Why Are Some People Noncompliant With Stay-at-Home Orders?

Avoidant attachment may drive noncompliance.

Avoidant attachment has apparently been increasing in the USA, at least among college students, the presumed cream-of-the-crop of their age group (Konrath et al., 2014). This trend may have something to do with the resistance some have to staying home during the pandemic.

Attachment style is learned in early life according to experiences with caregivers.  It is an indicator of social self-regulation. Secure attachment represents the capacity of the individual to enjoy socializing, relate flexibly to others, and resolve conflicts with mutual trust. Secure attachment is a signal that neurobiological structures that undergird these capacities, such as vagal tone (Porges, 2011) and stress response (Lupien et al., 2009), were well shaped by caregiver responsive care — helping the child’s body to calm down after imbalance.

Insecure attachment styles include anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. Like secure attachment, they are measurable types of relational style.

What does avoidant attachment, the focus here, look like?

Those with avoidant attachment have underdeveloped socioemotional intelligence. They have learned to be “in their heads.” They tend to be divorced from feelings of intimacy or vulnerability. They may have learned from caregivers to not pay attention to and even to suppress emotions, or at least awareness of them. They often don’t know themselves very well and don’t get along easily with others.

Adults with avoidant attachment expect independence. After all, that is often what they extensively rehearsed in early family life. (A caveat: typically, attachment assessments done with young children are typically done with mother-child dyads. However, the child may have a different attachment style with another family member, such as father or grandmother. So people likely have mixed styles that vary with the situation.)

What does avoidant attachment negatively affect? Related to stay-at-home order, the avoidant can feel stress from:

  • Staying in a small space with other people
  • Neediness of others; clingy relationships, like a baby and its tremendous 24/7 needs
  • Lack of control over relational dynamics
  • Emotional disclosure

Here are a couple of postures relevant to orders to shelter in place identified by Sharon Martin in her post, What Is an Avoidant Attachment Style and How Can I Change It?:

  • “I need time to myself.” Those who are stuck inside with others, who have young children with them 24/7 instead of going to work and sending children to daycare or preschool, may feel smothered because they are missing “time for themselves.”
  • “I’m not going to change for anyone.” Those who have created a life of independence, relying on feelings of control over their lifestyle, may become angry at having to stop their impulses for freedom and change their behavior.

Secure attachment development is thought to emerge from a mutually responsive relationship with a primary caregiver in early life (Kochanska, 2002). It is longitudinally correlated with compliance, the willingness to do what the caregiver suggests. Those with insecure attachment often resist the rules or suggestions from authority figures.article continues after advertisement

According to Darlene Lancer in her post, How to Change Your Attachment Style: “Unlike those securely attached, pursuers [anxiously attached] and distancers [avoidantly attachment] aren’t skilled at resolving disagreements. They tend to become defensive and attack or withdraw, escalating conflict. Without the chase, conflict, or compulsive behavior, both pursuers and distancers begin to feel depressed and empty due to their painful early attachments.”

Healing from Insecure Attachment

It is important not to shame oneself, nor blame oneself for being a bad person for having the feelings related to insecure attachment. Martin says: “Avoiding intimacy is a coping strategy that developed in infancy. It’s a way to protect yourself from the vulnerability of being hurt or disappointed.” But as adults, we have a responsibility to heal ourselves so we become cooperative citizens when appropriate.

Both Lancer and Martin and good suggestions for how to work at moving toward secure attachment (earned security). Dr. Hal Shorey emphasizes the development of a secure base, a place you can be yourself, either with a therapist or an intimate relationship.


Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191-195.

Konrath, S. H., Chopik, W., Hsing, C., & O’Brien, E. H. (2014). Changes in adult attachment styles in american college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(4), 326-348. doi: 10.1177/1088868314530516

Lupien, S.J., McEwen, B.S., Gunnar, M.R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York: W.W. Norton.

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