
emotional systems. Influence is mutual; the
individual influences the pet and the pet
influences the individual, and understanding
each aspect of the human-animal relationship
may be crucial to the success of human-
animal interaction interventions.
The human-pet relationship is unique
as it is comprised of elements found in
friendships (e.g., enjoying a pets company;
casually talking to a pet) as well as elements
found in parent-child relationships (e.g., a
pets dependency on a person; discipline).
Indeed, this combination is even seen in the
way in which people talk about their pets
(i.e., “best friend” vs. “furbaby” or “furkids”
and “parent” or “guardian”; see Volsche &
Gray, 2016). One theoretical framework
pervasive in the literature on both close
relationships (romantic and friendship) and
parent-child relationships is attachment
theory, which has been fruitfully extended to
the human-animal relationship as well (Green
et al., in press; Volsche & Gray, 2016;
Zilcha-Mano, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2011).
Thus, we sought to elucidate how human
attachment affects the treatment and care of a
pet. However, prior to elaborating on the
current research, a brief overview of
attachment theory and previous findings on
interpersonal relationships is needed to better
understand how these attachment
dispositions may influence human-animal
relationship dynamics.
Attachment Theory
Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969;
1988) examines the emotional bonds and
interlocking behavior patterns that people
develop throughout life with close others.
These bonds, reinforced through repeated
interactions, result in mental models or
frameworks regarding how individuals
expect to be treated by close others and how
they will act toward close others (Mikulincer
& Shaver, 2007; 2016). The mental models
of attachment theory involve two primary
dimensions: attachment anxiety and
attachment avoidance. Individuals high in
attachment anxiety desire a high level of
intimacy with their partner, and carry chronic
worries about partners’ commitment. This is
due in part to negative self-schemas
impelling them to continually seek
reassurance from close others (e.g., Davila,
2001; Wei, Mallinckrodt, Larson, & Zakalik,
2005). In contrast, avoidant individuals,
though they desire closeness, tend to want
intimacy on their own terms, particularly for
self-gratification (Dekel & Farber, 2012).
When intimacy and closeness is unwanted or
excessive, avoidant individuals minimize
emotional connections, often by distancing
themselves from relationship partners,
particularly when under stress (Land,
Rochlen, & Vaughn, 2011; Spielmann,
Maxwell, MacDonald, & Baratta, 2012; Wei,
Vogel, Ku, & Zakalik, 2005). In short,
attachment avoidance and anxiety influence
critical aspects of interpersonal relationships.
Attachment and Caregiving. The two
core systems that drive interpersonal
behavior are the attachment system and the
caregiving system (Bowlby, 1969). The
attachment system may also be thought of as
the care-seeking system, by which
individuals turn to their partners for comfort
in times of distress. Of particular interest to
the current research is the caregiving system,
within which individuals provide an
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attachment partner protection and support
(Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007, p. 325). Such
care may be affective or instrumental
support, as required by the situation (Collins
& Feeney, 2000). When both partners feel
secure in their attachment, the two systems
work harmoniously to promote high-
functioning relationships with each
individual providing effective comfort for the
other in times of distress. However, the
aforementioned dimensions of attachment
anxiety and avoidance negatively influence
caregiving behaviors (Collins & Feeney,
2000; Feeney & Collins, 2004).
Specifically, highly anxious
individuals are likely to become intrusive and
thus less effective caregivers, focusing on
demonstrating their worth to their partner
rather than on the type of support and care
that their partner desires and needs (Feeney
& Collins, 2004; Mikulincer & Shaver,
2012). For example, an anxious individual
might give a stressed and needy partner
lavish gifts and fish for compliments rather
than provide uninterrupted listening or a
shoulder to cry onwhat the partner really
desires. Research supports this disconnect
between partners, with greater anxiety related
to more self-reported caregiving behaviors
and support offered to a partner (Davila &
Kashy, 2009; Feeney & Collins, 2004),
though this support tends to be more aversive
or “compulsive” and thus less effective
(Collins & Feeney, 2000; Julal & Carnelley,
2012; Kunce & Shaver, 1994; Millings &
Walsh, 2009).
In contrast, avoidant individuals are
likely to remain distant to minimize their
potential vulnerability, and view with
discomfort situations in which emotional
caregiving is desired. This discomfort with
emotional intimacy leads to both fewer
instances of, and less effective, caregiving
(Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012). Though some
past research has not found a significant link
between attachment avoidance and quality of
caregiving (e.g., Collins & Feeney, 2000;
Davila & Kashy, 2009), other work has
revealed that highly avoidant individuals are
poorer caregivers (Carnelley, Pietromonaco,
& Jaffe, 1996; Millings & Walsh, 2009).
Importantly, these divergent
caregiving behavior patterns by avoidant
versus anxious individuals then influence
both mental and physical health outcomes for
partners. Specifically, research has found that
partner responsiveness and support influence
cortisol reactivity, which is a marker of good
health (Meuwly, Bodenmann, Germann,
Bradbury, Ditzen, & Heinricks, 2012), and
promote eudaimonic well-being for the
partner (Selcuk, Gunaydin, Ong, & Almeida,
2016). Although research into the precise
effects of attachment on physical and mental
health is still ongoing (Pietromonaco,
Uchino, & Dunkel Schetter, 2013), partner
attachment anxiety and avoidance predicts
pain tolerance (Wilson & Ruben, 2011),
symptoms of depression among older adults
(Monin, Zhou, & Kershaw, 2014), and
partner anxiety is associated with lower
general mental and emotional well-being
among younger couples (Kershaw, Murphy,
Divney, Magriples, Niccolai, & Gordon,
2013). Thus, individuals play a critical role in
the health and well-being of attachment
partners.
