Bowlby's Attachment Theory
Saul McLeod published 2007
John Bowlby (1907 - 1990) was a psychoanalyst (like Freud) and believed that mental health and behavioral problems could be attributed to early childhood.
Bowlby’s evolutionary theory of attachment suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive. Bowlby was very much influenced by ethological theory in general, but especially by Lorenz’s (1935) study of imprinting. Lorenz showed that attachment was innate (in young ducklings) and therefore has a survival value.
Bowlby believed that attachment behaviors are instinctive and will be activated by any conditions that seem to threaten the achievement of proximity, such as separation, insecurity, and fear.
Bowlby (1969, 1988) also postulated that the fear of strangers represents an important survival mechanism, built in by nature. Babies are born with the tendency to display certain innate behaviors (called social releasers) which help ensure proximity and contact with the mother or attachment figure (e.g., crying, smiling, crawling, etc.) – these are species-specific behaviors.
During the evolution of the human species, it would have been the babies who stayed close to their mothers that would have survived to have children of their own. Bowlby hypothesized that both infants and mothers have evolved a biological need to stay in contact with each other.
These attachment behaviors initially function like fixed action patterns and all share the same function. The infant produces innate ‘social releaser’ behaviors such as crying and smiling that stimulate caregiving from adults. The determinant of attachment is not food but care and responsiveness.
Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one attachment 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.
Main Points of Bowlby’s Theory
1. A child has an innate (i.e., inborn) need to attach to one main attachment figure (i.e., monotropy).
Although Bowlby did not rule out the possibility of other attachment figures for a child, he did believe that there should be a primary bond which was much more important than any other (usually the mother).
Bowlby believes that this attachment is qualitatively different from any subsequent attachments. Bowlby argues that the relationship with the mother is somehow different altogether from other relationships.
Essentially, Bowlby (1988) suggested that the nature of monotropy (attachment conceptualized as being a vital and close bond with just one attachment figure) meant that a failure to initiate, or a breakdown of, the maternal attachment would lead to serious negative consequences, possibly including affectionless psychopathy. Bowlby’s theory of monotropy led to the formulation of his maternal deprivation hypothesis.
The child behaves in ways that elicits contact or proximity to the caregiver. When a child experiences heightened arousal, he/she signals their caregiver. Crying, smiling, and, locomotion, are examples of these signaling behaviors. Instinctively, caregivers respond to their children’s behavior creating a reciprocal pattern of interaction.
2. A child should receive the continuous care of this single most important attachment figure for approximately the first two years of life.
Bowlby (1951) claimed that mothering is almost useless if delayed until after two and a half to three years and, for most children, if delayed till after 12 months, i.e., there is a critical period.
If the attachment figure is broken or disrupted during the critical two year period, the child will suffer irreversible long-term consequences of this maternal deprivation. This risk continues until the age of five.
Bowlby used the term maternal deprivation to refer to the separation or loss of the mother as well as failure to develop an attachment.
The underlying assumption of Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis is that continual disruption of the attachment between infant and primary caregiver (i.e., mother) could result in long-term cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties for that infant. The implications of this are vast – if this is true, should the primary caregiver leave their child in day care, while they continue to work?
3. The long-term consequences of maternal deprivation might include the following:
• reduced intelligence,
• increased aggression,
• affectionless psychopathy
Affectionless psychopathy is an inability to show affection or concern for others. Such individuals act on impulse with little regard for the consequences of their actions. For example, showing no guilt for antisocial behavior.
4. Robertson and Bowlby (1952) believe that short-term separation from an attachment figure leads to distress (i.e., the PDD model).
They found three progressive stages of distress:
- Protest: The child cries, screams and protests angrily when the parent leaves. They will try to cling on to the parent to stop them leaving.
- Despair: The child’s protesting begins to stop, and they appear to be calmer although still upset. The child refuses others’ attempts for comfort and often seems withdrawn and uninterested in anything.
- Detachment: If separation continues the child will start to engage with other people again. They will reject the caregiver on their return and show strong signs of anger.
5. The child’s attachment relationship with their primary caregiver leads to the development of an internal working model (Bowlby, 1969).
This internal working model is a cognitive framework comprising mental representations for understanding the world, self, and others. A person’s interaction with others is guided by memories and expectations from their internal model which influence and help evaluate their contact with others (Bretherton, & Munholland, 1999).
