Theories of Attachment

Initially developed in the middle of the twentieth century, attachment theory has dominated the last fifty years of research into the experiences of infants and children.  Leading the charge on ‘attachment theory’ was John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. 

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (1958)

Attachment theory originates with the seminal work of British psychologist, John Bowlby (1958).  Describing attachment as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (1969, p.194), Bowlby’s experience treating many emotionally disturbed children led him to consider the importance of the child’s relationship with their mother/caregiver in terms of their social, emotional and cognitive development.

Bowlby’s early findings contradicted the dominant discourse of behavioral theory on attachment (Dollard & Miller, 1950) that suggested a child became attached to their mother because she fed them.  Instead, he observed that children experienced intense distress when separated from their mothers and, even when they were fed by other caregivers, their anxiety did not diminish.  As such, he proposed an evolutionary theory of attachment which suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others for the purpose of survival.  That innately, an infant is programmed to emit behaviours such as crying and smiling that stimulate innate caregiving responses from adults. As such he proposes that the determinant of attachment is not food but care and responsiveness.

Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one primary attachment and that this acted as a secure base for exploring the world and as a prototype for all future social relationships.  This theory also suggested that 0 - 5 years is the critical period for developing an attachment and if an attachment has not developed during this period there are irreversible developmental consequences.  This notion has however been criticised by more recent knowledge surrounding neuroplasticity.

Bowlby says the characteristics that distinguish attachment from other relational bonds include:

Proximity Seeking – the child will attempt to remain within protective range of parents/caregivers.  When situations are perceived to be threatening, the child seeks closer proximity to their attachment figure.

The Secure Base – the presence of an attachment figure fosters security in the child.  The securely attached child can feel safe enough to explore the environment and attend to other matters without having to scan the environment for risks and threats.  The argument behind this is that the notion of a secure base becomes internalised over time, enabling the child to rely on themselves once they have been part of a safe, predictable attachment relationship.

The Separation Protest – threat to the continued accessibility of the attachment figure gives rise to protest.

Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth, advanced and expanded on Bowlby’s theories.  Through empirical testing, she contributed the concept of the attachment figure as a secure based from which an infant can explore the world.  Ainsworth also formulated the concept of maternal sensitivity to infant signals and its role in the development of infant-mother attachment patterns. 

Most well-known is the Strange Situation study that Ainsworth undertook and from which she developed the classification system of attachment. By observing the development of infant-mother attachment Ainsworth et al, (1978) put forth three types of attachment:

  • Secure Attachment
  • Anxious Attachment
  • Avoidant Attachment

Schaffer & Emerson’s Stages of Attachment (1964)

Not as well-known, are researchers Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson who developed the ‘Stages of Attachment’ (1964).  In a longitudinal study, infants were observed every four weeks during the first year of their life and again at 18 months.  From these observations, the number of attachment relationships the infants formed were analysed. From these they outlined four distinct phases of attachment.

Pre-attachment Stage

From birth to three months, infants do not show any particular attachment to a specific caregiver. The infant's signals such as crying and fussing naturally attract the attention of the caregiver, and the baby's positive responses encourage the caregiver to remain close.

Indiscriminate Attachment

From around six weeks to seven months of age, infants begin to show preferences for primary and secondary caregivers and begin to develop a feeling of trust that the caregiver will respond to their needs. While they will still accept care from other people, they become much better at distinguishing between familiar and unfamiliar people as they approach seven months of age. They also respond more positively to the primary caregiver.

Discriminate Attachment

From about seven to eleven months of age, infants show a strong attachment and preference for one specific individual. They will protest when separated from the primary attachment figure and begin to display anxiety around strangers.

Multiple Attachments

After approximately nine months of age, children begin to form strong emotional bonds with other caregivers beyond the primary attachment figure. This often includes the father, older siblings, and grandparents.

There was acknowledgement that whilst this may seem like a straightforward process, that is not always the case. For instance, it is influenced by the child having opportunities for attachment and the quality of the care-giving.

Mary Main’s disorganised attachment and adult attachment (1986)

Adding to Ainsworth's categories, Mary Main (1986) identified a fourth attachment style after observing infants who exhibited a diverse array of odd, disorganized, disoriented, or overtly conflicted behaviours in the parent's presence.  For instance they displayed contradictory behaviour such as attempting physical closeness (seeking solace from caregiver) and then retreating with acts of avoidance (fearful of caregiver) – “fright without solution”.  She noticed that these children didn’t fit within any of Ainsworth’s classifications and following empirical research, Main put forth an ‘insecure-disorientation’ attachment classification.  These infants were found to exhibit ‘conflict’ behaviours in a stressful setting and such behaviour was expected whenever an infant was markedly frightened by its primary haven of safety, i.e., the attachment figure.  Some suggested that this is actually an adaptive response to harsh caregiving.

Main also provided some of the first insights into understanding the intergenerational transmission of attachment patterns.  As co-author of the Adult Attachment Interview, Main asked parents about their attachment relationships in childhood and the influence of these on their own development.  From this she identified three distinct patterns of adult attachment.

  • Autonomous-secure parents who gave a clear and coherent account of early attachment
  • Preoccupied parents who spoke of many conflicted childhood memories about attachment and were disorganised and inconsistent in drawing these together
  • Dismissing parents who were unable to remember much about attachment relationships in their childhood

These were found to not only correspond at a conceptual level to Ainsworth’s secure, ambivalent and avoidant infant patterns of attachment but also found that adult’s patterns were empirically correlated with infant patterns.

Further Resources