Attachment security leads to prosocial sharing, but is anyone feeling secure right now?

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

Why is it that some individuals hoard their resources while others seem ready — eager even — to share whatever they can to support other’s success? They pitch in an extra $20 to help the Little League team meet its fundraising goal. They stay late to provide written feedback on a colleague’s draft. They race across the road with cables to jump a neighbor’s stalled car.

Is it possible that those among us who feel more certain of others ability and willingness to respond appropriately to our needs are also more likely to share resources with others? A research team at the University of Kansas, led by social psychologist Omri Gillath, recently published a series of studies exploring this question.

The researchers invited college students to play “the trust game” with a supposed stranger in another town or city (in reality, the stranger was just a computer program). Just prior to making resource sharing decisions within the game, participants received subliminal primes. These priming words flashed on the screen so quickly as to be imperceptible. Participants were randomly assigned to “see” priming words that were either neutral (like “lamp” and “ketchup”), security inducing (like “love” and “dependable”), or insecurity inducing (like “rejected” and “abandon”).

The results suggest that the very subtle primes designed to enhance attachment security actually caused people to share more of their monetary winnings with the stranger over the course of the game.

While the Gillath studies looked at one type of resource — money — one can’t help but wonder if the effect might hold for other types of resources, like our time, our supportive presence, or a helping hand. Indeed, research by Mario Mikulincer and colleagues affirms this conclusion: enhancing the sense of attachment security causes people to engage in more prosocial behavior.

When we feel more steady and secure, we’re more ready, willing, and able to help others. This is good news given our relationships, families, and communities benefit when we all pitch in and do good.

However, Gillath and colleagues point out, “people in dangerous environments with scarce resources tend to develop insecure attachment styles, whereas people in safe environments with plentiful resources are likely to develop a secure attachment style.”

Amid COVID and a slew of other challenges, many of us are feeling a bit — okay, a lot — unsettled. Uncertainties about the stability of work compound with ambiguities about school openings and stresses related to the health of our families, communities, and economies. It’s a lot. And it can trigger feelings of insecurity and resource scarcity.

Right now the world is stacked against many of us feeling sufficiently secure to be willing to share what we have with others — and this at precisely the time when so many of us could really use a boost.

How do we turn the tide to create a virtuous cycle enhancing attachment security and thus prosocial behavior? What steps could each of us take to bring more felt security to those around us?

What if we told our co-workers “I care about you” and “You can depend on me.” What if we signed off on emails to friends with “Sending you love and security.” What if, in our virtual offices and distance-learning classrooms, we offered a reliable, positive, and supportive presence amid the muck. And, most importantly, what if we enacted those values in small ways every day when interacting with our families, friends, and neighbors.

If subliminal primes can influence resource sharing, imagine what sustained positive and responsive relationships can do to nourish attachment security. And, if attachment security enables use to share what we have with others, we will make it through the uncertainty more connected and more whole.

Past Executive Director at Heterodox Academy and founder of Myco Consulting LLC. Consults & coaches on collaboration and community building in higher ed.

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