Around the age of three, these seem to become part of a child’s personality and thus affects their understanding of the world and future interactions with others (Schore, 2000). According to Bowlby (1969), the primary caregiver acts as a prototype for future relationships via the internal working model.
There are three main features of the internal working model: (1) a model of others as being trustworthy, (2) a model of the self as valuable, and (3) a model of the self as effective when interacting with others.
It is this mental representation that guides future social and emotional behavior as the child’s internal working model guides their responsiveness to others in general.
44 Thieves Study (Bowlby, 1944)
John Bowlby believed that the relationship between the infant and its mother during the first five years of life was most crucial to socialization. He believed that disruption of this primary relationship could lead to a higher incidence of juvenile delinquency, emotional difficulties, and antisocial behavior.
To test his hypothesis, he studied 44 adolescent juvenile delinquents in a child guidance clinic.
Aim: To investigate the long-term effects of maternal deprivation on people in order to see whether delinquents have suffered deprivation. According to the Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis, breaking the maternal bond with the child during the early stages of its life is likely to have serious effects on its intellectual, social and emotional development.
Procedure: Between 1936 and 1939 an opportunity sample of 88 children was selected from the clinic where Bowlby worked. Of these, 44 were juvenile thieves and had been referred to him because of their stealing. Bowlby selected another group of 44 children to act as ‘controls (individuals referred to the clinic because of emotional problems, but not yet committed any crimes).
On arrival at the clinic, each child had their IQ tested by a psychologist who also assessed the child’s emotional attitudes towards the tests. At the same time a social worker interviewed a parent to record details of the child’s early life (e.g., periods of separation). The psychologist and social worker made separate reports. A psychiatrist (Bowlby) then conducted an initial interview with the child and accompanying parent (e.g., diagnosing affectionless psychopathy).
He also found 14 of the young thieves (32%) showed 'affectionless psychopathy' (they were not able to care about or feel affection for others). None of the control group were affectionless psychopaths.
Bowlby found that 86% of the ‘affectionless psychopaths’ in group 1 (‘thieves) had experienced a long period of maternal separation before the age of 5 years (they had spent most of their early years in residential homes or hospitals and were not often visited by their families).
Only 17% of the thieves not diagnosed as affectionless psychopaths had experienced maternal separation. Only 2 of the control group had experienced a prolonged separation in their first 5 years.
Conclusion: Bowlby concluded that maternal separation/deprivation in the child’s early life caused permanent emotional damage. He diagnosed this as a condition and called it Affectionless Psychopathy. According to Bowlby, this condition involves a lack of emotional development, characterized by a lack of concern for others, lack of guilt and inability to form meaningful and lasting relationships.
Evaluation: The supporting evidence that Bowlby (1944) provided was in the form of clinical interviews of, and retrospective data on, those who had and had not been separated from their primary caregiver.
This meant that Bowlby was asking the participants to look back and recall separations. These memories may not be accurate. Bowlby designed and conducted the experiment himself. This may have lead to experimenter bias. Particularly as he was responsible for making the diagnosis of affectionless psychopathy.
Another criticism of the 44 thieves study was that it concluded affectionless psychopathy was caused by maternal deprivation. This is correlational data and as such only shows a relationship between these two variables. Indeed, other external variables, such as family conflict, parental income, education, etc. may have affected the behavior of the 44 thieves, and not, as concluded, the disruption of the attachment bond. Thus, as Rutter (1972) pointed out, Bowlby’s conclusions were flawed, mixing up cause and effect with correlation.
The study was vulnerable to researcher bias. Bowlby conducted the psychiatric assessments himself and made the diagnoses of Affectionless Psychopathy. He knew whether the children were in the ‘theft group’ or the control group. Consequently, his findings may have unconsciously influenced by his own expectations. This potentially undermines their validity.
Evaluation of Bowlby’s Theory
Bifulco et al. (1992) support the maternal deprivation hypothesis. They studied 250 women who had lost mothers, through separation or death, before they were 17. They found that loss of their mother through separation or death doubles the risk of depressive and anxiety disorders in adult women. The rate of depression was the highest in women whose mothers had died before the child reached the age of 6.
