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Was Barack Obama “Avoidant” in His Youth?

A newly released biography of Barack Obama by David Maraniss has drawn attention (see coverage here and here) to the president’s past. There’s nothing necessarily scandalous in the book, but it does focus on the relationships Obama had before he met Michelle. As a relationship scientist, this is a really cool (and rare) glimpse into Obama’s romantic life through the stories of young women who shared intimate moments with him.

Genevieve Cook, one of Obama’s exes, wrote in her diary about their romance, describing his persona with words like “distance,” “coolness,” and “wariness.” She described him as someone hiding behind a metaphorical veil, and with a good “poker face,” possibly masking some “ancient pools of emotional trauma.” She also wrote, “Despite Barack’s having talked of drawing a circle around the tender in him—protecting the ability to feel innocence and springborn—I think he also fights against showing it to others, to me.”

Based on this recount, it would seem that Mr. Obama was reluctant to be open with his true feelings and that he generally resisted intimacy. Reluctance to disclose inner thoughts and feelings, remaining guarded, and having desire for personal control are all signs of avoidant attachment.1, 2 Research shows that in adolescence and young adulthood, avoidant individuals do not connect as deeply (they have less intimacy and emotional closeness) with friends and romantic partners as secure individuals do, and this lack of connection largely results from less self-disclosure. 3

You might be wondering, so what? Does insecure attachment really have any relevance for American politics or government? Actually, yes, it does. In a study co-authored by pioneering attachment researchers Mario Mikulincer and Phil Shaver, they found that in small-group settings (e.g., the workplace environment), avoidant attachment was associated with a “self-reliant” leadership style (a reluctance to rely on others for help/support and desire for less collaborative, more independent work). Avoidance was also associated with fewer pro-social or altruistic motives for wanting to be in leadership positions. In other words, secure people are motivated to be leaders because they want to help others, while avoidant people are more likely to seek leadership positions in order to enhance their own status or power. Another study showed that in military units, soldiers reported less confidence in their commanding officers to lead their groups and also reported less group cohesion when their officers were more avoidant. Given that secure attachment is associated with greater empathy/compassion toward others, greater willingness to rely on others for assistance, and more constructive, collaborative work in groups, researchers concluded that having a secure attachment style goes hand in hand with more optimal leadership outcomes. 4

Now, before we question the president’s leadership capabilities, we must also include the caveat that we do not have any direct information on Obama’s current “state of mind,” and most likely never will (unless he is willing to take the Adult Attachment Interview5). At best we can say that according to those who knew Obama in his youth, he displayed some tendencies that attachment theorists would call “avoidant.” It’s also important to note an alternative explanation—perhaps Genevieve Cook was more anxiously attached (meaning she desired an extreme amount of closeness and scared her partners away, which anxious individuals tend to do).

In addition, it isn’t necessarily clear that Obama favors a top-down, “self-reliant” leadership style. As David Brooks (a conservative writer) noted here, his leadership style is geared towards collaborating in groups (Brooks called Obama the “Convener in Chief”), delegating responsibility to those he trusts, and relying on others to get things done.

Given that attachment styles do have the potential to change over time,7 it is also possible that even if Obama was truly more avoidant as a young adult, Michelle may have been able to provide a “secure base” from which Barack was able to develop a more secure style over the years. Obama certainly displayed some evidence for secure attachment during his 2008 acceptance speech when he openly described Michelle in terms of deep love and constant support. “And I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last 16 years...the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady...Michelle Obama.”

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1Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., & Vallone, R. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.

2Mikulincer, M., & Nachshon, O. (1991). Attachment styles and patterns of self-disclosure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 321–331.

3Bauminger, N., Finzi-Dottan, R., Chason, S., & Har-Even, D. (2008). Intimacy in adolescent friendship: The roles of attachment, coherence, and self-disclosure. Journal of Social And Personal Relationships, 25(3), 409-428.

4Davidovitz, R., Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Izsak, R., & Popper, M. (2007). Leaders as attachment figures: Leaders' attachment orientations predict leadership-related mental representations and followers' performance and mental health. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 93(4), 632-650.

5Crowell, J.A. & Treboux, D. (1995). A review of adult attachment measures: Implications for theory and research. Social Development, 4, 294-327.

6Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.

7Davila, J., & Cobb, R. (2004). Predictors of change in attachment security during adulthood. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Adult attachment: New directions and emerging issues (pp. 133-156). NY: Guilford.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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