Researchers are increasingly coming to understand that social connection is woven deeply into the fabric of the human experience. There is good reason to believe that our ancestors, both human and non-human, successfully navigated the evolutionary challenges of both survival and sexual selection in large part because of their ability to manage social connections (Gere & MacDonald, 2010; Leary & Baumeister, 1995).
Much of my research has centered around attachment theory, which I consider to be the most powerful and deep way of understanding the forces that drive social connection and emotional experience. My students and I have focused on the tendency of avoidantly attached individuals to feel unrewarded by social connection (Gere, MacDonald, Joel, Spielmann, & Impett, 2013). We argue that this strategy allows them to withdraw from social interaction without acknowledging that they are afraid (Spielmann, Maxwell, MacDonald, & Baratta, 2013). We have also examined anxiously attached individuals, focusing on their experience of ambivalence in close relationships (Joel, MacDonald, & Shimotomai, 2011; MacDonald, Locke, Spielmann, & Joel, 2013). More recently, Stephanie Spielmann pioneered the investigation of a previously unstudied form of insecurity, the fear of being single (Spielmann, MacDonald, Maxwell, Joel, Peragine, Muise, & Impett, 2013). Rather than the fear of being hurt in a relationship, this work focuses on the fear of pain from not being a relationship.
An emerging research interest in my lab is sexuality. Although we have yet to publish on this subject, my Ph.D. student Jessica Maxwell is working on projects designed to investigate whether beliefs about how much work it takes for a successful sexual connection affect people’s sexual outcomes. In another project with post-doc Amy Muise, we are investigating the idea that sexual nostalgia, or memories of past sexual experiences, can be helpful for managing feelings of social and sexual disconnection. I’ve also taken an interest in interpersonal attraction. Right now, we have research on the go exploring different kinds of attractiveness such as cuteness and hotness. Stay tuned.
My best known work centers around the argument that when we talk about the pain of rejection, this phrasing may be more than just metaphor (MacDonald & Leary, 2005). Social pain may share a physiological basis with physical pain. For example, my lab has produced work demonstrating phenomena such as physical numbness in response to social exclusion just as you see in response to physical injury (Borsook & MacDonald, 2010). Recently, my lab has brought these various lines of research together, arguing that attachment theory can be an important tool in understanding experiences of social exclusion (Maxwell, Spielmann, Joel, & MacDonald, 2013). We are currently conducting research to test this idea empirically.