Attachment and Rejection
Sensitivity. For both anxious and avoidant
individuals, rejection sensitivity, or the
degree to which someone is concerned and
anxious about the possibility of rejection
from a partner, may be the common thread
influencing how they provide care and
support to their partners. Previous work
found that rejection sensitivity reduces
relationship quality and satisfaction for both
partners, including the possibility of dating
violence (Downey & Feldman, 1996;
Downey, Feldman, & Ayduk, 2000; Overall
and Sibley, 2009; but also see Gupta, 2008).
More recent work found that those anxious
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about rejection are both highly sensitive to
distancing behaviors of others but are also
more likely to avoid relationships; whereas
those less anxious about rejection sensitivity
reported a cold and hostile approach to
relationships (Cain, De Panfils, Meehan, &
Clarkin, 2017). This seems to map onto the
aforementioned differences how highly
anxious and avoidant individuals provide
care for partners.
Although we found no work that
directly relates attachment anxiety and
avoidance, rejection sensitivity, and
caregiving, previous research utilizing a
variety of techniques found that people high
in attachment anxiety are more sensitive to
the possibility of rejection, and they also are
vigilant regarding possible hints at rejection
in order to quickly respond to their partner
(see Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007, for a
review). This sensitivity is consistent with
highly anxious individuals’ tendencies to
provide excessive or inappropriate care
(Feeney & Collins, 2004).
In contrast, avoidant individuals
employ deactivating and distancing strategies
in relationships and provide both less
caregiving and lower quality caregiving
(Carnelley et al., 1996; Millings & Walsh,
2009). For example, Mikulincer, Gillath, and
Shaver (2002) found that attachment
avoidance was related to the relative neglect
of attachment-relevant names following a
subliminal separation, but not failure, prime.
That is, highly avoidant individuals more
easily ignored the names of attachment
partners after being primed with separation,
indicating their distancing tendencies. These
experimental findings are consistent with
research that found avoidant individuals
ineffective and unresponsive caregivers
(Carnelley et al., 1996; Millings & Walsh,
2009).
Pets and Attachment
Although it was originally developed
as a means of understanding the parent-child
relationship and latter applied to romantic
relationships and friendships (Hazan &
Shaver, 1987; Zimmermann, 2004),
attachment theory has been found to be
relevant in numerous situations when deep
emotional bonds exist. Keefer and colleagues
found that people can maintain psychological
attachments to, and derive support from, a
variety of non-human sources, such as
fictional characters, places and deities
(Keefer, Landau, & Sullivan, 2014). The
present research sought to extend previous
work on pets as attachment partners.
Previous research has found that deep
emotional bonds form between people and
their pets (e.g., Cromer & Barlow, 2013;
Hoffman, Chen, Serpell, & Jacobson, 2013;
Martens, Enders-Slegers, & Walker, 2016)
and researchers have applied attachment
theory to better understand this relationship.
Specifically, researchers have found that both
people and pets can experience separation
anxiety when separated from each other
(Konok, Kosztolányi, Rainer, Mutschler,
Halsband, Miklósi, 2015; Kwong &
Bartholomew, 2011; Schwartz, 2003). People
also report that pets serve important
attachment related processes (Cromer &
Barlow, 2013). That is, pets appear to serve
attachment functions of safe haven (i.e., a
place to turn for emotional comfort and
protection) and secure base (i.e., a starting
point for pursuing non-attachment goals;
Bowlby, 1969; 1988; Hazan & Shaver,
1994). Specifically, pet owners who engaged
in a goal attainment task with their pet present
had lower blood pressure, wrote down more
life goals, and had greater confidence that
they would reach those goals relative to those
whose pet was not present (Zilcha-Mano et
al., 2012). Moreover, people reported turning
to pets to seek comfort in times of distress
ROLE OF ATTACHMENT ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE
18 | HAIB
(Sable, 2013) which appears to limit the
negativity associated with social rejection
(McConnell, Brown, Shoda, Stayton, &
Martin, 2011). Pet owners generally report
higher well-being than those who don’t own
pets (e.g., Kanat-Maymon, Antebi, & Zichca-
Mano, 2016; McConnell et al., 2011).
Although much of the previous
research has largely focused on the role of
pets as they related to attachment security and
comfort concerns, some research has found
that the individual differences in attachment
(i.e., anxiety and avoidance) influence the
quality of human-animal relationships (e.g.,
Beck & Madresh, 2008; Green et al., in press;
Zilcha-Mano et al., 2011). Specifically,
previous work revealed that dogs are viewed
as having a relatively secure attachment style
and having more positive emotional qualities,
whereas cats are viewed as having an
avoidant attachment style; people higher in
attachment anxiety and lower in attachment
avoidance reported a greater preference for
cats (Green et al., in press). In addition, pet-
specific attachment anxiety is linked to
extreme concerns over pet well-being,
desiring to be close with a pet, and seeking
reassurance from the pet (Zilcha-Mano et al.,
2011). In contrast, pet-specific attachment
avoidance was related to preferring
emotional distance from a pet, avoiding
emotional intimacy with a pet (Zilcha-Mano
et al., 2011), and a greater incidence in
separation-related disorders in dogs (Konok
et al., 2015).
Despite the recently burgeoning body
of evidence demonstrating that pets can be
beneficial attachment figures for people, far
less work has explored how attachment styles
might influence how people care for their
pets, which, in turn, may influence pet health
and well-being. The aforementioned effects
of human partner attachment provide some
initial support for the notion that pet owner
attachment is likely to influence how they
treat their pet. However, as the human-animal
relationship is likely more analogous to the
parent-child relationship, additional evidence
can be derived from that literature. Indeed,
research on the parent-child relationship
found that anxious mothers utilize more
angry and intrusive parenting behaviors, and
avoidant mothers exhibit less warmth (Adam,
Gunnar, & Tanaka, 2004). Moreover, parents
with both anxious and avoidant attachment
styles were found to have a higher risk of
engaging child abuse (Finzi-Dottan & Harel,
2014). Finally, specific to attachment
concerns, both anxious and avoidant parents
used more negative words and described
fewer caregiving-related behaviors when
writing about a recent time they were
reunited with their child (River, Borelli,
Nelson-Coffey, 2016).
