Recent research (1.) into attachment theory suggests that attachment insecurities are related to lower levels of various altruistic activities, such as empathy and other prosocial values, and proposes psychological intervention to address this issue. It is of particular interest in the context of the added interpersonal burdens created by Covid-19.
WHAT IS GIVING/HELPING BEHAVIOUR?
Helping behaviour is providing aid or benefit to another person. It does not matter what the motivation of the helper is, only that the recipient is assisted. This is distinguished from the more general term prosocial behaviour, which can include any cooperative or friendly behaviour. It is also distinguished from the more specific term altruistic behaviour, which requires that the motivation for assisting others be primarily for the well-being of the other person or even at a cost to oneself (2.).
Much Positive Psychology research is currently in progress on linking helping to other positive psychological characteristics like gratitude and forgiveness.
Types of helping behaviour include:
- Casual (helping involves doing small favours for casual acquaintances, such as letting someone borrow your cell phone for a quick call).
- Substantial (investing a lot of effort to help someone over an extended time so that a benefit is achieved).
- Psychological (providing care and personalised emotional support to another, like listening to a friend who has had a bad day or giving knowledge and advice to someone who requests it).
- Emergency (assisting someone who has an acute problem).
Social psychologists’ explanations for helping behaviour are trifold: natural (evolutionary- kin-selection theory and inclusive fitness- and genetic), cultural (socio-cultural and social learning), and psychological (or individual-level) hypotheses abound. Natural justice, reciprocity, and social responsibility figure heavily in these theories. Interestingly, females show more helping behaviour as compared to males, with studies finding that women are more altruistic and empathetic, show more concern and worry about others in need, and give more emotional support.
Social learning theory suggests that to the extent people experience reciprocal rewards for helping or costs for not helping, they are more likely to help others in the future, expecting the next situation to have similar rewards and costs. So, rewards and costs do not need to be immediate to influence motivation.
Naturally, developmental psychologists and other social scientists point to the animal world as proof that prosocial behaviour is a preprogramed biological function of humanity rather than a solely nurtured or learned activity.
HOW IS GIVING/HELPING BEHAVIOUR MEASURED?
Typically, the Helping Attitude Scale (HAS), developed in the late 1980’s is used. Using a 5-point scale, it is a 20-item measure of the beliefs, feelings and behaviour related to helping, and scores highly for sensitivity and accuracy.
ATTACHMENT THEORY & STYLES
Personality is greatly affected by social interaction, with the people around us moderating bond formation. Patterns are formed from early development onwards. When humans encounter threatening and stressful situations, they seek attachment to others for support. Where attachment figures are (or were) absent, they become hypervigilant toward indicators of significant others’ care and concern.
These activities are termed ‘hyperactivating strategies’ and include different attention-seeking behaviours (eg ‘acting out’, over-dependency or, in infants, excessive crying and ‘clinginess’). Those whose behaviour has fallen into this pattern fixate on care and attention to the detriment of their sense of self and self-worth, resulting in feelings of self-doubt and anxiety. This scenario is indicative of an anxious attachment style.
Adults with this mindset tend to admit more personal distress as compared with others, show evidence of unresolved conflict with their parents (4.), find it hard to regulate their emotions, have emotionally turbulent relationships, and are continually alert for (perceived) signs of rejection. Commonly, drugs, alcohol and behaviours eliciting intense short-term gratification are used to self-medicate (see previous Blog: The Window of Tolerance).
Conversely, the outcome may be the development of an avoidant attachment style if the individual adopts self-reliance and ‘shuts down’ affiliation and social support avenues. Typically, they hide their worries and hurt and maintain a ‘safe’ distance from others. They may also ignore or deny emotional threats and tend toward compulsive self-defensiveness. It is problematic to maintain healthy relationships in this state.
Virtues such as compassion, generosity, gratitude and forgiveness may be under-developed and/or mental health issues such as anxiety and depression more prevalent in both cases of ‘insecure’ attachment.
That other sources(5.) further divide insecure attachment into sub-types including Dismissing, Anxious-preoccupied, and Disorganised highlights the very individual nature of attachment style- professional guidance is best sought when embarking on this journey of self-discovery.
In evaluating whether improving attachment security increases helping behaviour, ‘priming’ was the intervention used in Ma’s research. This psychological intervention focuses on cognition (reframing faulty thinking), emotion (memory activation and catharsis-focused dialogues), and behaviour (psychoeducation and role playing) (3.), in the context of loss and abandonment, negative interpersonal feelings, and an exaggerated need to be close and to feel cared for.
Psychologists aim to make secure attachment representations temporarily accessible via exposure (the study used subliminal and supraliminal triggers) to reminders of secure attachment, which can produce a positive effect in various self-transcendent domains including empathy and caregiving behaviour, compassion, and general benevolence. Sessions may, however, prove painful and difficult as exposure can activate defensive avoidance/blocking or elicit negative associations.
In Ma’s study, life-event priming involved participants diarising positive or warm events with attachment figures (e.g., parents, romantic partner, or best friend). Mental imagery, written tasks, interpersonal scripting, and some image/memory exposure exercises were among some of the interventions used in the non-control group.
SO, DOES ATTACHMENT THERAPY BOOST OUR INATE TENDENCY TO HELP OTHERS?
In a word-YES. The study concludes that attachment security priming has a (statistically significant) positive effect on helping behaviour.
In summary, the research reviewed here indicates that helping behaviour is affected by a number of factors. One of the factors is attachment style. The secure attachment style individuals whose own needs are met tend to be more cooperative and supportive towards others as compared to anxious attachment style individuals whose needs are not fulfilled. The latter group are more anxious about others and tend to be reluctant to help others because of fear of being rejected. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, avoidant attachment style individuals also exhibit less helping behaviour.
To conclude, it is also worth noting that there are other tools(5.) that psychologists can use to treat attachment disturbances including:
- Positive remapping of attachment representations
- Development of metacognitive (thinking about how we think) skills
- Exercises and education to promote collaborativeness
If the information presented here resonates with you and/or you think you may benefit from seeing a psychologist to explore this area further, please feel free to contact this Centre.
- Ma, Y. et al. Boosting attachment security promotes giving behaviour in higher attachment anxiety. Australian Journal of Psychology 73:4, 452-461.
- Dehghani-Arani, F. Efficacy of an Attachment-Based Intervention Model on Health Indices in Children with Chronic Disease and Their Mothers. Adm Policy Ment Health. 2018; 45(6): 900–910.
- Eells, TD. Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy Research. J Psychother Pract Res. 2001 Spring; 10(2): 132–135.
- Brown, D.P., & Elliott D.S. Attachment Disturbances in Adults. 2016. W.W. Norton, New York.