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 own experience of maternal care seems to have been limited. He came from a conventional, upper middle-class background, his father a surgeon, knighted for his services to the royal family. According to the custom of this social class, Bowlby and his five siblings were cared for by a nursery staff, at the top of the house, visiting their mother in the drawing room from 5 to 6pm each day. Aged four, he was heartbroken when his nursemaid left. At nine he was sent to boarding school. He later told his wife ‘he would not send a dog to boarding school at that age’. It seems likely that these experiences sensitised him to issues of attachment and loss, although his only, cryptic, public comment was that he had been ‘sufficiently hurt but not sufficiently damaged’ by them.
After public school, he read medicine at Cambridge and University College Hospital, and did voluntary work in an analytically oriented school for maladjusted children, before starting a seven-year Kleinian psychoanalysis, and training as an adult psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital. Working in the London Child Guidance Clinic before the war, Bowlby’s views soon began to diverge from those of his psychoanalytic mentors. He became convinced that they greatly exaggerated the role of fantasy in children’s psychological disturbances, which he believed were primarily the result of damaging life experiences, especially separation from their mothers. This led him to warn, unsuccessfully, against the evacuation of children under five without their mothers at the beginning of the war. In 1944 he published a paper showing that of 44 children referred to his clinic for stealing, 14 were ‘affectionless’, and 12 of these had been separated from their mothers for at least six months when under five.
His argument that young children are harmed by maternal deprivation – whether through separation, or too many changes of, or absence of, a mother figure – was supported largely by this study of young thieves, and some methodologically weak studies by Spitz and Goldfarb of institutional and ex-institutional children. Bowlby concluded that all children need to have a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with their mother or a permanent mother substitute. Moreover he believed that there is a critical period for this relationship to develop, from 6 to 30 months. If the relationship is absent then, or broken, the consequences are severe and irreversible. Mothering is almost useless if delayed until after the age of two, and the child will grow up psychopathic, or at best affectionless, unable to form close relationships with others. He expressed his firm opposition not only to institutional care and separation in hospitals, but also to day nurseries or schools for children under three. Even those aged three to five should only attend part-time, and mothers with young children should, if necessary, be paid to stay at home.
The book made a tremendous impact on the general public. I think this was because it appeared at a time, soon after the end of the Second World War, when there was a big movement to get women, in many ways liberated by their wartime work experiences, to stay at home. Professional women like myself – I had my first baby in the year the book was published – became worried that they would damage their children by returning to work even on a part-time basis, and those who worked full-time were widely criticised. Many nurseries closed, and nursery schools switched to taking children only on a part-time basis. We should, perhaps, have known that these measures were questionable, since for generations women in the north of England had worked full-time in the mills, with no apparent north–south difference in the incidence of psychopathy.
Some psychologists at once criticised Bowlby’s theories. They objected that the evidence on which they were based was too shaky to permit such generalisations, consisting as it did largely of observational studies in one deplorable orphanage, where there were many other forms of deprivation, and retrospective studies, where selective factors were probably involved. His ‘monotropic’ assumption that infants have only one preferred person, who is always their mother, the father’s role being to support her emotionally and financially, was contested. His assertion that there is a brief critical period in the development of attachment, which, if missed, inevitably leads to severe and irreversible damage, was also met with scepticism.
What is much less widely known is that Bowlby considerably developed and modified his theories over his lifetime, driven by a desire to be more scientific in his approach, and to incorporate and respond to the concepts, methods and findings of other disciplines. (The stages of Bowlby’s thinking can be followed in a 1979 collection of his articles, The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds). Initially, he accounted for the dire consequences of maternal deprivation in psychoanalytic terms, as due to the failure of the children’s egos and superegos to develop adequately. This was because the normal childish conflict between ‘the impulse to obtain libidinal satisfaction’ and the impulse to hurt and destroy the ‘love object’ was intensified by separation, to a degree which their egos were too weak to resolve. Hence, these intense feelings remained in the unconscious, unresolved, leading to later personality disturbance.
But Bowlby was remarkably open to influences from other disciplines. During the 1950s his weekly workshop on parent–child relations included, besides both a Freudian and a Kleinian analyst, psychologists who were behaviourists, a Piagetian, an ethologist, and psychiatric social workers. Within a few years he became critical of psychoanalytic theory because of its failure to make systematic observations, the obscurity of many of its hypotheses, and its failure to see any need to test them. In 1956 the findings of his own study of early hospitalised children led him to write that he and others had overstated their case about the inevitable dire consequences of early separation.
