Bowlby's Attachment Theory

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John Bowlby (1907 - 1990) was a psychoanalyst (like Freud) and believed that mental health and behavioral problems could be attributed to early childhood.

Bowlby’s evolutionary theory of attachment suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive.

Bowlby was very much influenced by ethological theory in general, but especially by Lorenz’s (1935) study of imprinting.  Lorenz showed that attachment was innate (in young ducklings) and therefore has a survival value.

Bowlby believed that attachment behaviors are instinctive and will be activated by any conditions that seem to threaten the achievement of proximity, such as separation, insecurity and fear.

social releaser

Bowlby (1969, 1988) also postulated that the fear of strangers represents an important survival mechanism, built in by nature.  Babies are born with the tendency to display certain innate behaviors (called social releasers) which help ensure proximity and contact with the mother or mother figure (e.g. crying, smiling, crawling, etc.) – these are species-specific behaviors.

During the evolution of the human species, it would have been the babies who stayed close to their mothers who would have survived to have children of their own and Bowlby hypothesized that both infants and mothers have evolved a biological need to stay in contact with each other.

These attachment behaviors initially function like fixed action patterns and all share the same function. The infant produces innate ‘social releaser’ behaviors such as crying and smiling that stimulate caregiving from adults. The determinant of attachment is not food but care and responsiveness.

Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one attachment and that the attachment figure acted as a secure base for exploring the world. The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences.

Main Points of Bowlby’s Theory

1. A child has an innate (i.e. inborn) need to attach to one main attachment figure (i.e. monotropy).


Although Bowlby did not rule out the possibility of other attachment figures for a child, he did believe that there should be a primary bond which was much more important than any other (usually the mother).

Bowlby believes that this attachment is different in kind (qualitatively different) from any subsequent attachments. Bowlby argues that the relationship with the mother is somehow different altogether from other relationships.

Essentially, Bowlby suggested that the nature of monotropy (attachment conceptualized as being a vital and close bond with just one attachment figure) meant that a failure to initiate, or a breakdown of, the maternal attachment would lead to serious negative consequences, possibly including affectionless psychopathy. Bowlby’s theory of monotropy led to the formulation of his maternal deprivation hypothesis.

The child behaves in ways that elicits contact or proximity to the caregiver. When a child experiences heightened arousal, he/she signals their caregiver. Crying, smiling, and, locomotion, are examples of these signaling behaviors.  Instinctively, caregivers respond to their children’s behavior creating a reciprocal pattern of interaction.

2. A child should receive the continuous care of this single most important attachment figure for approximately the first two years of life.

Bowlby (1951) claimed that mothering is almost useless if delayed until after two and a half to three years and, for most children, if delayed till after 12 months, i.e. there is a critical period.

If the attachment figure is broken or disrupted during the critical two year period the child will suffer irreversible long-term consequences of this maternal deprivation. This risks continues until the age of 5.

Bowlby used the term maternal deprivation to refer to the separation or loss of the mother as well as failure to develop an attachment.

The underlying assumption of Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis is that continual disruption of the attachment between infant and primary caregiver (i.e. mother) could result in long term cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties for that infant.  The implications of this are vast – if this is true, should the primary caregiver leave their child in day care, whilst they continue to work?

3. The long term consequences of maternal deprivation might include the following:

• delinquency,

• reduced intelligence,

• increased aggression,

• depression,

• affectionless psychopathy

Affectionless psychopathy is an inability show affection or concern for others. Such of individuals act on impulse with little regard for the consequences of their actions. For example, showing no guilt for antisocial behavior.

4. Robertson and Bowlby (1952) believe that short term separation from an attachment figure leads to distress (i.e. the PDD model).

They found 3 progressive stages for distress:

  • Protest: The child cries, screams and protests angrily when the parent leaves. They will try to cling on to the parent to stop them leaving.
  • Despair: The child’s protesting begins to stop and they appear to be calmer although still upset. The child refuses others’ attempts for comfort and often seems withdrawn and uninterested in anything.
  • Detachment: If separation continues the child will start to engage with other people again. They will reject the caregiver on their return and show strong signs of anger.

5. The child’s attachment relationship with their primary caregiver leads to the development of an internal working model.

This internal working model is a cognitive framework comprising mental representations for understanding the world, self and others.  A person’s interaction with others is guided by memories and expectations from their internal model which influence and help evaluate their contact with others (Bretherton, & Munholland, 1999).

internal working model of attachment

Around the age of three these seems to become part of a child’s personality and thus affects their understanding of the world and future interactions with others (Schore, 2000).  According to Bowlby (1969) the primary caregiver acts as a prototype for future relationships via the internal working model.

