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History of attachment theory

    History of attachment theory

    Earlier theories

    A theory of attachment is a framework of ideas that attempt to explain attachment the almost universal human tendency to prefer certain familiar companions over other people especially when ill injured or distressedMercer p. 37 Historically certain social preferences like those of parents for their children were explained by reference to instinct or the moral worth of the individual The concept of infants' emotional attachment to caregivers has been known anecdotally for hundreds of years Most early observers focused on the anxiety displayed by infants and toddlers when threatened with separation from a familiar caregiver Freudian theory attempted a systematic consideration of infant attachment and attributed the infant's attempts to stay near the familiar person to motivation learned through feeding experiences and gratification of Drive (psychoanalysis)|libidinal drives]
    Parents and child
    In the 1930s the British developmentalist Ian Suttie put forward the suggestion that the child's need for affection was a primary one not based on hunger or other physical gratifications A third theory prevalent at the time of Bowlby's development of attachment theory was "dependency" This approach posited that infants were dependent on adult caregivers but that dependency was or should be outgrown as the individual matured Such an approach perceived attachment behaviour in older children as regressive whereas within attachment theory older children and adults remain attached and indeed a secure attachment is associated with independent exploratory behaviour rather than dependencePrior and Glaser p. 20 William Blatz a Canadian psychologist and teacher of Bowlby's colleague Mary Ainsworth was among the first to stress the need for security as a normal part of personality at all ages as well as normality of the use of others as a secure base and the importance of social relationships for other aspects of development
    Current attachment theory focuses on social experiences in early childhood as the source of attachment in childhood and in later lifeMercer p. 23 Attachment theory was developed by Bowlby as a consequence of his dissatisfaction with existing theories of early relationships

    Early developments

    Bowlby was influenced by the beginnings of the object relations school of psychoanalysis and in particular Melanie Klein although he profoundly disagreed with the psychoanalytic belief then prevalent that saw infants responses as relating to their internal fantasy life rather than to real life events As Bowlby began to formulate his concept of attachment he was influenced by case studies by Levy Powdermaker Lowrey Bender and Goldfarb An example is the one by David Levy that associated an adopted child's lack of social emotion to her early emotional deprivation Bowlby himself was interested in the role played in delinquency by poor early relationships and explored this in a study of young thieves Bowlby's contemporary Rene Spitz proposed that "psychotoxic" results were brought about by inappropriate experiences of early care A strong influence was the work of James Robertson who filmed the effects of separation on children in hospital He and Bowlby collaborated in making the 1952 documentary film A Two-Year Old Goes to the Hospital illustrating the impact of loss and suffering experienced by young children separated from their primary caretakers This film was instrumental in a campaign to alter hospital restrictions on visiting by parents
    In his 1951 monograph for the World Health Organization Maternal Care and Mental Health Bowlby put forward the hypothesis that "the infant and young child should experience a warm intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment" and that not to do so may have significant and irreversible mental health consequences This proposition was both influential in terms of the effect on the institutional care of children and highly controversial There was limited empirical data at the time and no comprehensive theory to account for such a conclusionBowlby (1988) p. 24

