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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: Oh, my God. This person’s driving me crazy!

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: How valid is attachment theory?

DUBNER: Well, screw her! If that’s the kind of mother she is, here’s the kind of kid I’m going to be.

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DUBNER: Angela, one William Kissick has written us an email. He asks, very directly, if we could do an episode on a topic he’s interested in, which is attachment theory.

DUCKWORTH: Attachment theory!

DUBNER: Are you very attached to attachment theory?

DUCKWORTH: I am an attachment theory superfan.

DUBNER: William writes to say, “I am 20, and have been doing work on my attachment style, after years of being an ‘avoidant.’”

DUCKWORTH: Hmm. 

DUBNER: So, I have to say, I found that sentence alone very compelling — that he’s 20 and he’s been doing work on his attachment style, when I am in my 50s, and I did not know I had an attachment style. So, kudos to William.

DUCKWORTH: Let’s see if we can figure out a little bit about Stephen’s attachment style in this conversation.  

DUBNER: Well, I’m more interested in William’s, and yours, and practically anyone else’s than mine.  

DUCKWORTH: That sounds avoidant, Stephen.

DUBNER: You know, I didn’t know that was a word until he wrote that. And yet, I gather from the context that that’s not what one wants to be. Nevertheless, William continues with: “I feel an episode on this would be beneficial for everyone.” The world is at stake right now, Angela, and you are, at this moment, the only one who can help. So, what is attachment theory?

DUCKWORTH: Attachment theory is this theory developed by a British psychologist named John Bowlby. He is one of the greats in the history of psychology. He was working, I believe, in London. And the origin of attachment theory is that John Bolwby had some interaction with orphans. This is, like, mid-20th century. He was interested in how these orphans were not always growing up to be psychologically healthy. And attachment theory is the idea that, when we are babies, we develop an attachment style to our mothers. And the idea was actually rooted in his thoughts about evolution: that if you are a helpless, human baby — unlike other animals, you’re born incredibly incapable — you need a survival strategy. And attaching yourself to the mother is what’s going to guarantee your survival.

DUBNER: Is that what has fed the movement — maybe in the past 20 or 30 years — that after childbirth, before the baby is even cleaned up, just to bond with the mother, to put on the mother’s bare skin, so that they can go skin-to-skin? Is attachment theory what’s driving that move?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know about attachment theory in particular, because Bowlby wasn’t talking about newborns. He was talking about babies who were several months old. 6-month-olds, you know, like, you can just pass them around at a party, and they’re pretty content being held by different adults. But around 9 months, there is this separation anxiety that babies, normatively — in other words, it’s a healthy sign — they demonstrate. So, when they are separated from — let’s say their mother, but whoever their primary caregiver is — babies freak out. They cry and basically throw a fit. And it’s from around 9 months to 12 months that, often, attachment style is measured.

DUBNER: So, Angie, walk us through the main styles of attachment, please.

DUCKWORTH The ideal attachment style is called “secure” attachment. Your mother loves you. She will always be there for you. And the important thing to recognize about secure attachment — according to Bowlby and subsequently other psychologists who study attachment — is that having that secure foundation, having that kind of, “You know, if I turn my back, somebody still got my back,” — that allows you to do what babies and the rest of us need to do, which is to take risks, to explore, to venture out into the world.

DUBNER: Getting back to William for a moment, it sounds like he does not have a secure-attachment style, because he stated right there: “After years of being an ‘avoidant’…”  

DUCKWORTH: Right. William self-describes as “avoidant” attachment. You know, William’s not a baby, but the origins, again, being Bowlby, let’s talk about babies, and in the 9th or 10th month of life, what does an avoidant-attachment style look like? That is feeling like your mom isn’t going to be there. So, therefore, you are going to avoid getting too close to your mom. You’re not going to depend on your mom. You’re going to go it alone. Then, there’s anxious-attachment style. That is allowing yourself to get close to your mom, but also being very easily freaked out, thinking that she might abandon you or might not be there for you in the way that you want. And then, the last bad attachment style — the last of the three — is really just a blend of avoidant and anxious. So, sometimes it’s called “anxious-avoidant.” But there’s secure, there’s avoidant, there’s anxious, and there’s anxious-avoidant.  