There are three main features of the internal working model: (1) a model of others a being trustworthy, (2) a model of the self as valuable, and (3) a model of the self as effective when interacting with others.

It is this mental representation that guides future social and emotional behavior as the child’s internal working model guides the responsiveness to others in general.

44 Thieves Study (Bowlby, 1944)

John Bowlby believed that the relationship between the infant and its mother during the first five years of life was most crucial to socialization.  He believed that disruption of this primary relationship could lead to a higher incidence of juvenile delinquency, emotional difficulties and antisocial behavior. 

To test his hypothesis, he studied 44 adolescent juvenile delinquents in a child guidance clinic.

Aim: To investigate the long-term effects of maternal deprivation on people in order to see whether delinquents have suffered deprivation. According to the Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis, breaking the maternal bond with the child during the early stages of its life is likely to have serious effects on its intellectual, social and emotional development.

Procedure: Bowlby interviewed 44 adolescents who were referred to a child protection program in London because of stealing- i.e. they were thieves.  Bowlby selected another group of 44 children to act as ‘controls’. N.b. controls: individuals referred to clinic because of emotional problems, but not yet committed any crimes.  He interviewed the parents from both groups to state whether their children had experienced separation during the critical period and for how long.

bowlby 44 thieves graph resultsFindings: More than half of the juvenile thieves had been separated from their mothers for longer than six months during their first five years.  In the control group only two had had such a separation.  He also found several of the young thieves (32%) showed 'affectionless psychopathy' (they were not able to care about or feel affection for others).  None of the control group were affectionless psychopaths.

In a later paper, he reported that 60 children who had spent time apart from their mothers in a tuberculosis sanatorium before the age of 4 showed lower achievement in school.

Conclusion: Affectionless psychopaths show little concern for others and are unable to form relationships.  Bowlby concluded that the reason for the anti-social behavior and emotional problems in the first group was due to maternal deprivation.

Evaluation: The supporting evidence that Bowlby (1944) provided was in the form of clinical interviews of, and retrospective data on, those who had and had not been separated from their primary caregiver.

This meant that Bowlby was asking the participants to look back and recall separations. These memories may not be accurate.  Bowlby designed and conducted the experiment himself. This may have lead to experimenter bias.  Particularly as he was responsible for making the diagnosis of affectionless psychopathy.

Evaluation of Bowlby’s Theory

Bowlby’s (1944, 1956) ideas had a great influence on the way researchers thought about attachment and much of the discussion of his theory has focused on his belief in monotropy.

Although Bowlby may not dispute that young children form multiple attachments, he still contends that the attachment to the mother is unique in that it is the first to appear and remains the strongest of all. However, on both of these counts, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

  • Schaffer & Emerson (1964) noted that specific attachments started at about 8 months and, very shortly thereafter, the infants became attached to other people. By 18 months very few (13%) were attached to only one person; some had five or more attachments.

  • Rutter (1972) points out that several indicators of attachment (such as protest or distress when attached person leaves) have been shown for a variety of attachment figures – fathers, siblings, peers and even inanimate objects.

Critics such as Rutter have also accused Bowlby of not distinguishing between deprivation and privation – the complete lack of an attachment bond, rather than its loss. Rutter stresses that the quality of the attachment bond is the most important factor, rather than just deprivation in the critical period.

Bowlby used the term maternal deprivation to refer to the separation or loss of the mother as well as failure to develop an attachment.  Are the effects of maternal deprivation as dire as Bowlby suggested?

Michael Rutter (1972) wrote a book called Maternal Deprivation Re-assessed.  In the book, he suggested that Bowlby may have oversimplified the concept of maternal deprivation.  Bowlby used the term 'maternal deprivation' to refer to separation from an attached figure, loss of an attached figure and failure to develop an attachment to any figure.  These each have different effects, argued Rutter. In particular Rutter distinguished between privation and deprivation.

Michael Rutter (1981) argued that if a child fails to develop an emotional bond this is privation, whereas deprivation refers to the loss of or damage to an attachment.

From his survey of research on privation, Rutter proposed that it is likely to lead initially to clinging, dependent behavior, attention-seeking and indiscriminate friendliness, then as the child matures, an inability to keep rules, form lasting relationships, or feel guilt. He also found evidence of anti-social behavior, affectionless psychopathy, and disorders of language, intellectual development and physical growth.

