Adult Attachment Orientation and Physical Distance: Do Threat Primes Alter Perceptions of Interpersonal Proximity?
Refling, Erica Julie
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The purpose of my dissertation was to examine whether adult romantic attachment and interpersonal threat bias people’s perceptions of physical distance within a social context. Across three separate studies, I assessed the interactive effects of attachment anxiety, attachment avoidance, and threat on perceptions of distance. In the baseline (control) condition, I predicted that people higher in attachment anxiety would perceive greater interpersonal closeness than people lower in attachment anxiety. However, in the threat condition, I predicted that this perceptual difference would disappear or, alternatively, that people higher in attachment anxiety would perceive greater interpersonal distance than people lower in attachment anxiety. Furthermore, I hypothesized that higher levels of attachment avoidance would be associated with greater perceptions of physical distance regardless of condition. In Study One, I used a loneliness prime and measured attachment orientation to examine their influence on the strength of the tendency to perceive an ambiguous, computerized figure as walking toward oneself. In Study Two, I investigated how attachment and the threat of separation affected estimations of physical distance from one’s romantic partner who was standing relatively close by. In the third and final study, I examined the impact of attachment and separation threat on perceptions of physical distance from one’s romantic partner when the partner was absent and imagined to be in another city. A meta-analysis of the experiments revealed that the influence of attachment anxiety on distance perception was not only dependent on condition, but also on attachment avoidance. Specifically, for people high in attachment avoidance in the control condition, higher attachment anxiety was associated with smaller perceptions of distance. In contrast, for people high in attachment avoidance in the threat condition, higher attachment anxiety was associated with greater perceptions of distance. For people low in attachment avoidance in both conditions, attachment anxiety did not predict distance perception. This pattern is partially consistent with, but also more complicated than, my original predictions. Explanations for the findings are discussed as well as future directions for investigation. Additionally, the important implications of this research for real-life interactions and, ultimately, the development and maintenance of attachment orientation are explored.