New Research Describes How Attachment Anxiety Messes With Your Memory

You may be remembering things wrong because of your unstable childhood environment.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 24, 2022

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology uncovers an uncomfortable fact about the anxious individual: their minds falsify memories far more than the average person's mind. In fact, people were more likely to get the facts wrong when the person relaying them information was visible to them (in-person, video call, lecture etc.).

The research paper, authored by Southern Methodist University's Nathan Hudson and Michigan State University's William J. Chopik, was focused on adults with attachment anxiety, i.e, people who frequently worry about being rejected or abandoned by those closest to them.

Hudson's study randomly assigned its participants to watch a 20-minute video of a woman talking about her tumultuous breakup with a man or another topic – like a shopping trip or the ecology of California wetlands. Other participants got the same information from audio only or by reading a transcript. All groups took a memory test immediately after receiving the information, regardless of how it was delivered.

The study found that attachment-anxious participants who watched the video were more likely to get the details of the information wrong as compared to the ones who received the information through other mediums.

According to Hudson, seeing the speaker might be a factor in memory distortion because highly attachment-anxious people tend to be hypervigilant in monitoring facial expressions. They also tend to misjudge the perceived emotional states of others.

"We believe that highly attachment-anxious individuals are likely intensively analyzing what is being said in the videos we showed them," Hudson said. "Their own thoughts and feelings about the video may have gotten 'mixed up' with the actual video contents in their minds. Thus, they experienced false memories when we gave them a test regarding the video's contents."

These findings explain how our personalities can meddle with accurate memory recording and recall. Hudson explains that memory-making as a process is inherently quite error-prone.

"It's important to understand that our brains don't store verbatim audio or video clips of events that happen to us," he said. "Instead, our brain stores snippets of information about our experiences, and when we attempt to recall a memory, it combines stored bits of related information and makes its best guess about what happened."

Add to this an attachment-anxious personality's belief that they are not worthy of love and care, their intense fear of rejection, and their tendency to over analyze their relationships – and we can understand why sometimes two people in the same relationship have dramatically different stories to tell about the same events.

This tendency then spills over to other parts of their life, calling into question other memories wherein the primary information was being relayed by a person visible to them.

According to the authors, their study can serve as an alarm bell for people with attachment anxiety. These findings can draw their attention to interpersonal situations where they are likely to experience false memories – for example, during online or in-person lectures, conversing with classmates and friends or watching political debates.

In such situations, Hudsons adds, supplementing information received during face-to-face encounters with reading and listening activities can likely improve memory accuracy for individuals with an attachment-anxious relationship style.

Hudson added that most people wish to temper their attachment anxiety, and interventions may be able to help them do this, leading to improved well-being. His research suggests that moving toward a more secure attachment style may also positively affect memory processes — and he suggests that future studies explore this.