Anxiety at Its Best

by Karen Salas, Kenyon ’17

We’ve all told a lie at some point in our lives, and if you disagree, then you are probably lying. Odds are you’ve also encountered a person who is uncannily good at spotting lies. Could there be something rooted in a person’s personality that allows them to detect deceit far more easily than others? According to researchers Tsachi Ein-Dor and Adi Perry, this may actually be the case. The findings from their recent study suggest that anxiously attached people tend to be better skilled at detecting lies.

Let’s consider the psychological condition known as attachment anxiety. Anxiously attached people tend to have a fear of abandonment, rejection, and/or separation in their personal relationships. Much like a frightened child that seeks the comfort of its mother, people who are high in attachment anxiety will constantly seek comfort and reassurance from a significant other in the face of a threat. Those who score high in attachment anxiety will typically agree with statements like “My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away” and “I worry about being abandoned.” In other words, they are “the clingy friend.”

It’s not all bad news, though. Past research has indicated that attachment anxiety may be related to a higher sensitivity to potential threats. This is because individuals high in attachment anxiety are typically more perceptive and receptive to changes in their environment and other people’s behaviors.

So what does this have to do with lying?

As it turns out, anxiously attached people may not be the best liars out there, but they may be the best at detecting dishonesty, according to the research conducted by Ein-Dor and Perry. In the first two studies, over 200 participants were asked to complete self-report questionnaires to assess their attachment orientation, state anxiety (how anxious they were at the moment), and trait anxiety (how anxious they are in general). Participants were then asked to watch various video clips that portrayed honest and dishonest interactions between two characters before deciding which of the interactions were deceitful. Study 1 included external cues in each video clip that were potentially contradictory as a way to test the participants’ detection abilities. Study 2 included measurements of each participant’s rate and accuracy in deceit detection. The results of the two studies showed that there was positive relationship between attachment anxiety and lie detection ability; overall, state anxiety or trait anxiety did not appear to have an effect on one’s ability to detect deceit.

The researchers then took their findings a step further in Study 3 by examining whether accuracy in deceit detection for people high in attachment anxiety could be translated into some kind of social advantage. What better way to test a person’s ability to detect lies than through a friendly game of poker? Given their prior findings, researchers predicted that anxiously attached people would be more successful at the popular card game, which involves a lot of “bluffing” and concealment. In other word, how good would anxiously-attached people be at seeing through someone else’s “poker face?”

To test this hypothesis, 35 semiprofessional poker players were asked to complete self-report measures that assessed attachment orientation and social anxiety before being invited to compete at a small poker tournament. The independent variable was each player’s level of attachment anxiety, and the dependent variable was the amount of money won per round. The findings of Study 3 agreed with the previous two studies in that there was a positive relationship between the two variables; level of attachment anxiety was a good predictor for the amount of money won. In fact, each point increase for attachment anxiety was related to an average increase of 448 poker chips.

There are, of course, limitations to Ein-Dor and Perry’s work. First, there was not much variability in the samples of each study. All of the participants in Study 1 were Israeli, and the participants of Study 2 were part of a convenience sample of university students. Gender was also an issue as there were nearly three times as more females than men in Study 1, whereas the participants of Study 3 were almost entirely men. Overall, the research does make some interesting contributions to the field of personality psychology as it attempts to find advantages to socially undesirable traits like attachment anxiety. So, what does this all mean? Perhaps if you find yourself frequently being called the “clingy friend,” then maybe you should try your hand at poker.

References

Ein-Dor, T., & Perry, A. (2014). Full house of fears: Evidence that people high in attachment anxiety are more accurate in detecting deceit. Journal of Personality, 82, 83–92. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12035

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