Attachment insecurity, biased perceptions of romantic partners' negative emotions, and hostile relationship behavior

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2015 May;108(5):730-49. doi: 10.1037/a0038987.


In the current research, we tested the extent to which attachment insecurity produces inaccurate and biased perceptions of intimate partners' emotions and whether more negative perceptions of partners' emotions elicit the damaging behavior often associated with attachment insecurity. Perceptions of partners' emotions as well as partners' actual emotions were assessed multiple times in couples' conflict discussions (Study 1) and daily during a 3-week period in 2 independent samples (Study 2). Using partners' reports of their own emotional experiences as the accuracy benchmark, we simultaneously tested whether attachment insecurity was associated with the degree to which individuals (a) accurately detected shifts in their partners' negative emotions (tracking accuracy), and (b) perceived their partners were feeling more negative relationship-related emotions than they actually experienced (directional bias). Highly avoidant perceivers were equally accurate at tracking their partners' changing emotions compared to less avoidant individuals (tracking accuracy), but they overestimated the intensity of their partners' negative emotions to a greater extent than less avoidant individuals (directional bias). In addition, more negative perceptions of partners' emotions triggered more hostile and defensive behavior in highly avoidant perceivers both during conflict discussions (Study 1) and in daily life (Study 2). In contrast, attachment anxiety was not associated with tracking accuracy, directional bias, or hostile reactions to perceptions of their partners' negative emotions. These findings demonstrate the importance of assessing biased perceptions in actual relationship interactions and reveal that biased perceptions play an important role in activating the defenses of avoidantly attached people.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Hostility*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Object Attachment*
  • Sexual Partners / psychology*
  • Young Adult