Bowlby’s (1944, 1956) ideas had a great influence on the way researchers thought about attachment, and much of the discussion of his theory has focused on his belief in monotropy.
Although Bowlby may not dispute that young children form multiple attachments, he still contends that the attachment to the mother is unique in that it is the first to appear and remains the strongest of all. However, on both of these counts, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.
- Schaffer & Emerson (1964) noted that specific attachments started at about 8 months and, very shortly thereafter, the infants became attached to other people. By 18 months very few (13%) were attached to only one person; some had five or more attachments.
- Rutter (1972) points out that several indicators of attachment (such as protest or distress when attached person leaves) have been shown for a variety of attachment figures – fathers, siblings, peers and even inanimate objects.
Critics such as Rutter have also accused Bowlby of not distinguishing between deprivation and privation – the complete lack of an attachment bond, rather than its loss. Rutter stresses that the quality of the attachment bond is the most important factor, rather than just deprivation in the critical period.
Bowlby used the term maternal deprivation to refer to the separation or loss of the mother as well as the failure to develop an attachment. Are the effects of maternal deprivation as dire as Bowlby suggested?
Michael Rutter (1972) wrote a book called Maternal Deprivation Re-assessed. In the book, he suggested that Bowlby may have oversimplified the concept of maternal deprivation. Bowlby used the term 'maternal deprivation' to refer to separation from an attached figure, loss of an attached figure and failure to develop an attachment to any figure. These each have different effects, argued Rutter. In particular, Rutter distinguished between privation and deprivation.
Michael Rutter (1981) argued that if a child fails to develop an emotional bond, this is privation, whereas deprivation refers to the loss of or damage to an attachment.
From his survey of research on privation, Rutter proposed that it is likely to lead initially to clinging, dependent behavior, attention-seeking and indiscriminate friendliness, then as the child matures, an inability to keep rules, form lasting relationships, or feel guilt. He also found evidence of anti-social behavior, affectionless psychopathy, and disorders of language, intellectual development and physical growth.
Rutter argues that these problems are not due solely to the lack of attachment to a mother figure, as Bowlby claimed, but to factors such as the lack of intellectual stimulation and social experiences which attachments normally provide. In addition, such problems can be overcome later in the child's development, with the right kind of care.
Many of the 44 thieves in Bowlby’s study had been moved around a lot during childhood, and had probably never formed an attachment. This suggested that they were suffering from privation, rather than deprivation, which Rutter suggested was far more deleterious to the children. This led to a very important study on the long-term effects of privation, carried out by Hodges and Tizard (1989).
Bowlby's Maternal Deprivation is, however, supported by Harlow's (1958) research with monkeys. He showed that monkeys reared in isolation from their mother suffered emotional and social problems in older age. The monkey's never formed an attachment (privation) and as such grew up to be aggressive and had problems interacting with other monkeys.
Konrad Lorenz (1935) supports Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis as the attachment process of imprinting is an innate process.
Bowlby assumed that physical separation on its own could lead to deprivation but Rutter (1972) argues that it is the disruption of the attachment rather than the physical separation. This is supported by Radke-Yarrow (1985) who found that 52% of children whose mothers suffered from depression were insecurely attached. This figure raised to 80% when this occurred in a context of poverty (Lyons-Ruth,1988). This shows the influence of social factors. Bowlby did not take into account the quality of the substitute care. Deprivation can be avoided if there is good emotional care after separation.
There are implications arising from Bowlby’s work. As he believed the mother to be the most central care giver and that this care should be given on a continuous basis an obvious implication is that mothers should not go out to work. There have been many attacks on this claim:
- Mothers are the exclusive carers in only a very small percentage of human societies; often there are a number of people involved in the care of children, such as relations and friends (Weisner, & Gallimore, 1977).
- Van Ijzendoorn, & Tavecchio (1987) argue that a stable network of adults can provide adequate care and that this care may even have advantages over a system where a mother has to meet all a child’s needs.
- There is evidence that children develop better with a mother who is happy in her work, than a mother who is frustrated by staying at home (Schaffer, 1990).