    Attachment theory

    Following the publication of Maternal Care and Mental Health Bowlby sought new understanding from such fields as evolutionary biology ethology developmental psychology cognitive science and control systems theory and drew upon them to formulate the innovative proposition that the mechanisms underlying an infants tie emerged as a result of evolutionary pressuretheory of motivation and behaviour control built on up-to-date science rather than the outdated psychic energy model espoused by Freudtheory to link alleged cause and effect" in "Maternal Care and Mental Health" in his later work "Attachment and Loss" published between 1969 and 1980
    The formal origin of attachment theory can be traced to the publication of two 1958 papers one being Bowlby's The Nature of the Child's Tie to his Mother in which the precursory concepts of "attachment" were introduced and Harry Harlow's The Nature of Love based on the results of experiments which showed approximately that infant rhesus monkeys spent more time with soft mother-like dummies that offered no food than they did with dummies that provided a food source but were less pleasant to the touch Bowlby followed this up with two more papers Separation Anxiety (1960a) and Grief and Mourning in Infancy and Early Childhood (1960b) At about the same time Bowlby's former colleague Mary Ainsworth was completing extensive observational studies on the nature of infant attachments in Uganda with Bowlby's ethological theories in mind Mary Ainsworth's innovative methodology and comprehensive observational studies informed much of the theory expanded its concepts and enabled some of its tenets to be empirically tested Attachment theory was finally presented in 1969 in Attachment the first volume of the Attachment and Loss trilogy The second and third volumes Separation: Anxiety and Anger and Loss: Sadness and Depression followed in 1972 and 1980 respectively Attachment was revised in 1982 to incorporate more recent research


    Bowlby's attention was first drawn to ethology when he read Lorenz's 1952 publication in draft form although Lorenz had published much earlier work Soon after this he encountered the work of Tinbergen and began to collaborate with Robert HindeHolmes p. 62 In 1953 he stated "the time is ripe for a unification of psychoanalytic concepts with those of ethology and to pursue the rich vein of research which this union suggests"
    Konrad Lorenz had examined the phenomenon of "imprinting" and felt that it might have some parallels to human attachment Imprinting a behavior characteristic of some birds and a very few mammals involves rapid learning of recognition by a young bird or animal exposed to a conspecific or an object or organism that behaves suitably The learning is possible only within a limited age period known as a critical period This rapid learning and development of familiarity with an animate or inanimate object is accompanied by a tendency to stay close to the object and to follow when it moves; the young creature is said to have been imprinted on the object when this occurs As the imprinted bird or animal reaches reproductive maturity its courtship behavior is directed toward objects that resemble the imprinting object Bowlby's attachment concepts later included the ideas that attachment involves learning from experience during a limited age period and that the learning that occurs during that time influences adult behavior However he did not apply the imprinting concept in its entirety to human attachment nor assume that human development was a simple as that of birds He did however consider that attachment behavior was best explained as instinctive in nature an approach that does not rule out the effect of experience but that stresses the readiness the young child brings to social interactionsBowlby (1969) 2nd ed. pp. 220–223 Some of Lorenz's work had been done years before Bowlby formulated his ideas and indeed some ideas characteristic of ethology were already discussed among psychoanalysts some time before the presentation of attachment theory


    Bowlby's view of attachment was also influenced by psychoanalytical concepts and the earlier work of psychoanalysts In particular he was influenced by observations of young children separated from familiar caregivers as provided during World War II by Anna Freud and her colleague Dorothy Burlingham Observations of separated children's grief by René Spitz were another important factor in the development of attachment theory However Bowlby rejected psychoanalytical explanations for early infant bonds He rejected both Freudian "Drive (psychoanalysis)|drive-theory]" which he called the "cupboard-love" theory of relationships and early object-relations theory as both in his view failed to see the attachment as a psychological bond in its own right rather than an instinct derived from feeding or sexualityHolmes pp. 62–3 Thinking in terms of primary attachment and neo-darwinism Bowlby identified as what he saw as fundamental flaws in psychoanalysis namely the overemphasis of internal dangers at the expense of external threat and the picture of the development of personaltiy via linear "phases" with "regression" to fixed points accounting for psychological illness Instead he posited that several lines of development were possible the outcome of which depended on the interaction between the organism and the environment In attachment this would mean that although a developing child has a propensity to form attachments the nature of those attachments depends on the environment to which the child is exposedHolmes pp. 64–5

    Internal working model

    The important concept of the internal working model of social relationships was adopted by Bowlby from the work of the philosopher Kenneth Craik who had noted the adaptiveness of the ability of thought to predict events and stressed the survival value of and natural selection for this ability According to Craik prediction occurs when a "small-scale model" consisting of brain events is used to represent not only the external environment but the individual's own possible actions This model allows a person to mentally try out alternatives and to use knowledge of the past in responding to the present and future At about the same time that Bowlby was applying Craik's ideas to the study of attachment other psychologists were using these concepts in discussion of adult perception and cognition


