People with so-called “avoidant” personalities, who fear intimacy, also tend to shun the kind of social situations that could lead them to forge meaningful relations with others, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.
That’s according to Lindsey Beck and Margaret Clark who conducted three studies testing participants’ preference for “diagnostic social situations” in which they’re likely to receive feedback regarding whether other people like them or not.
An initial study showed that participants who scored highly on avoidant attachment (associated with fear of intimacy and closeness to others), but not high scorers on anxious attachment (who fear rejection), tended to say they would prefer hypothetical situations that weren’t socially diagnostic – for example, they’d prefer to be allocated a partner in a language class, rather than be in a situation where the class arranged themselves into pairs. This aversion was specific to social diagnostic situations, with avoidant characters just as likely to opt for feedback on their hearing or pronunciation ability as other participants.
The pattern was replicated in a second study that involved a real-life choice between participants forming groups in class for a research project, or having the lecturer dictate the groups. In this case, highly avoidant participants tended to opt for the lecturer to select the groups.
A final study showed that it was possible to provoke aversion to socially diagnostic situations by priming participants to think about a person they felt uncomfortable being close to.
Beck and Clark said their findings provided a specific example of an under-explored area – that is, how personality can affect people’s lives by influencing the situations they place themselves in. “By sidestepping [socially diagnostic] situations … avoidant individuals may protect themselves from intimacy, loss of control, and early rejection, but they also forgo the joys and benefits of a reciprocal, trusting relationship,” the researchers said, “as well as the benefits that early negative signals can serve in limiting investments into relationships not worthy of such investments.”
Beck, L., & Clark, M. (2009). Choosing to Enter or Avoid Diagnostic Social Situations. Psychological Science, 20 (9), 1175-1181 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02420.x