No Man Is an Island: People Who Say They Don’t Need Other People Actually Care about Close Relationships
As human beings, we are all predisposed to relate to other people. We have an inherent desire to form and maintain interpersonal relationships. And we all long to feel accepted and supported by others. Researchers in social psychology refer to this as the need to belong. This need explains why we usually form relationships easily and can be so reluctant to end them, even when they prove to be maladaptive or harmful. The importance of relationships is also evident in the fact the emotions we experience most intensively usually take place within the context of our relationships. Think about the intense happiness you experienced when you started a new romantic relationship or the strong pain you felt when a close friend or lover betrayed you. Studies show that forming and maintaining relationships not only makes us happier, but also benefits our mental and physical health.
If the need to belong is a fundamental human need, we should expect to find it in all individuals without exceptions—in much the same way all people need food and water. However, people with a dismissive avoidant attachment style don’t seem to have a need to belong. People with a dismissive avoidant attachment style are often described as lacking the desire to form or maintain social bonds, and they don’t seem to value close relationships. These people report, for example, that they are comfortable without close emotional relationships and prefer not to depend on others. The mere existence of people who say they don’t need others would seem to cast doubt on the fundamental nature of the need to belong.
But a closer look at people with a dismissive avoidant attachment style shows that their dismissiveness may be a defense against real or imagined separation or rejection. Perhaps people develop a dismissive avoidant style to prevent the strong negative emotions that result from social rejection. Is it possible, then, that dismissive individuals also have a strong need to belong—but have learned to suppress it as a defense against potential rejection?
To test this idea, we exposed people with a dismissive avoidant attachment style to social success or acceptance, instead of social rejection. The idea behind our studies was simple. If the need to belong is indeed universal, then even individuals who claim not to care about social relationships should feel happy after receiving positive social feedback. In fact, we expected that dismissive individuals might react even more positively to social approval than nondismissive individuals would. If people with a dismissive style feel like they have missed out on the opportunity to satisfy their need to belong, they should be especially sensitive to acceptance. If, on the other hand, dismissive individuals truly don’t care about social relationships, as they claim, then they should respond less favorably to positive social feedback than people without a dismissive attachment style.
In the first study, dismissive and nondismissive students were led to believe that they were participating in a two-part study along with three other students. They began by completing a personality questionnaire that they would exchange with the other students. Among other things, this questionnaire measured their dismissive attachment style. After seeing what they thought were the other students’ questionnaires (which we had actually prepared in advance), they were asked to rank the other three students in terms of how much they would like to interact with them face-to-face in the second part of the study. Those who were ranked highest by all other participants, they were told, would get to choose their interaction partner first. Those who were not ranked highest would be assigned a partner.
Next, half of the students were told that they had received the highest ranking and the other half were told that they were not ranked highest. Then, students completed measures of self-esteem and mood. The results clearly showed that people with a dismissive avoidant attachment style do care about social approval. After learning that other students had ranked them first as potential interaction partners, dismissive avoidants—who claim they don’t care about social acceptance or belonging—reported higher self-esteem and positive mood than did non-dismissives who got the same positive feedback.
Our second study tested the same idea in a different way. This time dismissive and nondismissive students completed a questionnaire that they were told could assess their levels of a personality trait named “surgency” (which doesn’t really exist). Half the students were told that this personality trait predicts future interpersonal success, with lots of friends and long-lasting, fulfilling romantic relationships. The other half of the students learned that surgency predicts future individual success—that people who score high on surgency often accomplish a great deal, publish books, discover new things, or make contributions to whatever their professions are.
After completing the questionnaire, students received what they thought was their surgency score. These scores were either high or relatively low. After learning their scores, students rated their self-esteem and mood. Once again, people with a dismissive avoidant style showed that they did care about relationships. Dismissive avoidant students reported higher self-esteem and positive mood than non-dismissives—but only when told that surgency predicts future interpersonal success. In other words, students with a dismissive style were clearly pleased when they were told they possessed a trait that would lead other people to like and accept them.
These two studies showed that people with a dismissive avoidant attachment style may have an even stronger need for acceptance than most other people. People who have dismissive avoidant attachment styles clearly have need to feel connected to others. But because they have buried this need under a shell of indifference, it can only be glimpsed by giving them a taste of what all people need and desire most—inclusion and acceptance from others.
For Further Reading
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.
Bartholomew, K. (1990). Avoidance of intimacy: An attachment perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7(2), 147-178.
Carvallo, M., & Gabriel, S. (2006). No man is an island: The need to belong and dismissing avoidant attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(5), 697-709.
Mauricio Carvallo is an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies attachment, social perception, the self, close relationships, and discrimination.
Shira Gabriel is an Associate Professor at SUNY Buffalo, the Editor of the journal Self & Identity, and an Associate Editor of the SPSP Character and Context blog.