DUBNER: Got it.

DUCKWORTH: So, after John Bowlby comes this brilliant psychologist named Mary Ainsworth, and Mary Ainsworth had the idea that if you want to measure attachment style and understand attachment style in a baby of 9 to 12 months, you would put them in the following laboratory situation: she called it, the “strange situation.” Have you ever heard of this?

DUBNER: I just saw this thanks to Monsieur Google. I typed “Ainsworth,” and I see the strange-situation test. So, I feel like I’m in the middle of a strange-situation test right now. So, what does Mary Ainsworth do to these 1-year-old or 9-month-old babies, then?

DUCKWORTH: Here, I actually should know more than your average psychologist, because when I was an undergraduate, I actually had this part-time work-study job. It was in the lab of Jerry Kagan — very famous developmental psychologist. And we would have these babies come into the lab with their moms and we ran the “strange situation.” So, I was responsible for, like, coding these episodes. You got a laboratory room filled with toys. You put the mom and their baby in the room to acclimate to it. And the baby soon wants to get off the mom’s lap so they can crawl. They constantly look back at the mom to make sure she’s there. But then, they go and they play. Then, in the strange-situation script, the mom is cued to leave. So, the mom just, like, gets up, and walks out of the room, and closes the door behind her. And then, within seconds, the baby looks up and realizes the mom is gone, goes to the door, wails, bleats, cries. It’s really painful to watch.

DUBNER: Your tax dollars at work in academic research, forcing babies to cry. Love it.

DUCKWORTH: But for the good of science. So, what you’re looking for in the strange situation is that a healthy baby is supposed to be distraught. Then, after some time — which seems like infinity if you’re coding these things, or, I’m sure, if you’re the baby — the mom comes back in, and the baby, is supposed to, like, crawl over to the mom. And I say “supposed to” — like, if it has a secure attachment style, it’s supposed to go right over to the mom, get into the mom’s lap, and be soothed, and then, get off the mom’s lap and start exploring again. That is what secure attachment looks like in the strange situation. But the avoidant baby does not go to be soothed.

DUBNER: Do they just kind of ignore the mother? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, it’s weird. Like, they will not go to the mother. I mean, they don’t go and do what you would expect the movie would show you. Then, there’s anxious attachment style. These are babies who, like, go back to the mother and they just won’t calm down. They just can’t be consoled, and they don’t get off her lap, and they’re just kind of freaked out for the rest of the laboratory session. And then, just to complete the set, there’s anxious-avoidant. They don’t cleanly fall into either category, but they’re a mess also. And, by the way, it’s quite uncommon. The majority of the babies that are generally coded when you have a sample of babies are secure. So, that’s the good news.  

DUBNER: Majority being what? 60 percent? 90 percent?

DUCKWORTH: I think maybe 60 percent or so. And so, that means that the other babies all have to fall into these other three categories.  

DUBNER: You’re talking about this with some admiration and respect for this experiment, which I understand. On the other hand, it sounds nuts, because you’re basically doing an experiment whereby you’re conditioning a kid to be miserable. And then—

DUCKWORTH: Well, only once! Conditioning doesn’t work like that.

DUBNER: Okay. A very short-term shock to the system. But here’s the thing: Maybe what you’re measuring is how savvy this little kid is and says, “Well, screw her! If she’s going to get up and leave, then when she comes back, I’m going to tell her I don’t really need her. If that’s the kind of mother she is, here’s the kind of kid I’m going to be.” In fact, I wonder if William Kissick, our 20-year-old avoidant, was a participant in one of these studies, and rather than adopting what the psychologists are saying is the “proper” form of attachment, he actually said, “Eh, if my mother is the kind of person who’s just going to get up and walk out, I’d better get on with my own life.”

DUCKWORTH: There is a little nugget of truth in there, Stephen. But I really don’t think that a single interaction is going to leave an indelible mark. We have not only boatloads of data, but boatloads of experience that, like, if your kid gets lost at a park once, that tends not to have lasting effects. But I wanted to dig out your nugget of truth, because I think you’re onto something, which is: If I have a mom who is not reliable — she’s not that secure foundation, I turn my back, and I turn around again, and she may not be there, she’s not responsive to me in the way that I need — then avoidance is a defense mechanism. It’s your adaptive-slash-maladaptive response to parenting which is not what it’s supposed to be. An avoidant is, like, “I’m going to prevent myself from being hurt by not getting too attached.”

