To Friend or Unfriend? How Your Relationship Style Plays Out in Social Networks

For clues into how people form strong or weak social networks, psychologists looked at a phenomenon called attachment style — and they found some surprising online behavior.

But what determines the strength and structure of our social networks? In a new study, psychologists looked at something called “attachment style” and the way it affects how we friend and unfriend people in our social networks, both in real life and online. The research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, concluded that people with “insecure” attachment styles were less likely to reap the benefits of strong social networks, but that a little positive reinforcement could reverse the trend.

"Attachment theory describes how people are creating bonds in their lives," Omri Gillath, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "Attachment style is basically a relationship style. It's the way we think, feel and behave in our close relationships.”

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Attachment style has mostly been studied in terms of infant-parent relationships and romantic partnerships, but this paper represented one of the first efforts to gauge the effects of different attachment styles on forging healthy friendships. The researchers focused on people who had an “insecure” attachment style, meaning they measured high in categories like “attachment anxiety” and “attachment avoidance.”

People with high attachment anxiety worry about being abandoned by family and friends, while people with high attachment avoidance have trust issues preventing them from forging strong ties and depending on others. On the flip side, people who score low in attachment anxiety and avoidance are said to have a “secure” or healthy attachment style.

In four separate studies, the researchers looked for ways in which an individual’s attachment style affected not only the strength of their social network, but how they managed and maintained that network through acquiring new friends and dropping old ones. In addition to mapping real-world friendships, Gillath and his colleagues used Facebook to analyze rates of friending and unfriending.

As the researchers expected, people with insecure attachment styles reported weaker and less trustworthy social networks overall. They asked participants to rate the strength of every friendship in their network, and also the roles that each member of the network fulfilled. Those two measurements, known as “tie strength” and “multiplexity,” are useful proxies for closeness and trust.

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People with insecure attachment styles also showed clear differences in the way they managed their social networks. People with high attachment anxiety were big on initiating and maintaining connections, while people with high attachment avoidance were much more likely to dissolve friendships than start them. But there was also an unexpected finding.

"Surprisingly, people high on anxiety were expected to be less likely to dissolve ties — they're often concerned about being rejected or abandoned and want to merge with their relationship partners, which made us think they would be less likely to dissolve ties," Gillath said in a statement. "However, they were found to report higher tendency for dissolution than nonanxious people."

The reason, it turned out, wasn’t because anxious people cut off their connections, but because their connections felt “smothered” by the anxious friend’s constant need for reinforcement and validation. They were the unfriended, not the unfrienders.

Since people with insecure attachment styles miss out on the psychological, emotional and even physical benefits of strong social networks, what can they do to change? Reached in an email, Gillath said that attachment style is formed early in life.

“Most research points to interactions with primary caregivers,” Gillath said. “Supportive, sensitive, caring parenting is thought to result with security. Whereas inconsistent, intrusive parenting is thought to result with anxiety.”

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But that doesn’t mean that attachment style is cemented for life. As part of Gillath’s study, his team attempted to “prime” levels of attachment security through some simple positive reinforcement exercises.

They asked participants to think about a relationship that made them feel loved, supported, and secure, and then to think about emotionally positive words like “love” and “hug.” Just those simple steps were enough to influence the way people managed their social networks, making it more likely that they would initiate new friendships and hold on to old ones.

For people seeking help with attachment issues, Gillath said that cognitive behavioral therapy is a good approach, but that some steps can be taken without a therapist.

“Trying to take a more positive attitude, thinking about your loved ones, remembering experiences where you got the help and love you needed, can all help,” he said.

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