Attachment revision essay

July 06, 2017 Nick O

A resource for students of A Level Psychology

Outline and evaluate theories of attachment.

Attachment theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant and toddler behaviour and is used in the fields of infant mental health, the psychological treatment of children, and child care in general. First let me outline the two major theories which cover attachment. Then I will evaluate their application and current relevance.

 Attachment is an emotional bond between two people. It is a two-way process that endures over time. It serves the function of protecting a baby as it develops through evoking parental care. As the Sufi saying goes, “Even more than the baby yearns to suck does the mother yearn to give suck.”

Bowlby was the first to put forward a theory of attachment. “Secure attachment”, as defined by his follower, Ainsworth, is where children feel they can rely on their caregivers to attend to their needs of proximity, emotional support and protection. It is considered to be the best “attachment style” and is found to be the dominant form of attachment in cultures across the globe as demonstrated using the “Strange situation” experiment/test, devised by Ainsworth et al fifty years ago. (see the Meta-analysis by Van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenborg 1988)

Anxious-ambivalent attachment is where the infant feels separation anxiety when separated from the caregiver and does not feel reassured when the caregiver returns to the infant.

Anxious-avoidant attachment is where the infant shows hostility and resistance when the parent returns from a separation.

Disorganized attachment is where there is a lack of attachment behaviour.

In the 1980s, the theory was extended to explore attachment in adults. Secure attachment in adults happens when partners felt close attachment to their parents and they reproduce this bonding with romantic partners. (Hazan and Shaver 1987) Research found that the kinds of attachment which existed in early childhood were replicated in emotional and romantic adult attachments.

The alternative filter through which people have looked at the phenomena of attachment in psychology is “Learning Theory” as developed by Watson and B.F.Skinner in the early twentieth century.  This combines Pavlov’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning. The approach is based on the “tabula rasa” theory of the mind, where the baby is viewed as coming into the world with little or no pre-programming and learns by free association of stimuli in the environment. The development of the child is seen as being controlled by the organization of what behaviours are reinforced by the parents. Later, Bandura, Hay and Vespo 1988 added a cognitive dimension to this in terms of “Social Learning Theory,” suggesting that attachments may be developed and modified through imitation processes.

Harlow’s work with monkeys very much undermined the behaviourists’ idea that attachment to the mother is created by the person of the mother being associated with the pleasurable experience of the baby suckling milk at the breast. Monkeys showed a strong preference for a cloth covered mother over a wire mother with a milk bottle attached to it. No one seems to have considered the fact that soft material might also provide a reinforcing stimulus for a baby monkey or that food is one kind of positive stimulus among many for the baby. It would be possible to apply behaviourists thinking to many other sets of stimuli which connect mother and child. Very few have bothered to do so, however.

Bowlby was influenced by psychoanalysis. In the 1960’s the dominant influences in psychoanalysis were men who were uninterested in babies under three months. They thought that attachment could only develop at around three months. Melanie Klein would push the boundaries of the parent-child bond back to birth and the British psychiatrist, Frank Lake, would take it back to prenatal psychology. Schaffer and Emerson in Glasgow in the sixties supported Bowlby in finding only indiscriminate attachment behaviour in babies less than three months old. However, their data collection method is now regarded as highly suspect and unreliable.

Bowlby was also influenced by ethnological researchers such as Tinbergen and Lorenz. Some people might want to put him down as an evolutionary psychologist, since his theory shows a genetically structured programming of the child to ensure its survival. Gregory Bateson in “Steps to an ecology of mind” that learning shifts from genetic species learning over generations lower down the hierarchy, with more and more learning allowed at the ontological level as organisms become more complex. Even at the human level nature is not stupid enough to leave all learning to the individual as behaviourism suggests. But Bowlby and others have underestimated the amount of flexibility for growth and development allowed to the individual. Today we know that the brain can even change in mid life in response to hormone treatments.

Bowlby’s theory has some problems. He believed that attachment involved monotropy, the strong attachment to a single person developing in a child during a critical period between three months and eighteen months of age. From this attachment the child should develop an inner working model of attachment which it would seek to live out in all subsequent attempts to form relationships. His study of 44 juvenile thieves who had become psychopathic following early separation from their mothers claimed to demonstrate that early deprivation was fundamental to asocial behaviour.

Rutter’s research has done damage to Bowlby’s theory and forced modifications. He argued that many children who have lost parents through injury or death rather than neglect do not develop into psychopaths. His long term study of Rumanian orphanage survivors has shown that the absence of attachment figures during early experience need not be overwhelming and that adoptive children can make up ground on normal children over an extended period of time, given good attachment figures (adoptive parents.) He did find that children adopted later had more severe handicaps and were less likely to catch up with ordinary British children. Rutter has also shown that children can form multiple attachments and build a sense of attachment based on a number of different attachment figures over an extended period.

