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Discuss the development of attachment theory since the time of Bowlby

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Discuss the development of attachment theory since the time of Bowlby

PSYC123 – Transferable skills 2

Ms Rachel Quinn


Word count: 1470

The attachment theory has been a neglected subject for a long time in the past. Dollard and Miller (1950) believed that attachment is a learned behaviour that most infants develop because of their need for food. Bowlby’s theory brought new ideas to social psychology. He believed that the need to attach to someone is an innate instinct and used earlier animal studies to provide support for this theory, he believed that human infants, similarly to animals, seek for attachment to get protection. Tronick et al. (1992) further developed Bowlby’s idea that attachments are arranged in some kind of a hierarchy, and one attachment is the strongest (usually the mother figure). The continuity of attachment was a highly studied subject, with most psychologists supporting the idea that the attachment is quite stable – therefore the attachment children have to their caregivers determines their attachment in future relationships. Hazan and Shaver (1987) questioned how stable the attachment style is throughout the lifespan of a person. In Ainsworth’s Strange situation controlled observation (1972), she studied how infants acted in different situations and based on their reactions distinguished three types of attachment: secure, avoidant and resistant. At the end of 20th century, many psychologists began to look into the cultural variations of attachment types and the results were similar, with slight differences in collectivist countries, for example, Israel and Japan.

Even though attachment is a very interesting and broad area of study, it has been overlooked for many years. Now it is well-known that different attachment types can make a major difference in people’s lives, but for many years It was only seen as an instinct that is learnt through either classical or operant conditioning (Dollard & Miller, 1950). This is one of the reasons that Bowlby’s attachment theory (1969) was considered to be a large breakthrough in social psychology. Bowlby described attachment as ‘a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space’. He believed that behavioural issues can be caused by events in early childhood and, driven by this belief, he looked into a number of aspects of attachment. His attachment theory was built on his previous studies about the effects of separation of children from their mother figures - maternal deprivation (1952). According to Bowlby, forming attachments is an innate instinct that both animals and humans are born with, helping to ensure survival and reproduction. Bowlby supported his ideas with earlier studies about animals, for example, a study by Southwick, Beg, and Siddiqi (1961) on rhesus monkeys in Northern India. Bowlby believed that every infant has the need to attach to a certain figure, which does not necessarily have to be their mother but is for the majority of cases. One example of the formation of an attachment is the Lorenz’s Geese experiment (1935). Newly hatched goslings imprinted on Lorenz, therefore suggesting that animals have an innate tendency to bond to someone who can provide them with protection.

Bowlby believed in monotropy (this being the concept that there is one primary attachment figure and a hierarchy of attachment). In some tribes, infants are breastfed by multiple women, however, the strongest attachment is usually to biological mothers (Tronick et al., 1992) therefore providing evidence for Bowlby’s theory of monotropy. The infants had a primary attachment with their biological mother regardless of how many women they interacted with from birth. The Minnesota longitudinal Study (Sroufe et al., 1999) supports the continuity hypothesis –infants who have a secure attachment in early life are later able to develop secure relationships in adult life, they tend to have a higher social competence, are more popular and empathetic. Secure adults have more positive relationships, are more trusting and believe in love, when compared with insecure types, who are afraid of closeness and do not believe in true love. Adults, much like children, need to create attachments in their lives – usually in relationships. Those who have strong bonds with their partners have well-functioning relationships, whereas those who have weak attachments usually lack intimacy and independence (Hazan and Shaver, 1987). According to Bowlby, attachment has to be developed within the first 2 ½ years of the life of a child, (he calls this the critical period) beyond this time it is extremely difficult to form an attachment. If mothers fail to develop a bond with their children (causing children to experience maternal deprivation) the children tend to be more delinquent, aggressive, depressed and less intelligent, than the children who develop a bond with a mother figure. Bifulco et. al (1992) supported the hypothesis about maternal deprivation. The results of their attachment study showed that the women who lost their mothers before the age of 17 were more likely to develop depression and anxiety when they were adults. The highest amount of depression was found in women who lost their mothers before they were 6. However, a study done by Hazan and Shaver in 1994 questioned the stability of attachments. According to them the nature of the bond infants have with their caregivers does not necessarily mean that they will always form relationships in a similar way. Attachment is gradually formed over the infancy, childhood and adolescence, and only after these stages attachment is stable.

Infants are thought to always have the strongest attachment to their mothers as food providers but studies have shown that they create the strongest bonds with people who consistently provide care when they are in distress. This means that they can develop the strongest bond with anyone in their environment who spends the most quality time with them. Even though this tends to be their mother, research has shown that in 24% of cases, the strongest bond infants have is with their fathers. In most of these cases, the fathers have taken an important role in their upbringing and spend significant amounts of time with them (Hazan & Shaver, 1994).

The Strange Situation experiment was partially based on Bowlby’s theory, however, Ainsworth wanted to explore in more detail how attachment is shown when infants (1 – 2 years old) are separated from their mothers. In a controlled observation, Ainsworth (1970) studied how the children reacted when a stranger entered the room when their mother left as well as how they responded following the reunion with their mother. The results of this study suggested that there are 3 attachment types. Most of the observed children had a secure attachment causing them to be anxious after being separated from their mothers and joyful when the mothers returned. They recorded 2 types of insecure attachment: the avoidant type – the infants’ behaviour did not change after they were separated from their mothers and they did not interact with the stranger; and the resistant type – children had a high stranger anxiety, and were very distressed when left without their mother, but upon the return of their mother they rejected her. However, this study has some flaws. The findings might have been influenced by the infants’ temperament rather than by their attachment with their mothers, furthermore, the bond with their mothers might not have been the strongest one – they might have been more attached to their fathers. The study, therefore, does not show the general attachment style of the child but the attachment towards the mother. The attachment style with their father, grandmother or a stranger might be completely different (Lamb, 1977).


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