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Discuss the learning theory explanation of attachment.
Attachment is a deep emotional bond between the child and the principle caregiver. Attached infants will show a
desire to be close to their primary caregiver (usually the biological mother), showing distress when they are
separated and pleasure when they are reunited. The Learning Theory links attachment to pleasure, and focuses
on the baby wanting its needs to be fulfilled. Conditioning is given as an explanation of how attachments form.
Classical conditioning is learning by associations in the environment. Getting food naturally gives the baby
pleasure, and so the baby's desire is fulfilled whenever its mother is around to feed it, forming an association
between the mother (who gives food) and pleasure. Another type of conditioning is operant conditioning, where
Dollard and Miller (1956) claimed that babies feel discomfort when they are hungry and so have a desire for food
to remove the discomfort. They find that if they cry, their mother will come and feed them. (This is called negative
reinforcement). This provides attachment behaviour.
Harlow (1959) showed that comfort is important in attachment. Just because babies spend most their time either
eating or sleeping it doesn't mean they automatically attach to the person who feeds them. Schaffer and
Emerson (1964) found that many infants didn't have strong attachments with their mother even though she fed
them, and instead good quality interaction with the babies seemed to be more important. The babies will attach
to whoever is the most sensitive and loving, which is also shown in Harlow's study, love in infant monkeys.
Harlow (1959) aimed to find out whether babies monkeys would prefer a source of food or source of comfort
and protection in attachment behaviour. In laboratory experiments, rhesus monkeys were raised in isolation.
They had two `surrogate` mothers: one was made out of wire mesh and contained a feeding bottle, and the
other was made of soft cloth but didn't contain a feeding bottle. The monkeys spent most of their time clinging to
the cloth surrogate and only used the wire surrogate to feed. The cloth surrogate seemed to give them comfort in
new situations. A direct negative impact of this experiment was when the monkeys grew up, they showed signs
of social and emotional disturbance. The females were bad mothers who were often violent towards their
This was a laboratory experiment, so there was strict control of variables. This means that it's unlikely the results
were affected by an unknown variable, and the findings of this study were applied to reallife. They lead to a
change in hospital procedure human babies in incubators are now given soft blankets. However, it can be
argued that you can't generalise the results of human beings because humans as animals are qualitatively
different. There were also ethical problems with this study the monkeys were put in a stressful situation, and
later showed signs of being psychologically damaged by the experiment. Monkeys are social animals, so it was
unfair to keep them in isolation. The fact that they were in isolation also means that the study lacked ecological
validity the monkeys weren't in their natural environment, so the results can't be reliably applied to real life.
Laboratory experiments can usually be replicated, but ethical guidelines now in place mean that you couldn't
repeat this study today to see whether you get the same results. One strength of the learning theory is that we
do learn through conditioning, although food not the only factor (attention and responsiveness also important).
One weakness of the learning theory is that Harlow showed that food is less important than contact comfort,
supported by Schaffer and Emerson (1964) who found infants did not necessarily attached to the adult who fed