Pet Care
Although there is a good deal of
research that examines how people care for
their pets, it has tended to largely be
qualitative in nature and frequently
atheoretical. For example, researchers have
examined decisions related to evacuating
with or without pets during hurricanes
(Brackenridge, Zottarelli, Rider, & Carlsen-
Landy, 2012) and reasons for, and benefits
of, responsibility breakdowns for pet care
(Davis, Gerace, & Summers, 1989; Fifield &
Forsyth, 1999). However, one psychological
factor that previous work has found to be
important to the care and treatment of pets is
empathy. Specifically, when shown pictures
of injured dogs (e.g., stick in the eye; tooth
extraction), pet owners reporting greater pet-
related empathy rated the dogs to be in
greater pain (Ellingsen, Zanella, Bjerkås, &
Indredø, 2010). In addition, a literature
review found the lack of empathy to be a
contributing factor to animal cruelty
(McPhedran, 2009). Importantly, greater
attachment to pets is related to higher levels
of pet-related empathy (Daly & Morton,
ROLE OF ATTACHMENT ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE
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2006). Taken together, these findings suggest
that attachment may play a significant role in
pet care and treatment, however this work did
not examine individual differences in
attachment in human-animal relationships.
Additional research supporting
attachment as a useful framework for
understanding how people care for pets found
that pet hoarders tended to describe more
relationship issues with their parents in
childhood than did non-hoarders (Steketee,
Gibson, Frost, Alabiso, & Arluke, 2011).
However, this study sought to explore a
variety of possible explanations for hoarding
rather than a theory-driven and detailed
examination of attachment theory within the
human-animal relationship. A second study
found a weak relationship between pet
attachment and aversion used in dog training
(Volsche & Gray, 2016). Further, recent
work found that pets kept indoors, and to
whom pet owners presumably have a greater
bond relative to those kept outdoors, received
higher levels of attention and enrichment
from owners (Shore, Riley, & Douglas,
2006). Finally, of interest to the rejection
sensitivity component of the present work,
Gupta (2008) found that rejection sensitivity
did not increase the likelihood of animal
abuse. However, approaching pet-care from
an attachment-theory framework may further
clarify these findings. Thus, attachment-
related individual differences may be critical
to understanding such relevant caregiving
behaviors.
Zilcha-Mano and colleagues (2011;
Study 4) provide some evidence that mental
models of attachment function similarly in
the human-animal relationship as they do in
interpersonal relationships. Specifically, they
found that people high in pet-related
avoidance reacted more slowly to positive
pet-relevant sentences, whereas individuals
high in pet-related anxiety reacted more
quickly to negative words in pet-relevant
sentences (Mikulincer et al., 2002). These
reaction times reflect variation in the strength
of associations of these mental models (for
anxiety and avoidance) and predict
caregiving behaviors and rejection sensitivity
in interpersonal relationships. Thus, further
examining rejection sensitivity regarding
pets could be illuminating.
Current Research and Hypothesis
Better understanding pet treatment is
critical as nearly two-thirds of United States
households have a pet (American Pet
Products Association, n.d.) and an estimated
7.6 million pets enter shelters each year
(ASPCA, n.d.). Moreover, given the
important role pets have come to play in the
treatment of mental health concerns, a better
understanding of the dynamic relationship
between people and pets may yield
psychological and physical health benefits
for both groups. Given the aforementioned
evidence supporting partner effects within
both adult interpersonal and parent-child
relationships, it is reasonable to hypothesize
that attachment anxiety and avoidance will
predict how individuals treat and care for
their pets. Specifically, rejection sensitivity
may influence the degree of care and
treatment provided for a pet, analogous to the
effects found in work on romantic
relationships. Therefore, we predicted that
high attachment anxiety would be associated
with higher levels of reported caregiving
behavior and attentiveness to pets, whereas
attachment avoidance would predict fewer
caregiving behaviors and less attentiveness to
one’s pet, both mediated by pet-related
rejection sensitivity (see Figure 1).
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Figure 1. Conceptual mediation model of how attachment insecurities may influence pet treatment.
Method
The Virginia Commonwealth
University institutional review board
reviewed and approved this work.
Participants were provided the consent form
at the start of the study completed via an
online survey and clicked a link to begin the
survey, reflecting their consent to participate.
The data were collected as part of a larger
study on human-animal interactions and pet
adoption. Participants were not compensated
for completing the study.
Participants
Participants were recruited using
three methods. First, researchers spoke with
visitors to pet-related organizations (e.g.,
SPCA, Humane Society) around the
Commonwealth of Virginia (USA) or an
adoption event held by a local shelter at an
off-site location (i.e., Petsmart). Second, the
partnering organizations posted a link to the
survey on their social media page and/or sent
the link in an electronic newsletter. The
researchers also posted the link to pet-related
online discussion forums.
Five-hundred ten individuals
completed an online survey; 90% (n = 459)
were female, 9.8% (N = 50) were male and
one person did not report their sex. The
sample averaged 38.80 years old (SD =
13.49, range 18-78 years), 92.4% (n = 471)
self-reported as Caucasian, 1.8% (n = 9) self-
reported as African American, 1.6% (n = 8)
self-reported as Asian American, another
1.6% (n = 8) self-reported as
Hispanic/Latino(a), 2.7% (n = 14) self-
reported as another race or chose not to self-
identify an ethnicity. Given the present
research focuses on pet treatment, only
individuals who owned at least one pet at the
time of taking the survey were included in the
analyses, resulting in a final sample of 495
participants.
