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Discuss Bowlby’s theory of attachment. Use learning theory as a part of your discussion. [16 marks]

Bowlby’s learning theory of attachment proposes that all behaviour is learnt rather than an innate biological behaviour as children are born blank slates. Behaviourists focus their explanation on behaviours which is learnt through either classical or operant conditioning. Classical conditioning was firstly investigated by Pavlov in 1927.

Certain things such as an infant’s mother can become associated with food as they are consistently present each time an infant is fed during an infant’s first months of life which is known as the neutral stimuli.

Once the neutral stimuli which in this context is the mother present while the child is eating is consistently associated with an unconditioned stimulus and will eventually produce the same response.

The mother then becomes a learned conditioned stimulus and produces a conditioned response. This then results in the mother once seen by the infant gives the child a sense of pleasure which is a conditioned response.

Operant conditioning was first investigated by Skinner and then further investigated by Dollard and Miller in regard of attachment and drive reduction theory which describes something that motivates behaviour. This was then investigated as when an infant is hungry there is a drive to reduce the discomfort which happens as a result. Once the child is fed this produces a feeling of pleasure which is positive reinforcement.

Behaviour which is rewarded by food is repeated and food becomes the primary reinforcer as it is associated with a reward and reinforces the behaviour.

The person supplying the food which can be the mother or primary caregiver becomes a secondary reinforcer as they become the source of the reward. Conclusively, the attachment occurs because the child associates the person who supplies the food with rewards and seeks them.

Social learning theory firstly introduced by Bandura and further evaluated by Hay and Vespo suggests that modelling can explain attachment behaviours. This is as children observe their parent’s behaviour and imitate this.

Parents inform children on how they must behave in certain relationships and reward affectionate behaviour and reward this behaviour similar to operant conditioning which rewards attachment behaviour making it more likely to occur.

However, the reliability of the learning theory is questioned as it is based on research with animals. Behaviourists believe that humans are similar to animals in how they learn.

The structure of the stimulus and response behavioural traits are similar in humans and animals making it legitimate to generalise the findings from an animal to humans and these behaviours can be explained through conditioned behaviour but not all such as attachment.

Behaviourists theories may lack validity as they’re an oversimplified explanation of human behaviour as they believe attachment involves innate predispositions.

Another limitation of the learning theory in explaining attachment is it suggests that food is the predominant factor in forming attachment.

There has however been conflicting evidence for example with a study done by Harlow suggesting that food is not the principal factor in attachment which is supported by Schaeffer and Emerson. Infant monkeys were attached to the cloth covered wire monkey which provided contact comfort not food.

Also, the drive reduction theory though being popular previously is not used today as it can only display a few behaviours. The theory fails to explain secondary reinforcers as many people do things that give them discomfort.

Arguably, the learning theory does provide useful information as it explains that infants learn through association and reinforcement. Attention and responsiveness from a caregiver and sensitivity to the child’s needs allows an attachment to be formed. The sensitivity which the main caregiver provides is then mimicked by the infant teaching the child how to act.


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