A new study suggests that people’s attachment style, which is a measure of how secure they feel in close relationships, is closely linked to how they perceive and manage social networks such as Facebook.

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Researchers have shown that the way in which a person connects with others on Facebook can be a measure of how they perceive personal relationships.

“The findings show you can predict the structure of people’s social networks and the way people manage their networks from their personality,” says study leader Omri Gillath, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

He and his colleagues – including Gery Karantzas of Deakin University in Australia and Emre Selcuk of Middle East Technical University in Turkey – report their work in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

There is a lot of research on attachment style – that is, the extent of avoidance or anxiety that people feel in their close relationships – in parent-child and romantic relationships.

Prof. Gillath, who researches close relationships and the mechanisms involved, explains that attachment theory seeks to explain how people form bonds with others.

“Attachment style is basically a relationship style,” he adds. “It’s the way we think, feel, and behave in our close relationships.”

The theory maintains that the less avoidant and less anxious that people are, the more secure they feel in their close relationships.

However, he and his colleagues wanted to widen the field and apply attachment style to the study of social networks.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to find out if, in the context of a social network, attachment style might “reflect the extent to which people feel comfortable depending on others (attachment avoidance) and the extent to which they worry about being abandoned (attachment anxiety).”

The team chose to explore two features of social networking: tie strength and multiplexity. Tie strength is a measure of how close the network owner feels to the other people in their network and how often they interact with them.

Multiplexity reflects the complexity, or layers, of relationships in a network in terms of the number of different roles played by the same people. For example, you may have a “friend” on Facebook who is a work colleague as well as someone you play tennis with.

Thus, the higher the tie strength and multiplexity, the more one benefits from one’s network, Prof. Gillath explains.

He says that multiplexity also has another feature that concerns the “function” of the role. For example, this can be “instrumental or emotional help, or informational function,” he adds.

In their paper, he and his colleagues describe four separate investigations wherein they investigated the link between attachment style and the tie strength and multiplexity of people’s friendship networks on Facebook.

The investigations involved between 80 and 132 undergraduate students aged 18 to 26, all of whom were attending a Midwest university in the United States.

Overall, the results show that people with lower attachment security stood to gain less from their social networks.

“We found people high on attachment anxiety or avoidance had weaker tie strength,” Prof. Gillath notes. “Further, people high on avoidance reported lower multiplexity.”

The team also found that people high on avoidance were less likely to start and look after network ties and were more likely to dissolve them.

They were surprised to find that more anxious people were likelier to report dissolving ties than people who were not anxious. They were expecting that people high on anxiety, because they worry about being rejected or abandoned, to be less likely to dissolve ties.

Because they asked the participants detailed questions about their Facebook relationships, the researchers were able to discover more about what was going on than could be discovered from just looking at what was happening on Facebook pages.

For example, they discovered that anxious people were not actively dissolving ties – instead, because of their high concern, they were causing others to break ties with them. In contrast, high avoidance people were breaking ties with others.

Another interesting finding was that the size of a network was linked to the quality of network ties. The more friends people had in their Facebook networks, the lower their tie strength and multiplexity.

The researchers also found that if they “primed” the participants’ attachment security, they were able to make them more likely to start new ties and less likely to dissolve them.

Prof. Gillath explains that there are several ways to increase attachment security. For example, you can ask people to “think about a relationship that made them feel secure or an event that made them feel loved or supported.” Another way is to expose them to certain words, such as “hug” and “love”.

“There are many things that can be bad about social networks, if you tend to search for hours on your exes and do Facebook lurking and are not involved in relational process – that can lead to jealousy and all kinds of negative emotions,” says Prof. Gillath.

However, if you’re using your social networks for fulfilling or serving your attachment needs – such as a secure base or safe haven – that’s likely to result in positive outcomes.”

Prof. Omri Gillath