According to a new study, people with anxious attachment styles are more likely to prefer sad songs such as Adele’s Someone Like You
A new study, published in the journal Personal Relationships, found that the lyrics of people’s favourite songs tend to correspond with their attachment styles. I could have saved them the hassle and shown them my Spotify Wrapped from 2018, the year I was unceremoniously dumped by my ex (thank u, next by Ariana Grande was my most-played song of the entire year – despite coming out in November) – but whatever.
For the study, researchers at the University of Toronto asked 570 people to name about a dozen of their favourite tracks and then examined the lyrics of each song for key sentiments and emotions. After analysing over 7,000 songs, they discovered that a person’s favourite tunes not only mirror their thoughts and feelings, but can also reveal a person’s attachment style.
“I’m interested in the role music plays in people’s lives. Since humans started making music tens of thousands of years ago, songs across cultures have always focused on relationships — getting into one, maintaining one or breaking up — so I wondered, do people listen to music that mirrors their experiences in relationships?” says Dr Ravin Alaei, the study’s lead author.
For the unenlightened, attachment theory was first developed by British psychologist John Bowlby. It suggests that the bonds people form in their early childhood years impact how they build other relationships later on in life, and that as a result it’s possible to predict patterns in the way people navigate their adult relationships. There are four possible ‘attachment styles’: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant.
Secure is, obviously, the best attachment style – it means you’re healthy, trusting, and comfortable in your relationships. Someone who has an anxious attachment style, meanwhile, might constantly check when their partner was last online on WhatsApp and panic if their missed call isn’t returned within ten minutes. If you’re avoidant, you’ll go the other way and struggle to be emotionally vulnerable with your partner at all, accusing them of being ‘needy’ for wanting to talk to you about their bad day at work. And if you’re really fucked-up, you can be anxious-avoidant, which is a bit of both (according to an online quiz I just did, I fall into this category, which is great news).
According to the Toronto study, people with secure attachment styles favoured cheerful songs like I Got You Babe by Sonny & Cher (“Then put your little hand in mine/There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb”), which Alaei describes as “pretty much a manual on how to be securely attached”. Anxiously attached people opted for more mournful songs like Adele’s Someone Like You (“Guess she gave you things I didn't give to you”), while avoidants loved TLC’s No Scrubs (“No, I don't want your number”). Anxious-avoidants, meanwhile, expressed a preference for Rihanna and Drake’s Work (“work work work work work work”).
“Lyrics matter, so pay attention to them,” Alaei says. “The lyrics of your favourite songs about relationships may help validate your thoughts and feelings, but may also reveal things about your experiences of relationships that you might not have realised — something that you’re going through repeatedly, that you keep coming up against.” BOTA (Baddest of Them All) is one of my favourite songs from this past year, so my main takeaway from this is that I really am the baddest of them all.
Alaei has some further advice. “As an anxious person, you should recognise that you’re vulnerable to a negative feedback loop and your emotions snowballing. Music can be a very powerful exacerbator of that.” So listening to Olivia Rodrigo wail “I'm so sick of myself/I'd rather be, rather be/Anyone, anyone else” might not be doing wonders for my self-esteem after all? Quel surprise!
But surely it’s OK – helpful, even – to listen to a song that chimes with your mood? Sure, it’s a bit self-indulgent, but isn’t that one of the functions of art – to remind us that we’re not alone in our suffering? “Listen to the song a few times to help you process what you’re going through and express your thoughts and feelings. You can decide whether listening to songs that reflect your experiences back at you is either helping you or reinforcing destructive behaviours for yourself,” Alaei says. But – he adds – “at some point, you may find it more productive to listen to music that provides a sense of security.”