Does Being Anxious Make Us More Moral?

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One of the distinctive peculiarities of anxious people, observed by clinicians and documented in medical literature, is this: They fervently believe in the power of their own anxiety. 

The insomnia, the perseverating, the self-loathing, and the obsession with an uncertain future — the anxious justify these behaviors the way the superstitious rely on their use of lucky charms and amulets as protection against potentially devastating outcomes. (If I worry enough about it in advance, I won’t get fired/cancer/sent to the poorhouse.) Among other things, this makes the functionally anxious notoriously difficult to treat. They actually believe that their condition makes them superior to other people: more driven, more able to endure without sleep, more able to gauge the future, more efficient. “Without anxiety, little would be accomplished,” a psychiatrist told Scott Stossel in his 2013 book My Age of Anxiety.

Now the anxious have another reason to uphold the virtues of their ailment: People with anxious relationship patterns have greater "concern for harm, unfairness, and impurity,” reports a study published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science. They are, in other words, more moral in their thinking.

The new study focuses on people with attachment anxiety, which is the kind of anxiety that results from having been inconsistently cuddled and cared for as an infant and endures throughout life as a template for all intimate relationships. This may sound like watered-down Freud, but in fact, psychologists do believe it is one legitimate cause of enduring anxiety about intimate relationships. These are the people who, when they do find themselves with a romantic partner, are constantly “worried about being taken advantage of,” the kind who always ask, “Don’t you love me anymore?” explains the study’s lead author Spassena Koleva, a psychologist at USC, who cautions that links between moral concerns and moral behavior have not yet been established.

From a sample of about 8,000 people, the researchers sorted those with attachment anxiety from those with another disorder called attachment avoidance (people whose caregivers never picked them up or cuddled them), and from those with secure attachments. Then they asked respondents to answer questions designed to elicit a moral response. For example, is it okay to throw a sick person off a lifeboat to save the lives of the others within it?

Researchers already knew that people with attachment anxiety tend to possess an overabundance of empathy; they’re the kind of people who, Koleva says, feel hurt when they see a mother striking a child and who want to vomit at the sight of another person’s puke. They also knew that the anxious mindset — the constant ruminating over potential dangers — leads to a mental inflexibility, a preference for predictability over uncertainty. The question the researchers wanted to examine was this: Did this mental rigidity, mediated by empathy, give anxious people a more highly developed sense of morality? And the answer was yes.

Especially on moral questions related to fairness (like cheating) and avoidance of harm to others, anxious people expressed the most concern. In the study, those with anxious attachment styles were more likely than the other groups to say “yes” to “Ideally, everyone in society would end up with roughly the same amount of money,” and “no” to “A criminal should be made to suffer in the same way that his victim suffered.”

A recent wave of popular moral psychology (led by Jonathan Haidt) has focused on political differences — the ways in which the right and the left see the world through different moral lenses. This study could be the beginning of a different approach, Koleva says, a way of understanding human morality through the more intimate context of social relationships. Anxious people tend to be very sensitive; they’re hurt when they’re treated in a way that they regard as morally wrong, and they tend to be judgmental and uncompassionate toward what they see as other people’s immoral behavior. (They are especially disgusted by what the psychologists call physical impurity: grossed out by promiscuity, gluttony, and alcoholism, for example.) Anxious people are those who keep score in intimate relationships, and are constantly disappointed when their intimate partners fail to live up to their view of the way things should be. Their moralism leads, as a consequence, to “a lot of relationship dissatisfaction,” Koleva says. But that dissatisfaction might just be a laboratory for high standards out in the world.