Procedure and Measures
Participants completed an online
survey concerning human-animal
interactions. Participants first completed the
attachment measure, followed by the relevant
pet-related attachment constructs. After
completing the survey, participants read an
online debriefing describing the purpose of
the study.
Attachment. Participants completed
the general experiences in close
relationships-revised scale (ECR-R; Fraley,
Waller, & Brennan, 2000) designed to
measure attachment-related anxiety (e.g. I'm
Caregiving
Attachment
Insecurity
Rejection
Sensitivity
Attentiveness
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afraid that I will lose my partner's love) and
avoidance (e.g., I prefer not to show a partner
how I feel deep down). Items were measured
on a 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 7 (Strongly
Agree) scale and demonstrated high internal
consistency (anxiety α = .95; avoidance α =
.95), consistent with previous research. This
measure was used rather than a pet-specific
measure (e.g., Pet Attachment and Life
Impact Scale, Cromer & Barlow, 2013; Pet
Attachment Questionnaire, Zilcha-Mano et
al., 2011) in order to best evaluate how global
attachment dispositions might be linked to
pet-related caregiving behaviors and
attentiveness.
Caregiving. Caregiving was
measured using a caregiving scale designed
to assess the degree to which an owner
attends to pets’ emotional needs (e.g., When
my pet is upset, I do my best to calm my pet
down;” “I always try to respond to my pet’s
actions;” “I always greet my pet when I come
home;” Green et al., in press). This 3-item
scale was measured on a 1 (Strongly
Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree) scale and
demonstrated good reliability (α = .71).
Attentiveness and Rejection
Sensitivity. The research team generated and
tested nine items to assess attentiveness of
pets and eight items to assess rejection
sensitivity. Ratings were not specific to any
one type of pet, but attempted to capture
participants’ general orientation towards
pets. Items were measured on a 1 (Strongly
Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree) scale. (The
factor analysis reported in the results
provides additional details on scale
development.)
Results
Scale Development
An exploratory factor analysis using
the maximum likelihood method with a
promax (oblique) rotation limited to four
factors1 was conducted to evaluate the items
developed to measure attentiveness and pet-
related rejection sensitivity. The initial
analysis converged on four factors (
χ
2(74) =
152.31, p < .001) but only three had multiple
items with a factor loading of 0.40 or greater
to allow for interpretation. The first factor
contained three items developed to measure
fears of emotional rejection by a pet. The
second factor contained three items designed
to measure how attentive people are to their
pets. The third factor contained three items
related to pet-based evaluation concern (see
Table 1 for items, factor loadings, and
reliabilities and Table 2 for descriptive
statistics and correlations).
Path Analysis
Prior to testing our theoretical model,
we first checked the variables for normality.
Two variables, caregiving (2.69) and
emotional rejection (2.14), had somewhat
higher kurtosis than typically accepted (i.e.,
+/-2). An analysis with bootstrapped standard
errors was used test the effect of this non-
normality and was consistent with the
findings presented here. To first test the basic
relationships stemming from our hypothesis,
that attachment anxiety and avoidance would
predict attentiveness to pets, we examined the
bivariate correlations (see Table 2).
Although these direct relationships
were non-significant, statistical modeling has
demonstrated that non-significant direct
effects do not rule out mediational
hypotheses (e.g., Darlington & Hayes, 2017;
Hayes, 2009). Thus, using path analysis, we
tested the hypothesis that pet-related
rejection sensitivity and attachment-related
caregiving behavior would mediate the
relationship between insecure attachment and
attentiveness. The factor analysis found two
factors for pet-related rejection sensitivity
(i.e., fear of emotional rejection, and
evaluation concern); we hypothesized that
ROLE OF ATTACHMENT ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE
22 | HAIB
anxiety would be positively related to both,
whereas avoidance would be negatively
related to both. Thus, our model consisted of
anxiety and avoidance predicting both fear of
emotional rejection and evaluation concern.
In turn, caregiving behaviors mediated the
relationship between these variables and
attentiveness. This initial model was a decent
fit to the data, χ2(7) = 27.07, p < .001;
comparative fit index (CFI) = .88; Tucker-
Lewis Index (TLI) = .76; root mean square
error of approximation (RMSEA) = .08, 90%
CI [.05, .11]; and standardized root mean
square residual (SRMR) = .05.
Table 1. Rotated Factor Loadings of Items Assessing Attachment-Related Concepts
Factor 1
Factor 2
Factor 3
Emotional
Attentiveness
Evaluation
Rejection
Concern
α = .71
α = .73
α = .57
I don’t have to worry about my pet turning its back on me. .90
One thing I love about pets is that they don’t judge you. .63
I never worry about being rejected by my pet. .51
I frequently buy new things for my pet. .83
I give my pet multiple treats every day. .62
I lavish attention on my pet a great deal every day. .59
I always make sure my pet has a lot of toys nearby. .54
I sometimes worry that my pet is frustrated or
angry with me. .62
I often wonder what my pet is thinking about me. .56
I don’t want my pet to think badly of me. .55
Table 2. Means, Standard Deviations, and Intercorrelations among Measures
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
M = 2.55 2.53 6.12 3.45 6.13 5.07
SD = 1.03 1.19 1.07 1.41 0.92 1.30
1. Anxiety .
2. Avoidance .64*** .
3. Emotional Rejection -.09* -.03.
4. Evaluation Concern .16*** .03 .02
5. Caregiving -.02 -.07 .20*** .26***
6. Attentiveness -.07 -.04 .16*** .25*** .39***
Note. *** p < .001; ** p < .01; * p < .05; N = 482.