DUBNER So, Angie, what are we to think of the source of that difference? I feel like every time I ask you this question it’s both environmental and hereditary.

DUCKWORTH: You’re right that I’m going to say both. But let me just say that Bowlby was primarily thinking about stuff that happens to a baby that would make them have a non-secure attachment. Again, going back to the orphans, he was thinking about separation, loss of a parent, a mother that’s not responsive — that would lead to these not-great attachment styles. But there isn’t any behavior that you would say is entirely from your environment. It has to be that some children come into the world with a set of genes that predisposes them more toward one kind of attachment style or the other. And so, it really is both, but Bowlby was thinking mostly about what your parents do and don’t do. And, actually, the continuity of your attachment style to how you are now is one of the predictions that John Bowlby had — that your attachment style that you develop when you are really young is the one that you keep for life.

DUBNER: That’s a whole other thing to unpack, because I can imagine that the kind of attachment that you have as a very young child would be totally overwhelmed by all kinds of factors that come at you in life later, and that it might have no bearing to your adult attachment style. But you are telling me right now that your field believes that there is a strong connection.

DUCKWORTH: No. I’m telling you that John Bowlby believed it. I would say: Bowlby was not strictly right. It’s not like you meet a mother and their child, you see avoidant behavior, and you can say, “Bet your dollar that, 20 years from now, that person’s going to have really difficult romantic relationships because they are an avoidant.” So, Bowlby’s strong prediction that, like, it gets imprinted and then you’re set for life — that ended up not being true. But the correlation between attachment style when you are very young to attachment style when you’re all grown up isn’t exactly zero either.

DUBNER: It sounds like you’re saying there’s a connection between a baby and his or her mother and then, later in life, that baby grown up and his or her, let’s say, domestic partner. That’s the thread we are meant to follow?

DUCKWORTH: I think John Bowlby’s idea was: You grow up, and you have this attachment style, which is really, like, a description of your relationship with your mother. But gradually, over time, it becomes internalized, and you have what’s sometimes called, like, an “internal working model.” It’s so often used by attachment theorists that they use the acronym “I.W.M.” — which, by the way, isn’t that much shorter than “internal working model,” at least when you say it out loud.   

DUBNER: Whenever “W” is in an initialism, I love how people were saying for years, “Okay. So, what you want to do is get on your internet and go to W-W-W—”            

DUCKWORTH: Anyhoos, this internal working model is something you develop — and I think this is where John Bowlby, but also the psychologists who followed John Bowbly in the last 70 years would actually agree — which is that: Babies, and then later toddlers and children, and then later adolescents, were developing these increasingly stable working models of the world, and how relationships work, and how other people are going to treat us. And it’s a schema, if you will. It’s a set of beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and opinions. Actually, one of my favorite articles on attachment — it’s kind of dated, it’s from 1987. There were these psychologists who thought Bowlby was onto something — that your attachment style would be pretty constant over life. So, they printed in a newspaper this question, and then they collected data from the adults who answered it. I’m going to read it to you verbatim. “Which of the following best describes your feelings?” And it’s a three-item, multiple choice: “Secure. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and I’m comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.” And that was, in this newspaper sample, 56 percent of the adults who responded.

DUBNER: Okay.

DUCKWORTH: Your second choice: “Avoidant.” This is 25 percent of respondents. “I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.” And then, finally, let me read you the anxious attachment style. And this is 19 percent of this newspaper sample. “I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person. And this desire sometimes scares people away.” So, that’s the adult version of this.

DUBNER: So, the share of adults who answer that they are secure — and again, this is survey data, so we have to take their word for it — is roughly the same as the share of babies who respond in a secure-attachment way in the experiment that you were describing, right?  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, the majority. 

DUBNER: 56 to 60, so let’s call that roughly the same. If you had to bet, would you say that those 60 percent of babies are the same 60 percent of the adults?

