Uncovering and Overcoming Ambivalence: The Role of Chronic and Contextually Activated Attachment in Two-Person Social Dilemmas


  • We thank Isabelle Ares and Victoria Timmermanis for assistance with data collection, Niall Bolger and Gertraud Stadler for assistance with analyses, and Phil Shaver for providing us with his then in-press manuscript.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to M. Joy McClure, Department of Psychology, Columbia University, 406 Schermerhorn Hall, 1190 Amsterdam Avenue, MC 5501, New York, NY 10027. Email: mjm2251@columbia.edu.



Humans face an enduring conflict between desires to affiliate with others but to protect the self; effective social functioning often requires reconciling the resulting ambivalence between these motives. Attachment anxiety is characterized by chronically heightened concerns about affiliation and self-protection; we investigated how anxious individuals’ chronic relational ambivalence affects interpersonal behavior.


We used the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Assurance Game to examine how the ambivalence associated with attachment anxiety affects pro-social behavior, comparing chronic attachment anxiety with both chronic (Study 1; N = 94) and contextually activated (Study 2; N = 56) security.


Chronic attachment anxiety was associated with ambivalent behavior in the social dilemma games. Specifically, the chronically anxious were mistrustfully inconsistent in their strategic choices and took more time to make these choices. However, priming the chronically anxious with attachment security decreased ambivalence by promoting more fluent cooperative behavior.


To our knowledge, these are the first studies to examine the effect of the anxiously attached's chronic relational ambivalence on pro-social behavior. These findings illustrate that the simultaneous activation of affiliation and self-protection can have interpersonal consequences, increasing mistrust and hesitance. Importantly, however, we were able to attenuate these effects by priming felt security.