To strive to have strong attachment bonds is a core component of human functioning. Rejection thwarts this motivation and a large body of work has shown normative differences between rejected and non-rejected people on a variety of cognitive, emotional and behavioral outcomes. Yet people differ considerably in how they experience and regulate their relationships, making it possible to investigate the role of different types of attachment styles within the same individuals. Whereas some people crave acceptance and are vigilant to signs of potential rejection (i.e. anxious attachment), others are less comfortable getting close to others and use avoidant strategies to regulate their attachment bonds (i.e. avoidant attachment). These differences in attachment style may have direct consequences for neural responses to social rejection. Specifically, anxious attachment may relate to heightened neural responses to social rejection in regions previously associated with social rejection, whereas avoidant attachment people may relate to less activation in these regions.
The current study provided consistent evidence in support of these hypotheses. Anxious attachment was associated with heightened activation in both the dACC and the anterior insula, which are brain regions associated with responses to social rejection (Eisenberger et al., 2003
; DeWall et al., 2010a
). In contrast, avoidant attachment was associated with dampened neural activation in the dACC and anterior insula. Thus, reactions to social rejection depended in part on individual differences in anxious and avoidant attachment.
The findings dovetail nicely with previous behavioral and neuroimaging findings indicating that anxious attachment is related to greater negative responses to imagined social rejection and interpersonal conflict (Campbell et al., 2005
; Gillath et al., 2005
; Vrticka et al., 2008
; Besser and Priel, 2009
). The current work offers a novel extension to this prior work by demonstrating that anxious attachment has theoretically relevant implications for neural responses to experiencing social rejection. Moreover, the findings support prior research showing that avoidant attachment is associated with the deactivation of attachment-relevant information and experiences, thereby enabling people with heightened avoidant concerns to maintain a safe distance from others (Fraley et al., 2000
; Fraley and Brumbaugh, 2007
). Through this process, people scoring relatively high on avoidant attachment may be emotionally shielded from socially upsetting events and display less activity in neural regions linked to social rejection as a result. More broadly, the current findings highlight the utility of examining the close interplay between mental representations of attachment bonds and physiological reactions to situations that threaten social connection with others.
As noted earlier, our findings relate to recent research that has investigated the role of individual differences in anxious and avoidant attachment on neural responses to social support or negative feedback, particularly that of Vrticka et al. (2008)
. In that study, participants completed a measure of attachment style and then viewed smiling or angry faces, paired with positive or negative feedback on their task performance. Anxious attachment correlated positively with activation in the left amygdala—another region known to be involved in processing social threat (Davis and Whalen, 2001
)—in response to angry faces paired with negative feedback, which converges with our findings that activation in other limbic regions (dACC, anterior insula) to social rejection was heightened among participants scoring high on anxious attachment. In contrast, the Vrticka et al
. study showed that avoidant attachment correlated negatively with activation in the striatum and ventral tegmental area in response to positive feedback, whereas our study showed no such activations in response to social inclusion (vs
social rejection). This divergence between the Vrticka et al
. findings and our results may be due to the fact that the current task focused specifically on social rejection instead of rewarding social interaction. Although the current task involved a social inclusion condition, participants were told that they would be playing a game with two other people and therefore may have not interpreted their inclusion experience as intrinsically positive. Indeed, the creator of the current task has argued that the social inclusion condition can be considered a neutral control condition because it is neither threatening nor rewarding (Williams, 2008
). Future research may include manipulations that combine social inclusion with and without indicators of rewarding social interaction (i.e. smiling faces) to directly examine how they differentially influence neural responses according to a person’s levels of avoidant attachment.
In addition to this evidence indicating that attachment styles moderate neural responses to social rejection, the current findings also demonstrated that anxious attachment was associated with greater activation in the VLPFC during social rejection compared to social inclusion. Typically, VLPFC activity is associated with distress regulation during social exclusion, and reduced activity in pain/affective regions (Eisenberger et al., 2003
). This heightened VLPFC activity, coupled with heightened distress activity, may be indicative of inefficient emotion regulation processes. In other words, people scoring high on anxious attachment engage regions that typically aid in regulation, but they do not display the expected reductions in dACC activity. Future studies will continue to elucidate the role that prefrontal brain structures play in processing social threats among people who vary in their level of attachment-related anxiety and avoidance.