DUCKWORTH: I would bet against it, because there aren’t many datasets where you can really definitively say, “Early attachment does (or does not) lead to adult attachment.” Because what would you have to do? You’d have to have attachment style measured probably through the strange situation, which, as you can imagine, is an expensive procedure, very rarely done. You need a big dataset of that. And then, you’d have to, like, follow people into adulthood while they’re developing romantic attachments, and then, survey them or interview them. And that’s rare. But it has been done. And those few studies that have longitudinally tracked attachment style over time, tend to find very small correlations. That means there’s a lot of reshuffling — there are a lot of secure babies who grow up to be avoidant. There are a lot of avoidant babies who grow up to be secure. But the correlations are not zero.

DUBNER: So, Angela, I’m sure there are critics of attachment theory within psychology. In fact, you mentioned Jerry Kagan, who was the psychologist under whom you did this work.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah.

DUBNER: But now, I’m seeing an article here describing a dust-up between Jerry Kagan and Daniel Siegel from 2012. And this says that Kagan, at a symposium, clarified that he was glad that attachment theory was, quote, “dead,” and that he never thought it would go anywhere. And after Kagan’s claim, Siegel, who was a strong proponent of attachment theory, said, “I can’t let this audience listen to your argument without hearing the other side. Have you actually read the attachment research?” So, that sounds spicy. Do you know anything about that controversy?

DUCKWORTH: I mean, that’s 20 years since I graduated from college. So, in those intervening two decades, I wasn’t in close touch with Jerry Kagan, but I will say this of Jerry: Jerry liked to speak in a way that I feel like professors and even pundits don’t do today — like, broad, sweeping statements about, about the world and human nature. Really audacious like, “I’m just going to say this thing,” which almost can’t be true in its strong form. I don’t know that Jerry really thought attachment theory was dead in the sense that there’s nothing to attachment theory. But I will say this: It is probably that John Bowlby was wrong. We don’t have attachment styles that correlate very highly from infancy to adulthood. We should not think, like, “Oh, I know what’s wrong with this relationship! Your mother didn’t do the things that she needed to do to make you feel securely attached.” At the same time, Bowlby was not entirely wrong. Just think to yourself: That person that you are dating, that you are thinking of breaking up with, or maybe marrying, they have some internal working model, and where did their internal working model come from? It had to have come from their past experiences. There is some continuity. It’s just not that our childhood is our destiny.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela encourages Stephen to reflect on his own attachment style.

DUBNER: Is that all we are? We’re “close coworkers”? God, that is such an avoidant thing to say.

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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about attachment theory, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the subject. We asked listeners to let us know how their childhood relationships with their parents set the pattern for their lives today. Here’s what you said:

George SEIKALY: My name is George Seikaly. My parents were first-generation Arabs from families with roots in Palestine and Jordan. As an adult, it has always been clear to me that I didn’t have a close attachment to either of my birth parents, and I haven’t spoken with either for many years. The consensus on my mother is she suffers from bipolarity and/or a personality disorder. My father didn’t have these issues, but generally worked a lot, hung out with his friends, and then gravitated to his second wife and her family. What I’ve always found interesting about how I broke the mold are those who helped me along the way — treated me like family, invited me to events, vacations. Some even helped me get jobs. I went to college, then to law school, launched a sustained legal career, got married, and have otherwise maintained successful relationships.

Mufudzi CHIHAMBAKWE: So, I am the last child in my family. And when I was really small, I was really attached to my mom. I would cry a lot when she wasn’t around me, and I would just always want her around me. And my siblings used to tease me a lot. So, I think I kind of grew out of this probably quicker than I should have, maybe. I made a point when I was a teenager to not be attached to my mom at all. Then, when I became a young adult, I realized that this is actually just excessive and dumb. And I really learned to value my mom’s presence in my life a lot more.

That was, respectively: George Seikaly and Mufudzi Chihambakwe. Thanks to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about attachment styles.

DUBNER: So, here’s a big question. William is identifying himself as one category that he doesn’t want to be. He writes, “I’m working on my attachment style after years of being an avoidant.” That would imply that he sees where he is — or at least sees where he thinks he is — and he wants to change it. So, how do you do that? Does understanding attachment theory actually help at all in changing your attachment type?  

