Attachment Formation, Compassion and Generosity


Principal Investigator: Omri Gillath, Psychology, University of Kansas

Co-Investigators: Ruth Ann Atchley, Pyschology, University of Kansas and Mohamed El-Jodiri, Economics, University of Kansas

How does someone’s sense of attachment security affect his or her compassion and generosity? This project employs attachment theory to investigate whether or not attachment security is one of the bases of generous behavior.

According to some research attachment is a behavioral system that functions to guide behavior in times of stress. When threatened, people (starting in early childhood) are motivated to behave in a way that would increase their survivability (e.g., by getting closer to stronger/wiser others, such as primary care-givers). Over time, interactions with care-givers shapes a person’s sense of attachment security–the sense that one is worthy of being loved and that people will be there for him or her when needed.

Not all people, however, develop such a sense; those who have been neglected or rejected by care-givers may develop a sense of attachment insecurity. A great deal of research suggests that someone’s sense of attachment security affects their perception of others and their likelihood to behave in a pro-social way. Specifically, this research suggests that attachment security is positively associated with various pro-social values and behaviors (altruism, volunteering, forgiveness, gratitude), and that enhancement of the sense of attachment security can increase a person’s tendency to adhere to such values and behave more pro-socially.

This research will address two important questions:

  • Does attachment security enhance generosity?
  • What are the cognitive mechanisms (as reflected by behavioural and neurophysiological data) of generosity enhancement via attachment security?

Gillath and his research team will employ converging operations in order to examine the association between attachment and generosity. First, it will rely on behavioral data derived from a well-validated economics-based decision-making task to assess the tendency to be generous under various conditions (e.g., when feeling insecure versus secure). Additionally, it will employ electrophysiological methods to determine if shifts in attachment security modify event related brain potentials (ERPs) that are sensitive to economic gains and losses, and whether these ERPs are modified by reframing the losses as generous giving.

This innovative project will allow us to test a model of generosity and its enhancement and capture the complex dynamic interplay between attachment security and generosity. In doing so, this research will contribute to both research on generosity, which currently is not well studied, and on pro-sociality. The project’s findings should prove relevant to various areas within psychology (e.g., social, developmental, and personality psychology) and economics, but also to society in general. Promoting generosity will not only advance science, but will contribute to promoting equity, democracy, and social justice.