Rutter argues that these problems are not due solely to the lack of attachment to a mother figure, as Bowlby claimed, but to factors such as the lack of intellectual stimulation and social experiences which attachments normally provide. In addition, such problems can be overcome later in the child's development, with the right kind of care.

Many of the 44 thieves in Bowlby’s study had been moved around a lot during childhood, and had probably never formed an attachment. This suggested that they were suffering from privation, rather than deprivation, which Rutter suggested was far more deleterious to the children. This led to a very important study on the long term effects of privation, carried out by Hodges and Tizard (1989).

Another criticism of 44 Thieves Study as that it concluded that affectionless psychopathy was caused by maternal deprivation. This is correlational data and as such only shows a relationship between these two variables. Indeed, other external variables, such as diet, parental income, education etc. may have affected the behavior of the 44 thieves, and not, as concluded, the disruption of the attachment bond.

Bowlby's Maternal Deprivation, is however, supported by Harlow's (1958) research with monkeys. He showed that monkeys reared in isolation from their mother suffered emotional and social problems in older age. The monkey's never formed an attachment (privation) and as such grew up to be aggressive and had problems interacting with other monkeys.

Konrad Lorenz (1935) supports Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis as the attachment process of imprinting is an innate process.

There are implications arising from Bowlby’s work. As he believed the mother to be the most central care giver and that this care should be given on a continuous basis an obvious implication is that mothers should not go out to work. There have been many attacks on this claim:

  • Mothers are the exclusive carers in only a very small percentage of human societies; often there are a number of people involved in the care of children, such as relations and friends (Weisner & Gallimore, 1977).

  • Van Ijzendoorn & Tavecchio (1987) argue that a stable network of adults can provide adequate care and that this care may even have advantages over a system where a mother has to meet all a child’s needs.

  • There is evidence that children develop better with a mother who is happy in her work, than a mother who is frustrated by staying at home (Schaffer, 1990).


Bowlby, J. (1944). Forty-four juvenile thieves: Their characters and home life. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 25(19-52), 107-127.

Bowlby, J. (1956). Mother-child separation. Mental health and infant development, 1, 117-122.

Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal Care and Mental Health. World Health Organization Monograph.

Bowlby, J. (1953). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Loss: Sadness & Depression. Attachment and Loss (vol. 3); (International psycho-analytical library no.109). London: Hogarth Press.

Bowlby, J. (1988). Attachment, communication, and the therapeutic process. A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development, 137-157.

Bowlby, J., Rosenbluth, D., & Robertson, J. (1952). A two-year-old goes to hospital.

Bretherton, I., & Munholland, K. A. (1999). Internal working models in attachment relationships: A construct revisited.

Harlow, H. F. & Zimmermann, R. R. (1958). The development of affective responsiveness in infant monkeys. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 102,501 -509.

Hodges, J., & Tizard, B. (1989). Social and family relationships of ex‐institutional adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 30(1), 77-97.

Lorenz, K. (1935). Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels. Der Artgenosse als auslösendes Moment sozialer Verhaltensweisen. Journal für Ornithologie 83, 137–215.

Rutter, M. (1972). Maternal deprivation reassessed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Rutter, M. (1979). Maternal deprivation, 1972-1978: New findings, new concepts, new approaches. Child development, 283-305.

Rutter, M. (1981). STRESS, COPING AND DEVELOPMENT: SOME ISSUES AND SOME QUESTIONS*. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 22(4), 323-356.

Schaffer, H. R. & Emerson, P. E. (1964). ‘The Development of Social Attachments in Infancy’. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 29 (3), serial number 94.

Schore, A. N. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain. Attachment & human development, 2(1), 23-47.

Tavecchio, L. W., & Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. (Eds.). (1987). Attachment in social networks: Contributions to the Bowlby-Ainsworth attachment theory. Elsevier.

Weisner, T. S., & Gallimore, R. (1977). My brother's keeper: Child and sibling caretaking. Current Anthropology, 18(2), 169.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Bowlby's Attachment Theory. Retrieved from

Further Information

Attachment Theory

Strange Situation (Ainsworth, 1978)

The Effects of Childcare on Social Development

The Effects of Maternal Deprivation

Bowlby 44 Thieves Bowlby PDF Downloads

The Origins of Attachment Theory: Bowlby and Ainsworth

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