Your Most Awkward Friends May Save Your Life

Keeping your insecure and anxious friends around may be a good strategy to protect yourself, according to a recent study.

The results show that people who are anxious about relationships or who tend to avoid them are better at detecting impending danger and acting quickly.

Researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel worked with 138 college students and found that those who avoided close relationships or were more anxious had faster responses when placed in a potentially dangerous situation.

"Anxiety, which is unpleasant to those who feel it and to other people in their surroundings, could be highly beneficial, as it enables early detection of threats," said study researcher Tsachi Ein-Dor, a social psychologist at the center. And avoidance, as exhibited by anti-social people, "is also highly beneficial, because it enables rapid response to threat," Ein-Dor said.

Attachment styles

The study was based on attachment theory, which holds that people generally approach relationships in one of three ways: People are considered to be anxious, avoidant or secure in their relationships.

Between 50 and 60 percent of the population have the secure style, while the remaining portion is roughly split between avoidant and anxious.

"Someone who is anxious is generally less confident than others that their loved ones will be responsive and available during times of duress," said R. Chris Fraley, an associate psychology professor at the University of Illinois who researches attachment, but was not involved with the new study.

"Someone who is avoidant, with respect to attachment, is likely to value his or her self-sufficiency more than others. They are uncomfortable depending on others, opening up to them, or having others depend on them," Fraley said.

Attachment theory emerged from studies in which researchers observed children playing in a room with their mothers, and then as the mothers left and another person came in. Kids' attachment styles were determined based on how they responded when their mothers returned.

In the new study, participants filled out a survey designed to assess their attachment style. Then they were invited, in teams of three, to play an Internet-based game, and were left to wait in a room for the game to start.

When the experimenter left the room,  the "computer" in the room began to emit smoke. The computer was actually a disguised smoke machine, and the researchers observed the team's response.

Teams with higher levels of avoidance responded faster — roughly 1¬¬1/2 seconds faster for each point higher they scored on avoidance on their initial survey.

Researchers said the study helps to explain why anxiety and avoidance persist in the human population.

"The key thing is diversity," Ein-Dor told MyHealthNewsDaily. "You need to be around people with different abilities."

From a smoking computer to real-life problems

"The research reports a creative and compelling test of Ein-Dor's hypothesis that, despite their insecurity, highly anxious and avoidant people have the potential to contribute to group dynamics in beneficial ways — especially with respect to detecting and reacting to threats that put everyone in the group at risk," Fraley said.

But it's less clear how that dynamic plays out in everyday life.

"A lot of friendships form serendipitously," Fraley said. "But, if I were in a position to choose my friends from scratch, I would probably choose people who are relatively secure and well-adjusted."

Ein-Dor said many would probably prefer more secure friends.

"It might be a bit superficial to say, but people would tend to feel more satisfied with more secure friends than with more anxious and avoidant friends," Ein-Dor said. Still, "well-being and happiness is not the whole story." Having diverse friends, in terms of attachment security levels, might save your life in times of need."

The study results need confirmation, and there may be some significant cultural differences. For example, because the research was done in Israel, and many of the students had done military service, they may have reacted differently than other people.

"Some students served in combat units. But, over and above the military experience, anxiety predicted early detection and avoidance," Ein-Dor said. "Thus, I will suspect that we'll find similar results in other [cultures] as well."

The study is published in the September issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Pass it on: Anti-social people might be good to have around in a crisis.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow MyHealthNewsDaily on Twitter @MyHealth_MHND. Like us on Facebook.