DUCKWORTH: There are psychologists who have these — I mean, they’re called attachment interventions. I think they’re often done with children. But when it comes to adulthood, the question is: What would be the best thing for William? Would it be learning more about attachment? I have this book. I think it’s got 112 little articles on attachment. It’s an academic book. If I gave it to William, would it cure him of having avoidant style? I don’t know. My guess is this: That one of the things that really changes us is experience. So, if William has a successful relationship with somebody who is securely attached and shows William what it’s like to not be abandoned, what it’s like to also exhibit the positive behaviors of a securely attached person, to trust that the other person’s not going to abandon you, et cetera — that probably will do more than reading a bunch of academic essays about attachment theory. I think, when you go to therapy — which I’m a big fan of, and I have a great therapist — that relationship is a secure relationship. That person is doing everything that a wonderful mother does for a baby. They listen to you, they soothe you, they’re reliable, they’re consistent, they’re emotionally regulated. It’s, like, kind of signing up for a secure-attachment relationship. 

DUBNER: Let me just play devil’s advocate — or skeptic’s advocate — for a moment.

DUCKWORTH: You’re good at that. Go, yes.

DUBNER: So, I am reading here about a popular book, a commercial book, called Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find and Keep Love. This came out in 2010, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. I have a feeling this is the book that helped kickstart the reckoning about how adult styles of attachment feed into our romantic relationships. And I can see why it’s really attractive. We like to put ourselves in categories, because I think it helps us all make sense of a messy world. Although, interestingly, you and I talked recently on this show about this appetite for simple categorizations, which often misses the target. So, I can see why people want to do this. I can see how it can be fruitful. I also could see how it’s easy to satirize it. Do you remember West Side Story?

DUCKWORTH: Yes.

DUBNER: You remember the song early on when the police officer, Officer Krupke, is trying to get these teenage hoodlums off the street?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah: “Officer Krupke, we’re misunderstood.”

DUBNER: “Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset. We never got the love that every child ought to get.” So, what’s amazing to me about that — it was written in 1957. The lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim, who was a very brilliant human and, I think, psychologically, very astute. So, it seems that that was kind of an early wave of using one’s background and socio-familial situation to explain away things.

DUCKWORTH: And before Bowlby, there was Freud.

DUBNER: There you go.

DUCKWORTH: So, this was all in the air.

DUBNER: And I see here a much more recent piece in the New Yorker — a satire piece — called, “Unhealthy Attachment Styles That I’m Okay With.” And these include “avoidant attachment to my unread emails” and “anxious attachment to my friend’s cats.” Do you think it’s possible that the definition — or at least the application — of attachment thinking has maybe become too broad to be useful? That it’s one of those attractive but super-malleable theories that can be used to explain just about anything in any direction you want?

DUCKWORTH: You know, I think that nearly everything that we talk about can be satirized. I don’t want to throw out Bowlby. I don’t even want to throw out Freud. I don’t want to throw out Mary Ainsworth. Were they onto something to say that, when we have repeated interactions with our parents, does that give us an internal working model for how to relate to other people? Like, does our childhood matter? Does our adult behavior have its roots in our past experience? Yes. So, to me, the throughline — because I didn’t read that popular book, and I’m not saying it’s not a good book, I generally don’t read popular books about psychology, because it’s just much faster for me to read academic articles—

DUBNER: That puts you in the 1 percent of the 1 percent of people who say they read the academic articles because it’s faster than reading the popular versions of the book. You know that the rest of us are not like that, don’t you?

DUCKWORTH: Yes, that’s true. Not because I am a genius, but because of my training. And so, I was able to read this compendium of articles by attachment theorists now — contemporary attachment theorists — and when I finished that, I was like, “Oh, here’s the big throughline.” When you do meet someone, you can think to yourself, “This other human has a schema for relationships. And in addition to what’s going on in this conversation, there is what this person is bringing to that conversation, which is that internal working model.” And I think sometimes when we understand that, it can help us be more sympathetic and then also appreciate that one of the things that will happen if you stay in that relationship is that that internal working model will get updated based on how you relate to them. And it’s just helped me, because sometimes I’m like, “Oh my God, this person’s driving me crazy.” And I can recognize that they have avoidant behavior. And then I think to myself, “Oh, their internal working model of a relationship is not the same as mine.” I’m super-securely attached. Like, I meet total strangers and it would never dawn on me that they would be anything other than, like, happy to meet me and probably trustworthy enough to keep all of my retirement funds under their watch.

