Can our childhood attachment determine our social intelligence?

Attachment styles are widely talked about in psychology these days. The term refers to the social-behavioural impact of our early relationships with our key caregivers. According to the theory of Bowlby (1991), those of us who experienced a warm and stable relationship with our primary caregivers have ‘secure ‘attachment. This means feeling a strong and secure sense of self and a trust and openness towards others. Those with ‘anxious-ambivalent’ attachment, are overly concerned with the other and can come across as needy. And those with ‘avoidant’ attachment deal with their distrust of others by avoiding intimacy.

Attachment affects how a person develops and their mental wellbeing, over the course of their life. Researchers have investigated how attachment styles affect our current relationships. A study published in the International Journal of Psychological Studies (Vol. 8, No.4) looks at whether attachment affects our social intelligence.

What do we mean by social intelligence? It can refer to social sensitivity, social foresight, social skills, social competence, social effectiveness, sympathy, emotional skills, social anxiety, social adjustment, the ability to interact with others and emotional intelligence. These are evidently all very important skills to thrive socially and professionally. The researchers of the current study assert that social intelligence is necessary for ‘social adjustment and success in social life’. They go on to say that people with secure attachment are more open to new learning. Individuals with insecure attachment tend to have poor social skills and are distrustful of others which leads to a lower sense of self-efficacy.

Since there is no universally approved definition nor one scale that is used to measure social intelligence, the findings of the research study are limited to the researchers’ definition which included 42 questions on social knowledge, social effectiveness and social competence. 404 female students participated at Riyadh university in Saudi Arabia. Their attachment styles were measured using the Adult Attachment Scale.The questions the research tried to answer were 1) Which attachment styles are prevalent at the university and 2) is there a link between attachment style and social intelligence?

The results showed that most of the students had secure attachment. A positive relationship was found between secure attachment and social knowledge, competence and intelligence. A statistically negative relationship was found between insecure attachment, social competence and total social intelligence. A statistically negative relationship was also found between avoidant attachment and social knowledge. However, there was no significant relationship between avoidant attachment style and social intelligence. Therefore secure and anxious-ambivalent attachment styles do affect social intelligence whereas avoidant attachment styles do not.Going by this research, it seems that those with anxious attachment styles (estimated at approximately 30% of the population by Ainsworth et al 1978) are the worst off. They are the most likely to be plagued with issues of low self-efficacy, which is the self-confidence to take the initiative in social communication and to establish new friendships. However, the study points out that the results differ from other findings where no link was found between anxious attachment and social skills.


It can be argued that the research is limited as it defines only three types of attachment. These categories do not always accurately describe an individual’s pattern which might be a mixture of more than one. There has also been critique of using the Adult Attachment Scale which consists of questions answered only by the participant, as it is questionable how well we truly see ourselves. Other studies use interviews and reaction time tasks to gage attachment styles. We also need to bear in mind that the participants of the study were exclusively women in a country which has a fundamentalist Islamic tradition. Would the results be the same in a mixed college in the States?


Nevertheless, the research makes some recommendations that are worth considering on a wider level such as taking into the account the needs of those with insecure attachment when designing educational programmes.