Research Seminar: 21 February 2017

Using food to soothe
Attachment orientation and overeating

Several studies report a relationship between body mass index (BMI) and disinhibited eating (a failure to restrict intake and to overeat). However, the aetiology of disinhibited eating is not well understood. In a series of studies, we considered a role for ‘attachment orientation’, a trait that reflects the quality of bonding in early life and remains stable throughout adulthood. One possibility is that disinhibited eaters are seeking to mitigate the anxiety associated with poor interpersonal attachments. An initial questionnaire study showed that attachment anxiety was a good predictor of disinhibited eating. Furthermore, mediation analysis confirmed that through this relationship, attachment anxiety also predicts BMI. In a follow-up experimental study, we primed attachment orientation (security and anxiety) and showed that individuals consumed more cookies following an anxious prime compared to a secure prime. Finally, a study concerned with attachment orientation in a clinically obese population was conducted. Attachment anxiety was significantly higher in the clinical group compared to age and gender matched lean controls. In this talk, these findings and their implications will be discussed alongside proposed future work.


Dr. Laura Wilkinson
Swansea Nutrition, Appetite and Cognition (SNAC) Research Group
Department of Psychology, Swansea University

3.00 pm to 4.00 pm in 01 AC 03


My research focuses on the psycho-social determinants of eating behaviour. I am particularly interested in the relationship between attachment orientation (a measure of inter-personal functioning) and overeating as a form of affect regulation. I have previously shown that attachment anxiety (fear of abandonment) is a good predictor of body mass index through uncontrolled eating. I am pursuing several research questions related to this topic; Can attachment orientation account for why some people experience poor outcomes following weight-loss intervention (e.g., bariatric surgery)? Does the acute manipulation of attachment orientation affect real-world eating behaviour? Does the intergenerational transmission of attachment orientation interact with parental influences on children’s eating behaviour?

I previously worked and studied within the Nutrition and Behaviour Unit (NBU) at the University of Bristol, which is led by Prof. Jeff Brunstrom and Prof. Peter Rogers. Whilst at the NBU, I completed my PhD concerning cognitive factors affecting sensory specific satiety and the variety effect. In particular, my PhD work established that the anticipation of the effects of variety is a key feature of pre-meal portion-size selection. I also worked on projects focused on the influence of expected satiety and expected satiation on decisions about portion size.

Finally, I have a special interest in the complex relationship between domestic abuse and disordered eating. This research theme often intertwines with my work on attachment orientation and affect regulation. I have previously conducted research on domestic abuse when working with the national charity SafeLives.