DUBNER I just have to clarify, am I the person that drives you crazy, because I’m a little avoidant?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I want to ask you: Having learned a little bit about attachment styles, would you describe yourself as mostly securely attached?

DUBNER: As someone who generally doesn’t like categorizing myself as much as many other people do — in other words, there’s always a caveat to my categorization, because nobody’s all of something and none of something else.

DUCKWORTH: Because it’s more of a continuum. 

DUBNER: But that said, I would say that I am somewhere on the border — but I’m drawing a thick border — between secure and avoidant.

DUCKWORTH: But not anxious?

DUBNER: I don’t think I’m anxious at all. But there were some things in avoidant that I definitely identify with, and a lot of things in secure that I definitely identify with. And one obvious potential driver for me and many, many, many, many people, I think would be the early death of a parent. I came from a really good, strong, loving, honest, honorable family, for which I am eternally grateful. My father, from the time I was pretty young, was not healthy. And then he died when I was — gosh, the fact that I don’t remember exactly how old I was—

DUCKWORTH: I think — were you 10? 

DUBNER: Yeah, 9 or 10. And so, what that left me with was a sense that, “Well, he was here, now he’s gone.” I kind of moved on, and became the young adult I became, but I did come to the belief that when you’re a child and you lose a parent, it’s very easy to make the assumption that people in your life may just disappear without warning. And therefore, one defense mechanism against that would be to become a little bit avoidant. So, to me, that’s always made a sort of baseline sense. On the other hand, one thing I love about life is that free will does exist — at least according to my personal philosophy and religious beliefs — and that if there’s a direction or dimension in your life that you don’t love, you are free to try to change it. I don’t feel that I’ve been wildly shaped by that experience in my life, but I feel like I was shaped by it, certainly, for at least a big handful of years. And so, that’s where I would say I’ve ended up, is mostly in the “secure by choice” category, but with a little bit of lingering avoidant.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. There are two things that you said there that I really want to pick up on, Stephen. One is that you can agentically decide what you want, and you can move toward that. That’s one thing, I think, over the last 50 years, psychologists have understood more and more. We do have agency, and we’re able to self-sculpt. And the second thing is: I think that these categories are not the right way to think about them. They’re actually continua. There’s research that definitely shows that, like, you can be more or less anxious. You can be more or less avoidant. You can be more or less secure. And here’s what I want to do. I want to read to you a few items from an attachment-style questionnaire for adults about their intimate relationships. It’s often for romantic things, but you can have attachments to friends, and you can have an attachment style that characterizes even, like, your attachment style, honestly, to me, as a close coworker.

DUBNER: Is that all we are? We’re “close coworkers.” God, that is such an avoidant thing to say.

DUCKWORTH: Or maybe an anxious thing to say on your part. But here’s the thing, I want to read you these because it’s, like, a description of secure attachment. And I want to paint a picture of what we can agentically move toward. And this is by Chris Fraley, who is my favorite attachment-style researcher — he’s at University of Illinois. And it’s called the “Experiences in Close Relationships – Revised Questionnaire.” Here we go. “I rarely worry about my partner leaving me.” 

DUBNER: Do you want me to answer these?

DUCKWORTH: No. I just want you to, like, imagine. Imagine trying to get closer to this. “I do not often worry about being abandoned. I feel comfortable sharing my private thoughts and feelings with my partner. I am very comfortable being close to romantic partners. I find it relatively easy to get close to my partner. I usually discuss my problems and concerns with my partner. It helps to turn to my romantic partner in times of need. I tell my partner just about everything. I talk things over with my partner. I feel comfortable depending on romantic partners. It’s easy for me to be affectionate with my partner. My partner really understands me and my needs.” So, I just want to leave you with a portrait of secure adult attachment. And, I want to say that wherever we are on the continuum — in whichever relationship we’re thinking of — we can get closer to that.

DUBNER: May I just say, I am grateful, having heard those questionnaire questions. I feel they could have used an editor.

DUCKWORTH: A little repetition.  