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Although the initial model was a
decent fit, given that the factor structure for
rejection sensitivity revealed two factors
rather than one, we tested additional theory-
consistent permutations of the model.
Specifically, direct paths between the
measures of attachment (i.e., anxiety and
avoidance) and attentiveness failed to
improve the model, Δχ2(2) = 3.16, p = .21,
χ2(5) = 23.91, p < .001; CFI = .89; TLI = .68;
RMSEA = .09, 90% CI [.06, .13]; SRMR =
.05. Likewise, direct paths between
attachment and caregiving behaviors also
failed to improve the model, Δχ2(2) = 2.90, p
= .23, χ2(5) = 24.17, p < .001; CFI = .89; TLI
= .68; RMSEA = .09, 90% CI [.06, .13];
SRMR = .04. However, direct paths from
both mediators, fear of pet emotional
rejection and evaluation concern, to
attentiveness did significantly improve the
model, Δχ2(2) = 17.69, p < .001, χ2(5) = 9.38,
p = .10; CFI = .97; TLI = .93; RMSEA = .04,
90% CI [.00, .08]; SRMR = .03, R2 = .18, R2
= .17, thus these paths were retained in our
final model2 (see Figure 2 for path
coefficients). Indirect effects, or the effect of
the primary predictor(s) on the primary
outcome(s) through the mediator(s), were
then calculated to confirm the way in which
attachment anxiety and avoidance contribute
to attentiveness through multiple individual
direct effects, or paths between two variables.
Figure 2. Final path model predicting attentiveness from attachment variables.
Caregiving
Avoidance
Anxiety
Emotional
Rejection
Evaluation
Concern
Attentiveness
-.14*
-.15*
.17***
.16***
.46***
.15***
.11***
.05
.34***
Rejection
Sensitivity
ROLE OF ATTACHMENT ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE
24 | HAIB
The indirect effects confirm our
hypothesis that attachment anxiety influences
attentiveness via pet-related rejection
sensitivity, specifically evaluation concern,
and caregiving behaviors (see Table 3).
Specifically, highly anxious individuals
reported a greater concern about their pets
evaluation of them and this concern then
resulted in more caregiving and attentiveness
on the part of the owner. Despite significant
path coefficients, the indirect effects indicate
that concerns related to pet emotional
rejection do not seem to drive the same
caregiving behaviors and attentiveness for
anxious individuals. In addition and
consistent with hypotheses, highly avoidant
individuals show less frequent attentiveness
behaviors to pets, via pet-related rejection
sensitivity, specifically evaluation concern.
In contrast to anxious individuals, highly
avoidant individuals reported less evaluation
concern and, in turn, reported fewer
caregiving behaviors and less attentiveness.
Avoidance was unrelated to the fear of
emotional rejection, thus these indirect paths
were not calculated.
Table 3. Indirect Effects of Attachment on Attentiveness
Path Betaa LLb ULb
Anxiety Emo. RejectionCaregivingAttentiveness -.01 -.02 .000
Anxiety Emo. RejectionAttentiveness -.01 -.03 .004
AnxietyEvaluation ConcernCaregivingAttentiveness .03** .09 .23
AnxietyEvaluation ConcernAttentiveness .05** .02 .09
Overall Anxiety .05* .00 .10
AvoidanceEvaluation ConcernCaregivingAttentiveness -.01* -.02 -.00
AvoidanceEvaluation ConcernAttentiveness -.02 -.05 .001
Overall Avoidance -.03* -.06 .01
Note. *** p < .001; ** p < .01; * p < .05; < .06. 95% Confident interval upper (UL) and lower limits
(LL) of indirect effects.
Discussion
Previous research (e.g., Beck &
Madresh, 2008; Green et al., in press, Zilcha-
Mano et al., 2012) has utilized the attachment
framework (i.e., attachment anxiety and
avoidance) to explain human-animal
relationships, and specifically the
psychological benefits of having pets. Yet
less attention has been given to the influence
of attachment anxiety and avoidance on how
pets are treated, such as pet-related
caregiving and attentiveness. Our path
analysis results suggest that global
attachment dispositions influence the care of,
and attentiveness to, pets. Consistent with our
hypothesis, individuals with greater
attachment anxiety reported more pet-related
caregiving behaviors and greater
attentiveness to pets. Also consistent with
hypotheses, highly avoidant individuals
reported fewer pet-related caregiving
behaviors and less attentiveness to pets. As
expected, rejection sensitivity acted as the
key mediator in these relationships.
It should be noted that the findings
revealed two factors in our measure of
rejection sensitivity: fear of emotional
rejection by ones pet and pet-related
evaluation concern. These factors are
ROLE OF ATTACHMENT ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE
25 | HAIB
consistent with initial work on rejection
sensitivity that found two similar components
to the ones found here: “(a) degree of anxiety
and concern about the outcome and (b)
expectations of acceptance or rejection”
(Downey & Feldman, 1996, p. 1329).
Further, Downey and Feldman (1996) found
these components were unrelated, further
aligning with the present findings. Although
the anxiety/concern about, and expectation
of, rejection components were merged into
the single rejection sensitivity scale, the
present work suggests that these components
(i.e., likelihood of rejection and evaluation
concern) may differ in how each affects the
treatment of pets. The current pattern of
findings helps validate previous work and
further links human-animal attachment
dynamics to human attachment dynamics.
Specifically, evaluation concern
mediated the relationship between
attachment and caregiving and attentiveness.
