Behavioural systems (attachment, care giving, exploration, sex & power): hyperactivated, hypoactivated or just about right?
Last updated on 4th December 2012
Overall - along with 50 to 60% of the population - I qualify as "securely attached". I was fortunate in being brought up by loving parents who left me with an internalised "secure attachment script" that runs something like "If I feel a bit insecure or threatened, there will be others who I can turn to for comfort & support. I'll then feel better & successfully be able to tackle the challenges I face." Our attachment style spreads out to affect many aspects of our lives - especially how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others. I've written quite a lot in the past about attachment. See, for example, "Attachment, compassion & relationships" and "Assessing attachment in adults". In the latter post, I said " ... most people would probably benefit from being more aware of their attachment styles in close relationships with the crucial knock on effects this has on our partners, friends, work relationships and children. It's part of healthy maturing to keep what we value from our upbringing and work to change what we feel is no longer helpful." I went on to comment "Be cautious though about over-glibly classifying oneself or others on these scales. Yes, we do tend to fall into particular styles in our close relationships. However it is clear that our styles are "dimensional" and nuanced not just blunt, general "categories". So, for example, I might typically have a secure attachment style with my partner, but I could at times slide into a temporary dismissive style (and noting this tendency might be very helpful). Our close relationship style can also evolve over time - to become more secure or less secure - depending on the relationship experiences we encounter (and co-create) in our lives. Attachment style also varies between our different close relationships (Klohnen, Weller et al. 2005). Assessing attachment can be very helpful, but be aware that styles are mixed, variable and individualised."
Mostly, when I'm in situations where I feel a bit threatened, I'm pretty good at getting help and support if I need it. Sometimes though I suspect I become a bit dismissive/avoidant and can unnecessarily just "go it on my own". I may find myself "puffing up". It's what I sometimes call the "Aren't I a fine fellow" syndrome. Don't get me wrong, this isn't as overt as "Would you like to admire my expensive car and trophy wife" syndrome, but is has a similar - if more subtle - smell to it. I don't like it. I cringe a bit when I find myself doing it. With me it typically emerges as "boasting" about interesting things I've done or experiences I've had. A helpful lens to view this pattern through is "avoidant attachment". In their chapter in the recent book "Handbook of self-enhancement & self-protection" , Shaver & Mikulincer write "Attachment theory ... tries to make sense of human beings' self-enhancement and self-protection at both the physical and the psychological levels. In the present chapter ...we begin with a brief summary of the theory and an account of the two major individual-difference dimensions it highlights, attachment anxiety and avoidance. We then explain how the theory and some of the research it has inspired illuminates self-protective and self-enhancing processes, including potentially destructive defensive processes. We show how avoidant individuals' attempts at self-enhancement are motivated by a wish to view themselves as self-reliant and as not needing to rely on others to help them cope with life's demands. Finally, we consider attachment security and secure attachment relationships as alternative, more authentic, less defensive routes to self-protection and self-worth." (Free full text copies of many of Professor Phil Shaver's publications are downloadable from his University of California website).
It's probably worth remembering here that Shaver & Mikulincer distinguish a number of "internalised behavioural programmes". I've written about this in the past - see "Behavioural systems: attachment (care seeking), care giving, exploration, sex, & power". I've pointed out that each of these systems is activated by appropriate external (or internal) circumstances. It's a bit like using different computer software programmes depending on the specific task one is facing - for example word processing, slide preparation, database management, and so on. In a similar way, the care seeking attachment system is activated by threats to safety, the care giving system comes on line when one is drawn to provide support and encouragement, the exploration system acts to learn about external and internal experiences, the sexual system is orientated to promote sexual activity with a desirable other, and the power system competes for and protects valued resources. So (in this model) "puffing up" & boasting isn't necessarily always a self-enhancing avoidant attachment response - it could also, for example, be triggered by sexual competition or a need to activate power to protect crucial rights & resources.
Although these behavioural systems are genetic and already present at birth, they are also sensitive to learning experiences (of success or failure). We're born with these various behavioural system programmes pre-installed. The environments in which we grow up, our relationships with primary caregivers, subsequent key relationships, and other important situations we encounter then lead to these basic programmes being adapted and individualised. When a behavioural system's standard primary strategy for attaining the system's goal (care seeking, care giving, exploration, sex or power) is repeatedly successful, an individual becomes confident about their ability to respond to the relevant challenges, and confident about other people's or the environment's responses. So for the attachment (care seeking) system, this successful, so-called, "secure-base script" runs something like "If I come across difficulties, I can seek comfort and support from significant others, this will be provided, I'll feel better and be able to go back to other activities soothed and confident." Sadly many people will experience key attachment relationships (parents, close friends, marriage partners, etc) where this primary attachment strategy is repeatedly unsuccessful in eliciting understanding, care and encouragement. They then develop internal working-models of self and others that are much less confident or trusting. They will increasingly be likely to develop so-called secondary strategies involving hyperactivation (fight) or hypoactivation (flight) of the basic programme. With the care seeking attachment system, hyperactivation leads to unproductive worry, vigilance to signs of rejection, and excessive demands (anxiously attached), while hypoactivation involves strong emotional inhibition, self-reliance and emotional distancing (avoidantly attached).
Mikulincer & Shaver propose that all five of the behavioural systems they have studied have primary strategies for attaining their key goals of security, safety provision, exploration, sexual activity, and power. They further propose that when these primary strategies have been repeatedly thwarted during an individual's early development and subsequent life experience, then there is a tendency to switch to secondary strategies. Again for all five systems these secondary strategies are likely to involve either hyperactivation (intensify the system's primary strategy) or hypoactivation (suppress or down-regulate the primary strategy). The authors have developed and tested assessment questionnaires for all five behavioural systems and are continuing their expanding research programme. It's fascinating to consider the relevance of these ideas to so many areas - for example, burnout/compassion fatigue, overintrusive caring, agoraphobia/phobic avoidance, procrastination/perfectionism, sex addiction/promiscuity, hypoactive sexual desire, lack of assertiveness, and bullying/domestic violence/aggression. As has been said about basic attachment theory, these ideas don't dictate therapy, but they can certainly usefully inform therapy.
See the linked blog post "Behavioural systems (attachment, care giving, exploration, sex & power): using imagery & compassion to fine tune them" for more on this area.