It’s been decades since John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed “attachment theory” to help explain infants’ distress when separated from their parents. The theory holds that infants strive for closeness with adults who can protect them in times of need, and they form a sense of security if these relationships prove reassuring to them.

Attachment theory has been used to predict many aspects of adult life, such as the ability to form and keep close relationships. Now psychologists Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver have made a link between attachment and one’s capacity for compassion and altruism.

© Jonathan Payne

Mikulincer and Shaver induced feelings of attachment security in laboratory studies—for example, by reminding people of an important, caring attachment figure in their lives—and tested whether people made to feel more secure were more likely than others to show compassion and altruism, regardless of the social attachments they formed earlier in life.

Repeatedly, they found that fostering even a temporary sense of attachment security led to compassionate behavior. For example, research participants who recalled a personal memory of supportive care were more willing to switch places with a person in distress.

Mikulincer and Shaver’s research suggests that our sense of security—and by extension, our capacity for altruism and compassion—can be enhanced later in life, rather than being rigidly fixed by our early childhood experiences. In their conclusion to a recent article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, they propose further investigation into the practical applications of their research—for instance, how certain experiences, such as family therapy and participating in religious or charitable organizations, might bolster a person’s sense of security and thereby foster compassion and altruism.

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