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How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2007). Bowlby's attachment theory. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html
A-level Psychology Attachment Revision Notes
Strange Situation (Ainsworth, 1978)
The Effects of Childcare on Social Development
The Effects of Maternal Deprivation
Bowlby 44 Thieves
The Origins of Attachment Theory: Bowlby and Ainsworth
Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation (Description, AO1):
Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation (1951) focuses on how the effects of early experiences may interfere with the usual process of attachment formation. Bowlby proposed that separation from the mother or mother-substitute has a serious effect on psychological development. Bowlby famously said that ‘mother-infant love in infancy and childhood is more important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins for physical health.’ Being separated from a mother in early childhood can have serious consequences according to Bowlby.
Definition of Maternal Deprivation:
The emotional and intellectual consequences of separation between a child and his/her mother of mother-substitute. Bowlby proposed that continuous care from a mother is essential for normal psychological development, and that prolonged separation from this adult causes serious damage to emotional and intellectual development.
Remember: Bowlby emphasised the importance of the critical period – he stated that if during the critical period (the first year of an infants life) a child was deprived of emotional care for a long period of time, this could lead to psychological damage.
Long Term Consequences of Maternal Deprivation – Bowlby’s 44 Thieves Study
Aim: To examine the link between affectionless psychopathy (individuals who have a lack of guilt and empathy) and maternal deprivation.
- Sample was 44 criminal teenagers accused of stealing.
- All ‘thieves’ were interviewed for signs of affectionless psychopathy (characterised as a lack of guilt about their actions, lack of empathy for their victims and a lack of affection.
- Their families were also interviewed in order to establish whether the ‘thieves’ had prolonged early separation from their mothers.
- A control group of non-criminals but emotionally disturbed individuals was set up to see how often maternal deprivation/separation occurred in children who were not thieves.
- 14 out of the 44 thieves could be described as affectionless psychopaths.
- Of this 14, 12 had experienced separation from their mothers in the first 2 years of their lives.
- In contrast, only 5 of the remaining 30 ‘thieves’ had experienced separations.
- Of the control group, only 2 out of 44 had experienced long term separations.
Conclusion: It was concluded that prolonged early separation/deprivation caused affectionless psychopathy.
Evaluation Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation (Evaluation, AO3):
(1) POINT: Further research has supported Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Theory.EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Goldfarb (1955) followed up 30 war orphaned children to age 12. Of his original sample, half had been fostered by the age of 4 whilst the other half remained in the orphanage. At the age of 12, both groups of orphans IQ was tested. The group fostered had an average IQ of 96, whereas the group that wasn’t fostered by age 4 had an average IQ of 68. EVALUATION:This is a strength because, Goldfarb’s findings reiterate the main assumptions of Bowlby’s theory showing that early separation and the deprivation can lead to long lasting effects on infant development and development in later life.
(1) POINT: However, Bowlby’s findings from the 44 thieves study can be criticised for investigator bias. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, other Psychologists have suggested that Bowlby’s study had some major design flaws and most importantly bias. Bowlby himself carried out the investigation, the individual assessments for affectionless psychopathy and the family interviews knowing what he hoped to find. Developmental psychologists have suggested that Bowlby may have interpreted the findings in a bias way in order to generate support for his theory. EVALUATION: This is problematic because if Bowlby’s findings have been affected by investigator bias, this will mean that his theory is based on bias results and therefore can be criticised as being inaccurate.
(2) POINT: Research from Lewis (1954) challenges Bowlby’s findings into maternal deprivation. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Lewis partially replicated Bowlby’s 44 thieves study on a larger scale, looking at 500 young people. In her sample, a history of prolonged separation from the mother did not predict criminality or difficulty in forming close relationships. EVALUATION: This is a problem for the theory of maternal deprivation because it suggests that other factors may affect the outcome of early maternal deprivation.
Romanian Orphan Studies – The Effects of Institutionalisation, (Description, AO1):
Research into Maternal Deprivation has turned to orphan studies as a means of studying the effects of deprivation. An opportunity to look at the effects of deprivation and institutionalisation arose in Romania in the 1990s. The former president of Romania (Nicolai Ceaucescu) required Romanian women to have 5 children. Many Romania parents couldn’t afford to keep the children and so the children ended up in orphanages.
Rutter’s ERA (English Romanian Adoptee) Study
Aim: To investigate the effects of early institutionalisation and deprivation on later life development.