    The theory of control systems (cybernetics) developing during the 1930s and '40s influenced Bowlby's thinking The young child's need for proximity to the attachment figure was seen as balancing homeostatically with the need for exploration The actual distance maintained would be greater or less as the balance of needs changed; for example the approach of a stranger or an injury would cause the child to seek proximity when a moment before he had been exploring at a distance

    Behavioural development and attachment

    Behaviour analysts have constructed models of attachment Such models are based on the importance of contingent relationships Behaviour analytic models have received support from research and meta-analytic reviews


    Although research on attachment behaviors continued after Bowlby's death in 1990 there was a period of time when attachment theory was considered to have run its course Some authors argued that attachment should not be seen as a trait (lasting characteristic of the individual) but instead should be regarded as an organizing principle with varying behaviors resulting from contextual factors Related later research looked at cross-cultural differences in attachment and concluded that there should be re-evaluation of the assumption that attachment is expressed identically in all humans In a recent study conducted in Sapporo Behrens et al 2007 found attachment distributions consistent with global norms using the six-year Main & Cassidy scoring system for attachment classification
    Interest in attachment theory continued and the theory was later extended to adult romantic relationships by Cindy Hazen and Phillip Shaverattachment theory and psychoanalysis into a closer relationship by way of such aspects of cognitive science as mentalization the ability to estimate what the beliefs or intentions of another person may beregime The English and Romanian Adoptees Study Team led by Michael Rutter has followed some of the children into their teens attempting to unravel the effects of poor attachment adoption and new relationships and the physical and medical problems associated with their early lives Studies on the Romanian adoptees whose initial conditions were shocking have in fact yielded reason for optimism Many of the children have developed quite well and the researchers have noted that separation from familiar people is only one of many factors that help to determine the quality of development

    Effects of changing times and approaches

    Some authors have noted the connection of attachment theory with Western family and child care patterns characteristic of Bowlby's time The implication of this connection is that attachment-related experiences (and perhaps attachment itself) may alter as young children's experience of care change historically For example changes in attitudes toward female sexuality have greatly increased the numbers of children living with their never-married mothers and being cared for outside the home while the mothers work social change in addition to increasing abortion rates has also made it more difficult for childless people to adopt infants in their own countries and has increased the number of older-child adoptions and adoptions from third-world sources Adoptions and births to same-sex couples have increased in number and even gained some legal protection compared to their status in Bowlby's timeMercer pp. 152–56
    One focus of attachment research has been on the difficulties of children whose attachment history was poor including those with extensive non-parental child care experiences Concern with the effects of child care was intense during the so-called "day care wars" of the late 20th century during which the deleterious effects of day care were stressed As a beneficial result of this controversy training of child care professionals has come to stress attachment issues and the need for relationship-building through techniques such as assignment of a child to a specific care provider Although only high-quality child care settings are likely to follow through on these considerations nevertheless a larger number of infants in child care receive attachment-friendly care than was the case in the past and emotional development of children in nonparental care may be different today than it was in the 1980s or in Bowlby's timeMercer pp. 160–63
    Finally any critique of attachment theory needs to consider how the theory has connected with changes in other psychological theories Research on attachment issues has begun to include concepts related to behaviour genetics and to the study of temperament (constitutional factors in personality) but it is unusual for popular presentations of attachment theory to include these Importantly some researchers and theorists have begun to connect attachment with the study of mentalization or Theory of Mind the capacity that allows human beings to guess with some accuracy what thoughts emotions and intentions lie behind behaviours as subtle as facial expression or eye movement The connection of theory of mind with the internal working model of social relationships may open a new area of study and lead to alterations in attachment theoryMercer pp. 165–68