After Rutter, Attachment Theorists have modified Bowlby by suggesting that we should think of a sensitive period rather than a critical period and that therapy with children and adults can modify the deficits created by poor early learning experiences.

Ainsworth, as key follower of Bowlby, developed a methodology for testing forms of attachment called “the strange situation.” It is so replicable that it has been used to measure attachment in countries right round the globe. In every country where the test has been used the dominant mode of attachment was found to be “secure attachment.”

However, any claim to a universal validity has been questioned, based on very different reactions to the test in more collectivist cultures as in Israel, Japan and Germany. What is healthy normal behaviour in Anglo Saxon cultures is seen as unhealthy in Japan, for instance.

The test is clearly culture-bound, but may also be seen as ethically flawed. From a humanistic point of view the failure to explain to a toddler that mummy has to leave for a few minutes is simply wrong. Children’s responses to the test would be quite different without this small cruelty.

Nevertheless a modified version of Bowlby’s attachment theory has survived and grown like topsy. There were ten thousand academic papers on the subject written before the turn of the century. There were eight thousand more in the seven years after it.

Learning Theory has been clearly shown as inadequate in explaining the complexity of human attachment. Scientific interest in it has wained since B.F. Skinner lost the argument with Noam Chomsky over language development in the sixties.

Bowlby’s ideas have been taken forward into studies of adult relationships and backwards into prenatal and perinatal learning and bonding.

In Britain legislation has been brought in to ensure that there is a key worker (attachment figure) provided to all children in nursery care. The British have chosen to encourage women back to work early, leaving their children in Day Care, backing the idea of multiple attachment figures rather than monotropy and the nuclear family. Research has indicated that poorly cared for children turn into parents who are poor at caring for their children. They do not learn the sensitivity needed to build secure attachments. Sure Start programmes were created to provide quality professional early care for these children. Sadly, the Government is now closing them all.

Large scale research on happiness has showed British children to be some of the unhappiest on the planet. They are pushed early out of the family bed, early to school and day care and early into testing and grading at school. Yet these children still lag behind in academic achievement.  Finnish children are kept at home till seven and are not pressured at school. Yet their school achievements are much greater.

Danish children who are taken into care are given a highly qualified and skilled key worker to see them through the whole care experience, leading to happy and successful adulthoods, while the British system provides low quality, low paid, low skilled staff working in poorly managed care homes where paedophiles lurk in the shadows. The life chances of our “looked after children” leaving care are very poor indeed. Professional social workers who used to have long term caring roles have been replaced by hands-off care managers.

Attachment theory has been pushed back before the three month period by prenatal and perinatal research by doctors, nurses and midwives, as well as psychologists. The

quality of attachment is now associated with the perinatal mental health of the mother. Weak prenatal attachment has been associated with postpartum anxiety (Blumberg, 1980; Gaffney, 1989) and depression during pregnancy and in the postpartum (Brandon et al., 2007; Condon & Corkindale, 1997; Lindgren, 2001). Personality vulnerability factors to depression were measured, and highly self-critical women reported less depression when strongly attached to the foetus during pregnancy.

“A level” text books now mention the evocation of attachment behaviour generated by the image of the “Baby face”. However Meltzov is the only psychologist mentioned who has researched really early attachment behaviour. He has actually worked with families so closely that he has been able to visit the mother as she gives birth and video the very first interactions between parents and child. Babies can be very clearly seen mimicking the facial gestures of their earliest care givers. Neuro-psychologists now talk about “Theory of Mind.” Mirror neurons have been found in the brain, which enable the baby to mirror what they see in front of them. This very quickly evokes bonding and attachment in the parents who see themselves mirrored back. Though Meltzov and Moore’s work has been challenged as only being pseudo imitation their work has been supported by a research unit at the University of Reading.

There are an increasing number of studies which show that perception, learning and bonding between mother and baby begin before birth. (Thomas Blum Ed 1993) Many mothers communicate and bond with their children before birth and carry that bonding through into a strong post-natal attachment. This work is so well developed there is already a published history of its development. (A history of the theory of prenatal attachment) Anna R. Brandon, Sandra Pitts, Wayne H. Denton, C. Allen Stringer, H. M. Evans. J Prenat Perinat Psychol Health. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 Apr 27. Published in final edited form as: J Prenat Perinat Psychol Health. 2009

In conclusion, it is clear that Learning Theory has proved inadequate as a theory to explain attachment in human behaviour. Bowlby’s theory, on the other hand, has proved extremely fruitful. Some of his ideas have been proved wrong based on further research, but the theory has been shown to allow modifications to meet with scientific studies. It draws on work in psychoanalysis, ethnology, and evolutionary ideas and has considerable explanatory value. It has been applied in child care, education, social work, and counselling. It has been extended into the field of adult relationships and into prenatal and perinatal psychology. Work still needs to be done to bridge the gap between prenatal attachment and perinatal and postnatal events.


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