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Feelings Of Insecurity Prompt Fantasies Of Emotionless Sex And Aggression

A new set of studies reveals that the content of our sexual fantasies is influenced by feelings of relationship insecurity. In three experiments, college undergraduates were primed to feel attachment security or anxiety. To do this, participants thought about a past relationship in which they felt secure or anxious (Study 1), or they viewed a photo of a mother either gazing at her child (security) or turning her back on her child (anxiety; Studies 2 and 3). Afterward, participants were asked to report on one of their current sexual fantasies. The anxiety prime produced fantasies in which individuals viewed themselves as more distant from and hostile toward their partners compared to the fantasies described following the security prime. More specifically, the anxiety prime was linked to fantasies that involved sex without emotion or romance, as well as fantasies that involved themes of aggression. These findings suggest that when we feel insecure about our relationships, we subconsciously alter the content of our sexual fantasies as a way of protecting the self from further feelings of rejection.  In other words, when we are feeling insecure, we may use our fantasies to create a psychological barrier between ourselves and our partners in order to protect our self-esteem.

To learn more about the details of this study, check out this article on The Psychology of Human Sexuality.

Birnbaum, G. E., Simpson, J. A., Weisberg, Y. J., Barnea, E., & Assulin-Simhon, Z. (in press). Is it my overactive imagination? The effects of contextually activated attachment insecurity on sexual fantasies. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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Reader Comments (4)

I'm a little skeptical of the validity of an attachment prime. The attachment system in adults, theoretically, is an enduring internal working model of relationships shaped by early primary caregiver relationships. I'm not sure if a brief cognitive or visual prime really taps into this working model and momentarily changes it. How did they evaluate the effectiveness of the priming?

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Tan

Although people are guided by their global attachment orientations, which are largely based on attachment experiences encountered throughout life, they also develop beliefs and expectancies about specific relationships. These expectations can change over time and are sensitive to specific situations. For example, even people who are chronically secure can temporarily feel insecure if they recall a past event that made them feel highly anxious or avoidant. Thus, people have multiple attachment models that may uniquely predict interpersonal perceptions and interactions when they are activated (e.g., Creasey & Ladd, 2005; Simpson & Rholes, 2002).

In the present studies, we used well-validated social-cognition research techniques to activate a person’s sense of attachment insecurity (e.g., Baldwin et al., 1996; Bartz & Lydon, 2004). We did not include an explicit manipulation check in Study 1, because we were concerned that the manipulation check would arouse suspicion about the purpose of the study.

Instead, we ran a manipulation check on a separate sample of participants. We asked these participants to visualize either a secure or an anxious attachment relationship. Then, instead of describing a sexual fantasy, they completed a manipulation check question, in which they were asked to rate the extent to which they worried about being abandoned in the episode they described along a 7-point scale (0 = not at all, 7 = very much). We found that abandonment fears were higher in the anxious prime condition (M = 5.44, SD = 1.25) than in the secure prime condition (M = 1.69, SD = 1.16), t(60) = 12.24, p <.001.

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGurit Birnbaum

Thanks for taking the time to respond, Dr. Birnbaum.

The point about specific situations makes sense to me, and I find the findings interesting. The themes in the fantasies line up well with characteristics of the dismissive/avoidant attachment style.

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Tan

I do think there's a connection between insecurity and more emotionless sex, I find that when I'm having critical thoughts toward myself in the sexual situation it makes it harder for me to be present and close to my partner.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica
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