A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at attachment anxiety and how it predicts false memories when people can see the communicator.

“Past research has linked attachment avoidance with forgetting specifically relational material,” study author Dr. Nathan W. Hudson told us. “Conversely, prior studies have shown that attachment anxiety predicts false memories in relationship contexts.”

Dr. Hudson is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He said the goals of the present studies were to test whether attachment anxiety predicts false memories only for relational material, or whether it might predict false memories for more general types of information, as well.

“Some of our previous studies have pretty robustly linked attachment anxiety to false memories for relational material,” Dr. Hudson told us. “Thus, we anticipated that anxiety would be related to false memories when participants listened to a story about a breakup.”

In contrast, for the other conditions (e.g., a story about a shopping trip or a lecture on wetlands), Dr. Hudson explains the researchers had less-clear a priori expectations. In these situations, they approach their studies with research questions such as: “Will attachment anxiety predict false memories for a lecture on wetlands?” The study then tests two competing hypotheses: (1) Attachment anxiety will predict false memories only for relational stimuli, vs. (2) attachment anxiety will predict false memories for any type of information.

“Avoidance has been robustly linked to forgetting relational memories,” Dr. Hudson told us. “Attachment anxiety and avoidance sometimes have opposing effects. Thus, we wanted to test whether anxiety might predict false memories (the converse of the effect for avoidance).”

This line of research was also originally inspired by the common “he said, she said” scenario among romantic partners (e.g., one partner accuses the other of failing to keep a promise; the other partner has no memory of the purported promise).

“In these scenarios, one of the partners may have forgotten the ‘broken’ promise. In contrast, it’s possible that the other partner confabulated a false memory,” Dr. Hudson told. “Given the psychological properties of attachment anxiety (e.g., rumination about relationships), it seemed reasonable that highly anxious individuals might misremember relationship events.”

The present paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology was designed to test whether anxiety predicts false memories only for relational material, or whether it predicts false memories for information in general.

Across three studies, participants either (a) watched a video, (b) read a text transcript, or (c) listened to an audio file of (1) a woman describing a breakup, (2) a woman describing a shopping trip, or (3) a woman giving a lecture on wetlands. Researchers then gave participants a memory test and examined how many false memories they reported experiencing.

“We found that attachment anxiety consistently predicted false memories in the video conditions, irrespective of the topic being discussed,” of Personality and Social Psychology. “Attachment anxiety did not predict false memories in the text or audio conditions.”

Dr. Hudson believes future research might explore the mechanisms that explain why attachment anxiety predicts false memories for information presented via video, but not via text or audio.

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