That is, greater attachment anxiety predicted
greater pet-related evaluation concern, which
in turn predicted greater pet-related
caregiving and attentiveness. Greater
attachment avoidance was related to less pet-
related evaluation concern and less pet-
related caregiving and attentiveness. The lack
of a direct relationship between measures of
attachment and attentiveness reveals how
powerful evaluation concerns may be within
the human-animal relationship for anxious
and/or avoidant individuals. These findings
suggest that individual differences in the way
people assess and process interactions with
others also influence how attentive people are
to their pets and provides a better
understanding of one mechanism by which
this occurs concerns regarding how a pet
will evaluate its owner. Of course, such
concerns are almost always misguided (as
they often are in human relationships)—pets
rarely abandon their human companions—
but they still shape behavior in a powerful
manner and are elegantly explained by
attachment theory. We note that a superficial
analysis focusing only on attentiveness
behaviors, such as giving a pet treats or toys,
and attachment anxiety and avoidance may
have provided a misleading picture.
Sometimes null direct effects can disguise a
richer and important set of relationships, such
as this case, with the critical mediating role
of rejection sensitivity, and specifically
evaluation concerns.
Our findings on attachment anxiety
dovetail with attachment theory research on
human couples. Specifically, the finding that
anxious individuals are driven to care for
their pets through the concern that they will
be negatively evaluated by their pet is
consistent with previous work which found
anxious individuals seek reassurance from
attachment partners (Davila, 2001; Wei et al.,
2005) and provide care primarily with the
motivation to maintain the relationship
(Feeney & Collins, 2004). However, this
motivation tends to result in caregiving
behavior that is overbearing and
manipulative (Feeney & Collins, 2004; Julal
& Carnelley, 2012; Kunce & Shaver, 1994;
Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; 2016; Millings
& Walsh, 2009). Thus, it is possible that the
greater levels of caregiving and attentiveness
reported by anxious individuals may have a
negative impact on pets. That is, anxious
individuals may provide too many treats and
toys, (items included in the attentiveness
scale), leading to overweight or
overstimulated pets. We did not assess how
beneficial or harmful such attentive
behaviors might be for the pet, largely
because owner assessments likely would not
be objective. Future research should attempt
to evaluate this possibility via a more
nuanced assessment of attentiveness
behaviors (e.g., assess actual pet weight and
related health markers rather than rely
exclusively on self-reports).
Our findings for attachment
avoidance also are consistent with attachment
ROLE OF ATTACHMENT ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE
26 | HAIB
theory and previous work (Carnelley et al.,
1996; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; 2016;
Millings & Walsh, 2009): poorer caregiving
skills by avoidant individuals appear to be
consistent across relationships with both
people and pets. Moreover, the findings
related to lower levels of rejection sensitivity
for avoidant individuals is consistent with the
deactivating and distancing strategies
avoidant individuals use (Mikulincer et al.,
2002).
Limitations and Future Research
As previously mentioned, a potential
limitation of this study is the self-report
method. Although the findings provide an
initial understanding of how attachment may
be related to caregiving behaviors and
attentiveness, future work should examine
objective outcomes of attachment anxiety
and avoidance on attentiveness to, and
treatment of, pets, such as pet weight,
compliance with dietary guidelines, and pet
training. Although we included a self-report,
agreement measure regarding the degree to
which their pet was overweight, the mean
(2.09) was well-below the midpoint of this
scale. In addition, nearly 90% of participants
fell below the midpoint, meaning nearly all
participants disagreed with the idea that their
pet was overweight. Yet studies estimate that
between one third to one half of pets are
overweight or obese (Association for Pet
Obesity Prevention, n.d.; Banfield Pet
Hospital, n.d.). Thus, more objective
outcomes would alleviate any concerns
related to socially desirable responding.
A second limitation present in the
research is the limited diversity on some
demographics in the sample. Despite the use
of multiple sampling sources and techniques
to obtain a diverse sample (e.g., sampling
from both rural, majority Caucasian and
urban, majority African American, areas),
participants were mostly female and
Caucasian. Although previous research is
mixed on whether differences exist across
different races and ethnicities when it comes
to pets (e.g., Hoffman et al., 2013; Siegel,
1995), future research may seek to rectify this
limitation to allow practitioners to feel more
confident in applying the current findings. In
addition, previous research has hinted that
small sex differences may exist within
attachment to pets (Barlow et al., 2012),
obtaining a sample with a larger percentage
of males would also provide a better
understanding of how attachment for both
sexes influences attentiveness for pets.
A final limitation may be the
assessment of global attachment dispositions,
rather than pet-specific attachment measures.
Specifically, previous human-animal
interaction research has found that people
tend to be more securely attached to pets than
romantic partners (Beck & Madresh, 2008).
However, attachment theorists indicate that
the overarching working models encompass
partner-specific interactions (see Mikulincer
& Shaver, 2007; 2016). Consistent with this
theoretical perspective, previous work on the
relationship between pet-specific attachment
and global attachment found positive
correlations between the measures (Beck &
Madresh, 2008; Zilcha-Mano et al., 2011),
though pet-related attachment often has a
stronger relationship with target variables
than global attachment in analyses. Given
these findings, we would expect future
research with pet-related attachment
measures to reveal similar, if not stronger,
effects to those reported here. Finally, the use
of the global dispositions could also be
viewed as a strength as it provides a link
between how people generally approach their
human relationships and how they approach
their pet relationships.
Furthermore, future research should
continue to investigate attachment-related
constructs to better understand how
attachment to pets influences outcomes for
ROLE OF ATTACHMENT ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE
27 | HAIB
both people and their pets. We examined
rejection sensitivity and caregiving as
underlying attachment constructs influencing
attentiveness. Although some existing
research focuses on pet-related careseeking
and secure base components of attachment
theory (e.g., Kwong & Bartholomew, 2011;
McConnell et al., 2011), continuing to
explore these basic attachment systems,
particularly as they related to care and use of
pets, may be beneficial to more fully
understanding human-animal interactions.
