Caregiver-infant interactions

  • Reciprocity - caregiver and baby both take an active role in taking turns to initiate interactions. Trevathen suggested the taking turns was important for the development of social skills. 
  • Tronick et al. Still face study - Mother would play with the child until they received a cue through their earpiece to cease responding. The baby would be distressed and scream showing that the child noticed the lack of physical response. This shows that the infant is playing an active role as they pull out all the stops (screaming) to get the mother to respond. 
  • Interactional synchrony - The caregiver and baby interact in a synchronised way.
  • Meltozz and Moore - Filmed two-week-old babies and found a link between adult facial expressions and that of the baby who would imitate the adult. 
  • Isabella et al. observed 30 mothers and their infants and found high levels of synchrony resulted in better mother-infant attachment suggesting it is an aspect of evolution. 

AO3 Observation of infants is difficult. Researchers are looking for actions that children display naturally so the response may be a coincidence. This was resolved by filming from multiple angles in a lab where the interaction can be studied frame by frame. We cannot be certain of the child's intention behind the synchrony. This was debunked by Murry and Trevathen who showed clips of the mothers to the infants so they were out of sync. The infants became distressed showing they were trying to elicit a response. 

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Shaffer's Stages of Attachment

Shaffer and Emerson (1964) study on infant attachment. A longitudinal study on 60 working-class infants from Glasgow. Infants were observed in their own home every 4 weeks until 12 months and again at 18 months. High external validity as the p's were observed in their own home environment and the same children were used. However, replication of the study is difficult and took place around 50 years ago so the results could differ today. Found that 39% of infants attached to someone other than the person who fed and bathed them and most infants maintained one main object of attachment. The first stage, asocial, takes place between 0 to 6 weeks and the baby acts the same way towards humans and objects, familiar adults are easier to soothe them. The final stage, multiple attachments, takes place onwards from 10 months. The children create secondary attachments to adults who they see regularly. 

AO3 - In the asocial stage infants are very young, with poor coordination and mobility. This means it is hard to observe them and as they do not move much it is difficult to judge their cognitions. In some cultures where childcare is collectively shared, infants form multiple attachments simultaneously. This means that Shaffer's stages are not universal. This limits the theory. Separation anxiety may also not be an indicator of attachment as children become distressed in the same way when a parent or friend leaves, however, there may not be the same quality attachment. 

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Lorenz's Geese

  • Lorenz wanted to investigate if animals became attached to the first thing they saw. He took a batch of goose eggs and split them in half, one seeing the mother goose first and the other seeing Harlow first.
  • The goslings that saw Lorenz first followed him everywhere.
  • The control group followed the mother goose.
  • Lorenz also found that there is a critical period with imprinting as the longer a gosling went without imprinting the less likely it was to happen. 
  • AO3 - Lorenz work suggests that the learning theory explanation of attachment is incorrect as the imprinting took place before the goslings had been fed.
  • Anthropomorphism - we cannot generalise animal studies to humans, usually due to different lifespan or social groups. This could affect the way we form attachments so conclusions from birds may be specific to the species. 
  • Later research suggests that imprinting is not permanent. E.g. chicks that imprinted on yellow gloves first tried to mate with yellow gloves but then learned to prefer to mate with other chicks.
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Harlow's Monkeys

  • Harlow reared infant rhesus monkeys in isolation. They had the choice of a wire model that dispensed milk or a soft cloth model that had no food.
  • The monkeys spent more time with the cloth model than the wire model.
  • Only went to the wire model for milk when hungry. In times of fear, they clung to the cloth model.
  • This shows that comfort is a bigger drive than food. As the maternally deprived monkeys reached adulthood the females were poor mothers and were aggressive. 


  • This work has led to more sensitive care in foster homes. Before it was considered that if a child was physically healthy then this was sufficient. 
  • There is also the ethical complication of the psychological harm caused to the monkeys without their consent. Monkeys are similar to humans which means that the generalisations may be more accurate however it also means that their suffering will be similar to humans. It could be argued that their suffering has improved the lives of animals and humans so it may be justified. 
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Theories of attachment - Learning theory

Classical conditioning - Mother becomes associated with food, leading to pleasure even in the absence of food. Infants associate the caregiver with pleasure only previously gained by food.

Operant conditioning - The food is the primary reinforcer. The infant is in a drive state and expresses their unhappiness through crying. The mother then provides food and the infant receives positive reinforcement for crying and will repeat the behaviour. The infant becomes attached as they seek proximity to the source of food. The mother is negatively reinforced by the reduction of negative feelings caused by their child crying. 


  • Considered environmentally reductionist as it simplifies the complexities of human attachment to stimulus-response links
  • If cupboard love were true then there would be no need for caregiver-infant interactions, so by seeing things associated with better attachment argues against learning theory
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Theories of attachment - Bowlby's monotropic theor

Adaptive - Attachment behaviour is innate. Helps the infants chances of survival. 

Social releasers - Parents are genetically programmed to respond to social releasers. Dopamine is released in a mother's brain when her baby laughs. 

Critical Period - A window in which attachment should take place. 

Monotropy - Infants have one attachment figure, usually the mother. 

Internal working model of relationships - Early attachment creates an expectation for future relationships. 

AO3 - Evidence from animal studies supports Bowlby's idea that attachment is innate for some species. There is also research support for caregiver-infant reciprocity. Isabella et al. found that those with better synchrony as infants were better attached as adults. Schaffer and Emerson found that infants became best attached to those adults who spent most quality time with them, not just fed them. This would include interaction by responding to social releases. Bowlby's theory has had a huge impact on the emotional care of children. It is controversial as it implies that a mother must spect as much time as possible with her children and not go to work. 

