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Attachment Theory

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Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory

By Saul McLeod, updated Feb 05, 2017


Take-home Messages
  • Attachment can be defined as a deep and enduring emotional bond between two people in which each seeks closeness and feels more secure when in the presence of the attachment figure.
  • Attachment behavior in adults towards the child includes responding sensitively and appropriately to the child’s needs.  Such behavior appears universal across cultures.
  • Attachment theory explains how the parent-child relationship emerges and influences subsequent development.
  • Attachments are most likely to form with those who responded accurately to the baby's signals, not the person they spent more time with. Schaffer and Emerson called this sensitive responsiveness.
  • Attachment is characterized by specific behaviors in children, such as seeking proximity to the attachment figure when upset or threatened (Bowlby, 1969).

Introduction

Attachment theory in psychology originates with the seminal work of John Bowlby (1958).  In the 1930s John Bowlby worked as a psychiatrist in a Child Guidance Clinic in London, where he treated many emotionally disturbed children. 

This experience led Bowlby to consider the importance of the child’s relationship with their mother in terms of their social, emotional and cognitive development.  Specifically, it shaped his belief about the link between early infant separations with the mother and later maladjustment, and led Bowlby to formulate his attachment theory.

Bowlby defined attachment as a 'lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.'

(1969, p. 194)

Bowlby (1958) proposed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the infant. Attachment is adaptive as it enhances the infant’s chance of survival.

This is illustrated in the work of Lorenz (1935) and Harlow (1958).  According to Bowlby infants have a universal need to seek close proximity with their caregiver when under stress or threatened (Prior & Glaser, 2006).

Stages of Attachment

Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson (1964) investigated if attachment develops through a series of stages, by studying 60 babies at monthly intervals for the first 18 months of life (this is known as a longitudinal study).

The children were all studied in their own home, and a regular pattern was identified in the development of attachment.

The babies were visited monthly for approximately one year, their interactions with their carers were observed, and carers were interviewed.

A diary was kept by the mother to examine the evidence for the development of attachment. Three measures were recorded:

Stranger Anxiety - response to arrival of a stranger.

Separation Anxiety - distress level when separated from carer, degree of comfort needed on return.

Social Referencing - degree that child looks at carer to check how they should respond to something new (secure base).

They discovered that baby's attachments develop in the following sequence:

Asocial (0 - 6 weeks)

Very young infants are asocial in that many kinds of stimuli, both social and non-social, produce a favorable reaction, such as a smile.

Indiscriminate Attachments (6 weeks to 7 months)

Infants indiscriminately enjoy human company, and most babies respond equally to any caregiver. They get upset when an individual ceases to interact with them.

From 3 months infants smile more at familiar faces and can be easily comfortable by a regular caregiver.

Specific Attachment (7 - 9 months)

Special preference for a single attachment figure.  The baby looks to particular people for security, comfort, and protection.  It shows fear of strangers (stranger fear) and unhappiness when separated from a special person (separation anxiety). 

Some babies show stranger fear and separation anxiety much more frequently and intensely than others, nevertheless, they are seen as evidence that the baby has formed an attachment.  This has usually developed by one year of age.

Multiple Attachment (10 months and onwards)

Many of the babies from the Schaffer and Emerson study had multiple attachments by 10 months old, including attachments to mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and neighbours.

The baby becomes increasingly independent and forms several attachments. By 18 months the majority of infants have formed multiple attachments.

The multiple attachments formed by most infants vary in their strength and importance to the infant. Attachments are often structured in a hierarchy, whereby an infant may have formed three attachments but one may be stronger than the other two, and one may be the weakest.

The results of the study indicated that attachments were most likely to form with those who responded accurately to the baby's signals, not the person they spent more time with.  Schaffer and Emerson called this sensitive responsiveness.

Intensely attached infants had mothers who responded quickly to their demands and, interacted with their child. Infants who were weakly attached had mothers who failed to interact.

Findings

The results of the study indicated that attachments were most likely to form with those who responded accurately to the baby's signals, not the person they spent more time with. Schaffer and Emerson called this sensitive responsiveness.

Intensely attached infants had mothers who responded quickly to their demands and, interacted with their child. Infants who were weakly attached had mothers who failed to interact.

The most important fact in forming attachments is not who feeds and changes the child but who plays and communicates with him or her. Therefore, sensitive responsiveness to the baby's signals, appeared to be the key to attachment.

Evaluation

The Schaffer and Emerson study has low population validity. The infants in the study all came from Glasgow and were mostly from working class families. In addition, the small sample size of 60 families reduces the strength of the conclusion we can draw from the study.

However, accuracy of data collection by parents who were keeping daily diaries whilst clearly being very busy could be questioned. A diary like this is also very unreliable with demand characteristics and social desirability being major issues. Mothers are not lkely to report negative experiences in their daily write up.

The study lacks historical validity. It was conducted in the 1960s when gender roles were different – Now, more men stay at home to look after their children and more women go out to work so the sample is biased.

Attachment Theories

Psychologists have proposed two main theories that are believed to be important in forming attachments.

The learning / behaviorist theory of attachment (e.g., Dollard & Miller, 1950) suggest that attachment is a set of learned behaviors.

The basis for the learning of attachments is the provision of food.  An infant will initially form an attachment to whoever feeds it.

They learn to associate the feeder (usually the mother) with the comfort of being fed and through the process of classical conditioning, come to find contact with the mother comforting.

They also find that certain behaviors (e.g., crying, smiling) bring desirable responses from others (e.g., attention, comfort), and through the process of operant conditioning learn to repeat these behaviors to get the things they want.

Dollard and Miller (1950) used the term secondary drive hypothesis to describe the processes of learning an attachment through operant and classical conditioning.

Secondary drive hypothesis explains how primary drives which are essential for survival, such as eating when hungry, become associated with secondary drives such as emotional closeness.

They extended the theory to explain that attachment is a two way process that the caregiver must also learn, and this occurs through negative reinforcement when the caregiver feels pleasure because the infant is no longer distressed.

attachment classical conditioning

The evolutionary theory of attachment (e.g., Bowlby, Harlow, Lorenz) suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive.

The infant produces innate ‘social releaser’ behaviors such as crying and smiling that stimulate innate caregiving responses from adults.  The determinant of attachment is not food, but care and responsiveness.

Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one primary attachment (monotropy) 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.

This theory also suggests that there is a critical period for developing an attachment (about 0 -5 years).

If an attachment has not developed during this period, then the child will suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2017, Febuary 05). Attachment theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html

APA Style References

Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bell, S. M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41, 49-67.

Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1973). The development of infant-mother attachment. In B. Cardwell & H. Ricciuti (Eds.), Review of child development research (Vol. 3, pp. 1-94) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1991). Attachments and other affectional bonds across the life cycle. In C . M. Parkes, J. Stevenson-Hinde, & P. Marris (Eds.), Attachment across the life cycle (pp. 33-51). London: Routledge.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the childs tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

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

Bowlby, J., and Robertson, J. (1952). A two-year-old goes to hospital. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 46, 425–427.

Dollard, J. & Miller, N.E. (1950). Personality and psychotherapy. New York: McGraw-Hill

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

Prior, V., & Glaser, D. (2006). Understanding attachment and attachment disorders: Theory, evidence and practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Schaffer, H. R., & Emerson, P. E. (1964). The development of social attachments in infancy. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 1-77.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2017, Febuary 05). Attachment theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html

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