This may lead to better pairings for both in
terms of pet adoption and human-animal
interaction related therapy.
Conclusion
This research extends attachment-
related concepts (i.e., evaluation concern,
caregiving) to pets, providing a clearer
understanding of how attachment affects the
care and treatment of pets. Moreover,
combined with previous research (e.g., Green
et al., in press; Zilcha-Mano et al., 2012), this
analysis contributes additional evidence for
the utility of examining attachment as
multifaceted (i.e., anxious and avoidant
separately) rather than the unidimensional
concept of security. As people continue to
develop deeper bonds and dependency with
pets through both pet ownership and animal-
assisted therapy, a better understanding of
these key functions of attachment will be
critical to the success of these programs and
the proper care of the pets that make them
possible.
Footnote
1Four factors were chosen based on the scree plot
inflection point when an unconstrained analysis was
run (Costello & Osborne, 2005). The same three
factors were found when the analysis was run
specifying three factors as the criteria. An oblique,
promax, rotation was used because correlated factors
were expected based on past research, though the same
factors were found using an orthogonal (i.e., varimax)
rotation.
2 Separate models for recent adopters of dogs and cats
confirm that the model is consistent across both types
of pets. The only inconsistency with the original model
is the lack of direct effects for concern of pet emotional
rejection and evaluation concern on attentiveness.
However, the indirect effect of anxiety on
attentiveness through evaluation concerns and
caregiving behaviors was still significant.
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... (female, [45][46][47][48][49][50][51][52][53][54] We have been walking more and found a local pond with lots of birds and have been visiting several times per week since lockdown. (female, [25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32][33][34] Myself and my partner have been seeking out animals on our daily walks every day. We were always visiting nature reserves and have now found some good places to birdwatch within a four-mile radius of our home. ...
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... Recent research suggests that aspects of human psychology may drive how people care for animals [1,2]. Specifically, attachment theory has been used to examine caregiving and attentiveness towards pets [1]. ...
... Recent research suggests that aspects of human psychology may drive how people care for animals [1,2]. Specifically, attachment theory has been used to examine caregiving and attentiveness towards pets [1]. However, the research on this topic has generally only examined self-reported owner behaviors (for example, attentiveness), rather than more pet-relevant outcomes. ...
... Previous studies have explored how people make decisions regarding care in emergencies [30] and factors that predict animal cruelty [31]. We know of only one study that explicitly focused on attachment and pet caregiving [1], finding that both attachment anxiety and avoidance influenced self-reported caregiving and attentiveness, with highly anxious individuals reporting greater attentiveness and caregiving because they were concerned about their pet evaluating them negatively. In contrast, highly avoidant individuals reported less caregiving and careseeking behaviors because of this concern. ...
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Attachment theory posits that patterns of interaction derived from the attachment system provide a starting point for understanding how people both receive and provide care. Extending this theory to human-animal interactions provides insights into how human psychology affects pets, such as pet obesity. The goal of this study was to determine how attachment anxiety and avoidance might contribute to pet obesity. We assessed 563 pet owners’ attachment-related anxiety and avoidance, as well as additional attachment-related constructs (emotional rejection, evaluation concern, caregiving, and attentiveness to a pet). We also assessed various factors associated with pet obesity, including weight, body condition, daily treats, and daily interaction. The results indicate that dog owners high in attachment anxiety are concerned about how their pet may evaluate them, leading to more caregiving and attentiveness that results in more treats given per day, and a larger body condition (but not weight). In addition, owners high in attachment avoidance may seek to downplay the possibility of the dog negatively evaluating them, thus providing more negligent care. These findings suggest that attachment plays a unique role in shaping the pet-caregiver relationship and influences various elements that contribute to pet obesity, particularly in dogs. As such, the findings may lend a novel perspective to strategies for reducing pet obesity and provide a framework for future research into pet health.
... This cohabitation promotes the development of emotional connections (Leonard & Scammon, 2007), and as a result, most American pet owners now view their pets as family members (Walsh, 2009). Furthermore, many individuals perceive and treat their pets as vulnerable and childlike (Brackenridge, Zottarelli, Rider, & Carlsen-Landy, 2012), which is reflected by the frequent online use of the term "fur babies" to refer to animals and through other expressions of attachment (Coy & Green, 2018;Ramón, Slater, & Ward, 2010). ...
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... For example, if an individual is experiencing greater anxiety due to the current circumstances, they may project more anxiety onto their evaluation of their animal's behaviour. Evidence suggests that highly anxious individuals are more likely to report greater concern about their animals [16]. This should be further investigated, given that the Covid-19 outbreak has resulted in substantial uncertainty, and fear of the unknown is a fundamental component of anxiety-related disorders [17]. ...
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... 2. The ANOVA and some of the t-tests report findings only for the recent adopters who also completed Time 2, resulting in a smaller sample size. 3. A separate paper (Coy & Green, 2018) reports findings on this effect using data collected from the same sample of community participants. ...
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The purpose of the present research was to determine what type of relationship exists between owner to dog attachment and the degree of aversion used in training pet dogs. We hypothesized that attachment to one's dog would be negatively associated with the degree of aversion used in dog training. Data collection took place via online, self-report surveys. The sample consisted of 653 respondents, age 19-82 (µ=46.83, M=49) representing each of the 50 United States. Of that population, 90.8% were female and 88.7% identified as white. Additionally, 79.3% did not have children in the home with all but two of those being childless, and more than half of the population (65.5%) considered themselves their dog's " parent " or " guardian. " Contrary to expectations, a weak positive correlation (r=.224, p<.001) was found between participants' attachment and the reported frequency of aversion used in training their dogs. This paper discusses the interpretations of these findings, including with respect to changing human-dog relationships in the United States.
