Anxious Attachment and Relationships: What a Robot Can Teach Us
Earlier last week I posted a link to a very interesting article entitled Robot Programmed to Fall in Love with a Girl Goes too Far. The article discusses the research conducted at Toshiba’s Akimu Robotic Research Institute where they programmed a robot to respond to emotional stimuli and thought that they programmed him to love.
While the researchers were thrilled when Kenji was able to “love” a stuffed doll, I argue that Kenji may have actually been feeling anxiety and concern over the loss of his love object. Kenji’s obsessive behavior is actually an excellent example of a very anxious attachment.
What is anxious attachment?
Attachment is a theoretical concept developed by John Bowlby in the 1950s and expanded by Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s. It represents the biological need that all humans have for emotional safety and security. Bowlby and Ainsworth’s research documented the behavioral and emotional signs of what happened when children were separated from their primary caregivers. Generally, these children were categorized as secure or insecure.
One type of insecure attachment is the anxious type. We now know that as adults the primary characteristic of an anxious attachment is a fear and worry that ones partner does not want to be as close to him or her as one would like. To protect against the fear of abandonment, the person with an anxious attachment style acts in a way to prevent abandonment and craves constant emotional support, reassurance and closeness. The behaviors (often coined as needy and are easily misunderstood) are considered “activating strategies” and are attempts to bring his or her partner closer.
Except that does not always happen especially in cases of extreme possessiveness.
Kenji’s insistence on asking where his doll was rather than being able to relax when it was out of sight is one example of an activating attachment strategy. It is actually similar to constantly texting your partner to find out what he or she is up to rather than trusting that he or she will contact you when they are available.
Kenji’s behavior became more and more possessive over time. Clearly blocking the intern’s exit and hugging her over and over again and not allowing her to leave is an extreme behavior that is also indicative of his anxiety, fear of abandonment, and overall insecurity. Possessiveness is not love but a behavioral expression of insecurity and fear.
What working with Kenji could teach us about increasing security
We know that adults are able to move from an anxious attachment to a secure attachment when they have healthy relationship experiences. Working with Kenji on feeling secure while the objects of his affection are out of sight would be a fascinating experiment and would demonstrate the power that positive and healthy experiences have on the development of relationships as well as demonstrate the complexity and flexibility that characterizes the human experience.
What is required to become more secure?
Securely attached individuals are able to focus on the needs of his or her partner rather than worrying about fulfilling one’s own needs. Do you think robots like Kenji will ever be able to learn to adjust his behavior to meet the needs of others?