Procedure: Rutter et al (2011) followed a group of 165 Romanian orphans adopted in Britain to test to what extent good care could make up for poor early experiences in institutions. Physical, Cognitive and Emotional development was assessed at ages 4, 6, 11 and 15 years old. A group of 15 English children adopted around the same time served as a control group.
Findings: When they first arrived in the UK, half the adoptees showed signs of mental retardation and were undernourished. At the age of 11, the children showed differential rates of recovery that were linked to their age of adoption.
|Age of Adoption||IQ Score|
|Before 6 months||102|
|6 months-2 years||86|
|After 2 years||77|
Those children who were adopted after 6 months showed signs of disinhibited attachment (attention seeking, clinginess and social behaviour directed indiscriminately towards all adults (familiar and unfamiliar). Those infants adopted before the age of 6 months rarely displayed this type of attachment.
Conclusion: This study concludes that early maternal deprivation and a failure to form an attachment within the critical period can lead to long lasting effects on development in later life (long term effects).
The Effects of Institutionalisation, (Description, AO1):
- Poor Parenting: A child who has experienced a lack of emotional care may grow up to be a poor parent. Quinton et al (1984) compared a group of 50 women who had been reared in institutions (children’s homes) with a control group of 50 women reared at home in a ‘normal’ environment. When the women were in their 20’s it was found that the ex-institutionalised women were experiencing extreme difficulties acting as parents. For example, more of the ex-institutionalised women had children who had spent time in care. Harlow witnessed the effects of poor parenting with the monkeys who had been placed with a surrogate during the first few months of their life. Harlow followed the monkeys into their adult life and found that when they became parents quite often they rejected their offspring and, in some extreme cases they killed their offspring.
- Deprivation Dwarfism:Gardner (1972) showed that children who have experienced a lack of emotional care may show physical underdevelopment as well as emotional problems e.g. they may be physically small. It is thought that the lack of emotional care itself (rather than poor nourishment) may be the cause of this. The production of hormones such as growth hormones are affected by the severe emotional disturbance resulting in physical underdevelopment (or dwarfism). The case study of Genie illustrates the possibility of deprivation dwarfism as a result of a lack of emotional care during the critical period.
- Attachment Disorder: This has recently been recognised as a ‘psychiatric condition’ and effects a child’s social and emotional development. Children show 3 things:
- No preferred attachment figure
- An inability to interact and relate to others shown before the age of 5
- Experience of severe neglect or frequent change of caregivers.
There are two kinds of attachment disorder – Reactive/Inhibited: a child will be shy and withdrawn, unable to cope with most social situations. Disinhibited – a child with this disorder will be over-friendly and attention seeking
Evaluation of Research into the Effects of Institutionalisation (Evaluation, AO3):
(1) POINT: A strength of this research is that studying the Romanian orphans has enhanced psychologist’s understanding of the effects of institutionalisation.EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE:Langton (2006) has suggested that such knowledge developed through this research has changed the way children in institutions are cared for. For example, orphanages and children’s homes now avoid having large numbers of caregivers for each child and instead ensure that a much smaller number of people, (perhaps only one or two people/keyworkers) play a central role for the child. EVALUATION:This is a strength because, having a key worker means that children have the chance to develop normal attachments and helps to avoid disinhibited attachment types. This shows that research into institutionalisation has been immensely valuable in practical terms.
(2) POINT: Another strength of this study is that there were fewer extraneous variables in the Romanian orphan studies in comparison to other orphan studies where infants involved had experienced a lot of trauma before they were institutionalised. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, the children may have experienced neglect, abuse of bereavement. These children were often traumatised by their experiences. It was very hard for psychologists to observe the effects of institutionalisation in isolation because the children were dealing with multiple factors which functioned as confounding participant variables. EVALUATION: This is a strength because, in the case of the Romanian orphan study institutionalisation without these confounding variables, which means that the findings have high internal validity and a cause and effect relationship can be established.
(1) POINT: However, a problem with the Romanian orphans is that they were not typical. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Romanian orphanages had particular poor standards of care, especially when it came to forming any new relationships with the children, and extremely low levels of intellectual stimulation. EVALUATION: This is a limitation of the Romanian orphans study because the unusual situational variables means that studies may lack generalisability and therefore, the findings cannot be applied to the understanding of the impact of better quality care institutions