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This exploratory study investigated the effect of visiting therapy dogs on college-student perceived and physiological stress the week prior to final exams. Students (n = 78) were randomly assigned to order of a therapydog intervention and attention-control condition, each 15 minutes long. Students completed the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), a stress visual analog scale (SVAS), and provided saliva for measuring nerve growth factor (sNGF) and alpha amylase (sAA), prior to randomization. Saliva samples and SVAS were again collected after each condition. There was no effect of group order on demographics, PSS, or initial SVAS. Repeated measures models were used to analyze the complete data sets of 57 students. There were no significant differences in sAA between or within students completing the intervention and control conditions. sNGF was not subjected to analysis as most levels were undetectable. Significant differences in SVAS scores were found between the intervention and control condition, with large effect sizes. SVAS scores were lower following the intervention, regardless of condition order (intervention first, p = 0.0001, d = 1.87; intervention second, p = 0.0004, d = 1.63). No SVAS differences were found for the control condition. Based on these findings, campus events with visiting therapy dogs represent a costeffective, easily accessible activity to reduce perceived, but not physiological, stress for college students prior to final exams.
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There is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting the existence of emotions in nonhuman animals. Companion-animal owners show a strong connection and attachment to their animals and readily assign emotions to them. In this paper we present information on how the attachment level of companion-animal owners correlates with their attribution of emotions to their companion cat or dog and their attribution of mirrored emotions. The results of an online questionnaire, completed by 1,023 Dutch-speaking cat and/or dog owners (mainly in the Netherlands and Belgium), suggest that owners attribute several emotions to their pets. Respondents attributed all posited basic (anger, joy [happiness], fear, surprise, disgust, and sadness) and complex (shame, jealousy, disappointment, and compassion) emotions to their companion animals, with a general trend toward basic emotions (with the exception of sadness) being more commonly attributed than complex emotions. All pet owners showed strong attachment to their companion animal(s), with the degree of attachment (of both cat and dog owners) varying significantly with education level and gender. Owners who ascribed human characteristics to their dog or cat also scored higher on the Pet Bonding Scale (PBS). Finally, owners who found it pleasant to pet their dog or cat had a higher average PBS score than those who did not like to do so. The relationship between owners’ attributions of mirrored emotions and the degree of attachment to dogs was significant for all emotions, whilst for cats this relationship was significant only for joy, sadness, surprise, shame, disappointment, and compassion.
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According to self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2000), fulfillment of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness within close relationships are essential for well-being. In the current research, we sought to further explore this association as regards human-pet relationships. Drawing on recent studies that have documented the benefits pet owners can derive from their relationship with a pet, we examined the extent to which perceived need support by a pet can facilitate well-being and allay psychological distress. Participants were 206 pet owners (dog or cat). Results of a SEM analysis indicated that perceived needs support by a pet significantly predicted higher well-being but did not predict level of psychological distress. These associations were found over and beyond needs support by a close human other. The implications of the uniqueness of human-pet relationships to well-being through the lens of SDT are discussed.
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Three studies explored the effects of subliminal threat on the activation of representations of attachment figures. This accessibility was measured in a lexical decision task and a Stroop task following threat-or neutral-word primes, and was compared with the accessibility of representations of other close persons, known but not close persons, and unknown persons. Participants also reported on their attachment style. Threat primes led to increased accessibility of representations of attachment figures. This effect was specific to attachment figures and was replicated across tasks and experiments. Attachment anxiety heightened accessibility of representations of attachment figures even in neutral contexts, whereas attachment avoidance inhibited this activation when the threat prime was the word separation. These effects were not explained by trait anxiety. The discussion focuses on the dynamics of attachment-system activation in adulthood.
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Individuals high in rejection sensitivity (RS) are at risk for experiencing high levels of interpersonal distress, yet little is known about the interpersonal profiles associated with RS. This investigation examined the interpersonal problems, sensitivities, and values associated with RS in 2 samples: 763 multicultural undergraduate students (Study 1) and 365 community adults (Study 2). In Study 1, high anxious RS was associated with socially avoidant interpersonal problems, whereas low anxious RS was associated with vindictive interpersonal problems. In Study 2, we assessed both anxious and angry expectations of rejection. Circumplex profile analyses showed that the high anxious RS group reported socially avoidant interpersonal problems, sensitivities to remoteness in others, and valuing connections with others, whereas the high angry RS group reported vindictive interpersonal problems, sensitivities to submissiveness in others, and valuing detached interpersonal behavior. Low anxious RS was related to domineering interpersonal problems, sensitivity to attention-seeking behavior, and valuing detached interpersonal behavior, whereas low angry RS was related to submissive interpersonal problems, sensitivity to attention-seeking behavior, and valuing receiving approval from others. Overall, results suggest that there are distinct interpersonal profiles associated with varying levels and types of RS.
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This study was an attempt to determine if God might provide a secure base for theological exploration. It was predicted that those displaying secure attachment with God would be more willing to "explore" their theological "world." Participants were 117 undergraduate students who completed measures of attachment to God, Quest religious motives, and Christian orthodoxy. Overall, the study supported the experimental predictions. Specifically, the participants in the study who saw God as a "Secure Base" were more engaged in theological exploration and were more tolerant of Christian faiths different from their own. These same subjects also reported more peace and less distress during their spiritual journey. Yet, despite their exploration, these participants fully embraced the core doctrines of Christianity. Overall, these results suggest that the attachment paradigm might significantly illuminate research involving religious maturity, apostasy, and religious intolerance.
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