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Ainsworth's The Strange Situation

A controlled, structured observation that takes place in a lab with a two-way mirror. Designed to assess the quality of the infant’s attachment to one caregiver. The infants are usually around 1 year old. Use of the parent as a secure base, stranger anxiety, separation anxiety and reunion behaviour are assessed. 20% were insecure-avoidant who explore freely and ignore mother on return. 65% were securely attached, explore but are upset when the mother leaves and are comforted on return. 3% were insecure resistant, did not explore and were cross with mother on return.

AO3 - May assess the child's personality and not attachment type. This would make attachment types invalid. Has a high predictive validity as it was strongly predictive of later development. E.g. secure babies have better outcomes in relationships later in life. Because the study is strictly controlled and has a series of stages it is easy to repeat around the world which makes it useful to compare attachment across cultures. Distress - the infant clearly found most of the situations distressing, however, this may not be any worse than what they will have to learn to experience in real life.

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The role of the father

Traditionally the mother is considered the primary caregiver. Schaffer and Emerson found that only 3% of infants formed their primary attachment to the father. This has been used to justify practices against working mothers. 

Two possible reasons for mothers being the primary caregiver are time and biology

Time: Is the mother likely to spend more time with the child? Lamb found that fathers who spent more time with the child did not form better attachments suggesting that time is not the reason for mothers being the monotropic figure. 

Biology: When fathers engage with their infants the biological changes that happen are the same as they would be in the mother. This means that hormones do not explain the predominance of mothers in attachment. 

AO3 - The difference in attachments is maybe due to societal differences, i.e. men are socialised to behave differently towards infants than women. 

Perhaps parents play different roles in the upbringing of their children. Mothers are more involved in nurturing and fathers are more involved in play according to Grossman. It is the level of responsiveness that is important to build an attachment. From the studies of same-sex parenting, the role of the father is important due to the support of a second parent rather than because of their sex.

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Cultural variations in attachment

Studies that find cross-cultural similarities in attachment: Tronick found infants from the Efe tribe in Zaire where the work of childrearing is shared, including breastfeeding, still showed a monotropic attachment to their mother.

Studies that find cross-cultural differences in attachment: Grossman and Grossman conducted the strange situation in Germany where mothers and infants have less proximity, with the children never sleeping in their parent's bedroom. They found more children were insecure-avoidant than in Britain or America.

Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg’s meta-analysis of 32 attachment studies from 8 countries. Secure attachment was the most common in all countries, from 50% in China to 75% in the UK. The pattern of attachment types found in the USA was true worldwide.

AO3 - Large sample sizes meant there is a high population validity, we can be more confident that the results are representative as there is less chance of anomalies affecting the data. SST can be accused of an imposed etic as it assumes that what makes a ‘secure’ attachment in the USA is true of other countries. In the US independence is positive whereas in Japan independence is unencouraged. So ‘insecurely’ attached infants are only insecure according to the imposed etic.

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Bowlby's theory of maternal deprivation

According to Bowlby the human need for emotional care was just as important as adequate nutrition.

Bowlby's 44 Thieves: Interviewed 44 thieves and another 44 control children. Interviewed parents to see if the children had been separated and for how long. Over 50% of thieves had been separated for over 6 months in the first 5 years. 32% had affectionless psychopathy. Concluded that maternal deprivation caused anti-social behaviour later on.

AO3 - Bowlby only looked at physical separation where the outcome could have been caused by a mother's depression and being emotionally absent. The importance of good substitute emotional care is overlooked as there is evidence that suggests the effects are not permanent and can be limited based on subsequent care, e.g. Genie ‘the wild child’ who made a full recovery after her first 12 years locked in a room without attention. Researchers have failed to replicate the findings from the 44 thieves study. It was replicated by Lewes who found no evidence that early maternal deprivation led to criminality. Bowlby carried out the assessments for affectionless psychopathy himself which may have caused researcherbias as he knew which children were thieves or not. He should have used blind interviewers.

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Romanian Orphan Studies

A longitudinal study of Romanian Orphans adopted in the UK to see whether good subsequent care can make up for the effects of early privation. 165 Romanian orphans were adopted into the UK with development assessed 4 times across 11 years. Compared with 52 British children that were adopted at the same time. At 11 the children that had been adopted the latest had the lowest IQ despite being the oldest. The shorter the privation the less severe the long term consequences. There is a negative correlation between the age of adoption and emotional and intellectual development.

Rutter used British adopted children as a control group to ensure the difference was due to early negative events rather than the adoption process. The study has high internal validity because the children had not suffered trauma before institutionalisation which means the results were caused by privation. The longitudinal study meant that the children were not randomly allocated for adoption and so the most likeable children were more likely to be adopted. Romanian orphanages are not typical of all institutionalised care. Conditions in them were exceptionally bad so must be careful of generalising to other institutions.

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The influence of attachment on later relationships

The first relationship and attachment you form create a schema for all the other relationships you have later. Having a poor internal working model will cause you to form poor relationships.

Bailey asked 99 mothers about their attachment style to their own mother and then observed them with their own infants in the strange situation. They found that for most families the attachment style was repeated down the generations, thus supporting Bowlby’s continuity hypothesis, which he would have explained using the internal working model.

Self-report may have been affected by a social desirability bias
As researchers have never manipulated someone’s attachment types for the sake of a study any findings only show an association. This means that a third factor may be involved. E.g. the temperament hypothesis says that some infants are born with an easy-going personality which makes parents want to care for them. Their ‘nice’ personality also makes them display positive behaviours later. All attachment behaviour is then due to personality.

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