Theoretically, he switched to an ethological explanation of the importance of mother–child bonding, in terms of its biological survival value, as well as its importance for emotional development. He saw a parallel between this bonding and the concept (later repudiated by ethologists) of imprinting in animals and birds, a process said to occur during a limited time period and to be irreversible. He was inspired by ethology to initiate observational studies of young children entering hospital and residential nurseries. He was struck by the resemblance between the stages of protest, despair and detachment observed in them after separation and the process of adult mourning.
During the 1960s Bowlby turned to study the normal process of attachment, working with a psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, with whom he developed attachment theory. This emphasised that attachment relations are important throughout life, and that later relationships and social and emotional functioning depend on the security of the first attachment. Ainsworth’s Strange Situation procedure was devised as an objective, observable way to elicit different patterns of attachment behaviour in 12- to 18-month-old children in standardised situations with their mother. Secure children, who used their mothers as a base from which to explore, and to return to for reassurance, were said to be those with sensitive, responsive mothers. It was predicted that they would later develop confident, positive social relationships. Bowlby concluded from research with this procedure that at least a third of children have mothers who do not provide them with security, because of their own emotional problems. Attachment theory and research have subsequently burgeoned (see Helen Barrett’s excellent 2006 book Attachment and the Perils of Parenting for an account).
To understand how early attachment patterns can have lasting effects, by the 1970s Bowlby had adopted the concept of ‘internal working models’ from a cognitive psychologist, Kenneth Craik. He postulated that such models, built up by young children from their experiences and from what they are told, consist of expectations about how people will respond to them, and they to others.
At first the models, whether based on negative or positive experiences, are tentative, but they tend to be confirmed and to persist. Thus any initial emotional damage to children tends to be perpetuated, although to some degree it may be moderated by subsequent experience. He drew on information-processing theories to explain the increasing resistance of these models to change. These concepts led him to withdraw his initial belief in a critical period for bonding, which had been called into question by later research.
Although many psychoanalysts thought otherwise, Bowlby always saw himself as a psychoanalyst. But when asked in 1979 for the 10 books that had most influenced his thinking, he included only one by a psychoanalyst (Freud’s Introductory Lectures), three books by biologists (Robert Hinde and Lorenz), one by the educationalist Homer Lane, and one by the psychologist Ainsworth. In 1986 Bowlby wrote of Freud: ‘The phenomena to which he called attention are immensely important, but the theories he came up with are very dated and inadequate.’
In the last part of his life, strongly influenced by the writings of Michael Rutter, he abandoned his original insistence on the irreversible consequences of maternal separation. In 1988 he wrote that ‘the central task is to study the endless interactions of internal and external factors, and how the one is influencing the other not only during childhood but during adolescence and adult life as well… Present knowledge requires that a theory of developmental pathways should replace theories that invoke specific phases of development in which it is postulated that a person may become fixated and/or to which he may regress.’ His concern remained with the concept of attachment, but his interest had shifted to the problems of adults with dysfunctional working models of attachment. Unfortunately, it is his original crude theory that has stuck in the public mind.
Bowlby’s theories, by emphasising the role in development of experience as opposed to fantasy, constituted an important critique of psychoanalysis. They were also important in drawing attention to the emotional suffering that young children can undergo in separation, which led to more humane practices in hospital and child care. But his influence was felt by many women as oppressive, until feminism and the growth of consumerism led to mothers returning to work with greater confidence.
In my own case, my first major research project, a longitudinal study of children who spent their first two to five years in English residential nurseries, was inspired by doubts about Bowlby’s theories. In fact, we found that he was partially right. Whilst by 16 many of the ex-institutional children, especially the adopted children, had formed strong and loving relationships with their parents, they more often had problems with their peers than other children. But these problems occurred in only half of the children, and were more frequent in those who returned to their own families, with all their problems, than those who were adopted, and had much attention and care lavished on them.
Unlike me, my late husband Jack took little interest in Bowlby’s work. Like Bowlby, during the 1950s he was concerned about the effects of institutional care: in Jack’s case, on adults and children who had been certified as ‘mental defectives’, and incarcerated with an almost indeterminate sentence in huge institutional ‘colonies’. Jack’s interest was in improving the patients’ lives, by setting up occupational training for the young adults, which often made their release into the community possible, and by an experimental transfer of severely retarded young children from a large hospital ward into a small, nursery-like hostel. His motivation was humanitarian and libertarian. He was influenced by, and liaised with, the National Council for Civil Liberties (now ‘Liberty’) who were then campaigning for the release of specific adults, certified when teenagers, often because of a combination of school failure and minor delinquency. Unlike Bowlby, Jack saw that there was sometimes a role for institutional care, and was concerned to understand how institutions worked, and how to improve them.
Barbara Tizard is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education