DUBNER: Well, here’s the thing. There are a million different ways to write surveys. But if I’m taking this one, I say in my mind, “Why are you asking me the same question four times in slightly different directions?” And then, I feel: “Oh, you’re trying to trick me in case I’m trying to be a little bit cagey and say something that’s a little bit dishonest.”

DUCKWORTH: Catch me on an inconsistency.

DUBNER: And I find that frustrating and a little bit demeaning. I realize that I’m bringing you down a tangent that’s not fruitful for this conversation, but I just wanted to register that complaint.

DUCKWORTH: It has been registered, and the complaint board says this in response: “Dear Stephen Dubner, we have read your complaint about questionnaires.” The primary reason why questionnaires have multiple repetitive items is because there is the assumption that, on any one item, you might have a random error. Like, you really meant “mostly,” but you checked off “somewhat,” or you didn’t see the word “not” in it. And that by giving you a bunch of items that are all very similar, those will cancel out. That’s the primary reason, but I’m not disagreeing with you. My P.S., if I’m the complaint board and I’m writing back to this disgruntled citizen, Stephen Dubner, I don’t disagree with him. The questionnaires that I have increasingly come to like, and also the ones that I’m writing right now, tend to have single items for single things. And then, I just live with the fact that some kids misread the question, et cetera. So, there are tradeoffs, but the complaint board hears you.

DUBNER: Dear Complaint Board, I am so glad that we have made this personal and congenial contact, and I really look forward to bringing to you in the future all my future complaints. Signed, Formerly Avoidant — But Now Deeply, Deeply, Securely Attached — Steve.

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No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show, Stephen wonders about the origin of immediately engaging in skin-to-skin contact after birth. According to experts in obstetrics, skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin — colloquially known as the “love hormone” — in the hypothalamus of the mother. Oxytocin has also been found to help the uterus contract, which reduces bleeding, and it raises the mother’s body temperature, which comforts the newborn. However, this tradition predates modern research. Many cultures instinctively encouraged the behavior before there were scientifically proven benefits.

Later, Stephen brings up Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan’s 2012 statement that “attachment theory is dead,” and Angela finds it hard to believe that her former mentor would write off the idea completely. In a 2019 interview, Kagan further explained this stance. He said, quote, “In the end, attachment theory was just too simple. It ignored the temperament and social class of a child’s family, and it ignored the cultural setting. Attachment is a far less popular explanation in 2019 than it was in the 1960s, and in 10 to 15 years, it’s going to be rare to find anyone defending the theory.” Kagan died in 2021 at the age of 92.

Finally, Angela says that “attachment interventions” are usually done with kids. These treatments are most often prescribed for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, a rare condition diagnosed by a pattern of consistently withdrawn behavior. However, many mental health professionals provide attachment-related assistance for adults as well. Attachment therapy for grownups involves exploring how childhood experiences may have impacted your ability to form successful relationships as an adult.

That’s it for the fact-check.

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Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela answer a listener’s question about why charities often rely on fundraising strategies that annoy potential donors.

DUCKWORTH: I have, in recent years, made it a priority to donate more to charities I care about, but didn’t expect that one of the long-lasting repercussions is that I am now constantly bombarded with junk mail. 

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to hear about the best — and worst — fundraising strategies you’ve ever seen. Maybe you received a particularly great gift as a donor, or perhaps you want to vent about how the Ice Bucket Challenge left you cold and wet. To share your experience, send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “Nonprofits.” Make sure to record in a quiet, indoor space with your mouth close to the phone, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had this week from Lyric Bowditch and Jacob Clemente. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Alina Kulman. We had additional help this week from Anya Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!

DUCKWORTH The reason why I have been, of late, super interested in attachment style, is that, you know, somebody is vexing me. I’m like, “What the hell is wrong with this person?!” And it’s a very easy thing to think, like, “Oh, I bet they grew up avoidant or something.”

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Sources

  • Mary Ainsworth, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
  • John Bowlby, psychiatrist and founder of attachment theory.
  • Chris Fraley, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
  • Sigmund Freud, psychologist and founder of psychoanalysis.
  • Rachel Heller, clinical psychologist and author.
  • Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Amir Levine, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
  • Daniel Siegel, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles.
  • Stephen Sondheim, songwriter for Broadway.
  • Niels Weller, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota.

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