Attachment and Peer and Romantic Relationship Functioning: The Role of Social Information Processing

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Perhaps the most central tenet of attachment theory is that individual differences in attachment quality relate to social functioning (Bowlby, 1969/82, 1973, 1980). Indeed, abundant research demonstrates that early insecurity toward caregivers relates to poor functioning in later peer and romantic relationships (Englund et al., 2011; McElwain et al., 2008), and individuals’ attachment orientations relate to their concurrent functioning with peers and romantic partners (Collins et al, 2006; Groh et al., 2014). For decades, researchers have been trying to understand why these connections exist. The aim of this dissertation is to help answer this question with a collection of three empirical studies testing social information processing (SIP) as a mechanism through which attachment predicts individual differences in social functioning. The present studies focus on two critical components of SIP—expectations and attributions. Study 1 (N = 2100) examined the indirect effects of adolescents’ attachment style dimensions on their acceptance by peers—assessed with sociometric peer ratings—through negative expectations of peers’ behaviors. Findings revealed that adolescents with greater attachment anxiety (fears of rejection and abandonment) and avoidance (discomfort with closeness) held negative expectations for how their peers would behave, and negative expectations in turn related to low acceptance by peers. Study 2 (N = 347) examined the role of attribution biases and friendship quality on pathways from early attachment to young adolescent romantic relationship quality. Longitudinal latent variable structural equation modeling analyses did not yield evidence for attribution biases or friendship quality as mediators on such pathways. Further, no direct links between early attachment to mothers and romantic relationship quality emerged. Findings did, however, show relations between early attachment to mothers and negative attribution biases about peers, as well as between friendship quality and romantic relationship quality. Study 3 (N = 198) examined a causal link between young adults’ attachment and attribution biases using an experimental priming procedure. Security priming—temporarily boosting feelings of security—led participants to make fewer negative attributions about hypothetical romantic partners’ transgressions. Participants with fewer negative attributions, in turn, reported that they would respond less negatively to the transgressions. Findings across the three studies provide support for SIP as a mechanism through which some conceptualizations of attachment (i.e., attachment style dimensions and temporary feelings of security) relate to social functioning, but findings do not support the theory that SIP explains longitudinal links between early attachment and later social functioning.