Attachment: definition

Attachment can be defined as an emotional bond between two people in which each seeks closeness and feels more secure when in the presence of the attachment figure.

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Explanations of Attachment

Learning Theory

Description: Learning theory suggests attachment develops through classical and operant conditioning. It is a nurture theory. According to classical conditioning food (UCS) produces pleasure (UCR). The child simply associates food and mother together. The mother becomes the conditioned stimulus and happiness becomes the conditioned response…attachment has formed.

Attachment can also be learned by operant conditioning. The presence of the caregiver is reinforcing for the infant. The infant gains pleasure / reward as they are being fed. The behaviour of the infant is reinforcing for the caregiver (the caregiver gains pleasure from smiles etc. – reward). The reinforcement process is therefore reciprocal (two way) and strengthens the emotional bond / attachment between the two.

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Explanations of Attachment

Evaluation: Schaffer and Emerson found less than half of infants had a primary attachment to the person who usually fed them. Harlow’s research suggested monkeys became attached to the soft surrogate mother rather than the one who fed it. Lorenz found goslings imprinted on the first moving object they saw which suggest attachment is innate and not learnt.

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Explanations of Attachment

Bowlby's Theory

DescriptionBowlby’s theory of attachment suggests attachment is important for a child’s survival. Attachment behaviours in both babies and their caregivers have evolved through natural selection. This means infants are biologically programmed with innate behaviours that ensure that attachment occurs.

For example – social releasers, such as smiling and making eye contact ensure that an adult caregiver pays attention to the infant and so meets its short term needs of food and shelter, as well as the long term needs of social skills.

This theory also suggests that there is a critical period for developing at attachment (about 0 -5 years). If an attachment has not developed during this period then the child will suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression.

The child’s relationship with a primary care giver provides an internal working model which influences later relationships. This concept of monotropy suggests that there is one relationship which is more important than all the rest.

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Explanations of Attachment

Evaluation: 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.

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.

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The Strange Situation


Ainsworth and Bell (1971) conducted a controlled observation recording the reactions of a child and mother (caregiver), who were introduced to a strange room with toys. In the strange situation about 100 middle-class American infants and their mothers took part. The infant’s behaviour was observed during a set of pre-determined activities.

The Strange Situation procedure involved the child experiencing eight ‘episodes’ of approximately 3 minutes each.

The child is observed playing for 20 minutes while caregivers and strangers enter and leave the room, recreating the flow of the familiar and unfamiliar presence in most children's lives. Observers noted the child’s willingness to explore, separation anxiety, stranger anxiety and reunion behaviour.

Ainsworth & Bell observed from the other side of a one-way mirror so that the children did not know that they were being observed.

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The Strange Situation


 Secure AttachmentAmbivalent AttachmentAvoidant Attachment Separation Anxiety Distressed when mother leaves. Infant shows signs of intense distress when mother leaves. Infant shows no sign of distress when mother leaves. Stranger Anxiety Avoidant of stranger when alone but friendly when mother present. Infant avoids the stranger - shows fear of stranger. Infant is okay with the stranger and plays normally when stranger is present. Reunion behavior Positive and happy when mother returns. Child approaches mother but resists contact, may even push her away. Infant shows little interest when mother returns. Other Will use the mother as a safe base to explore their environment. Infant cries more and explores less than the other 2 types. Mother and stranger are able to comfort the infant equally well. % of infants 70 15 15

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The Strange Situation

Secure Resistant = 70%

The main characteristics of this attachment type are:

(i) Infants are upset when left alone by the mother.

(ii) Infants are happy when mother returns and seek contact with the mother.

(iii) Infants avoid the stranger when alone, but friendly when the mother is present.

(iv) The infants uses the mother as a safe base to explore their environment.

This type of attachment occurs because the mother meets the emotional needs of the infant.

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The Strange Situation

Insecure Avoidant = 15%

The main characteristics of this attachment type are:

(i) Infants are unconcerned by mother’s absence when she leaves the room.

(ii) Infants shows little interest when they are reunited with the mother (i.e. she returns to the room).

(iii) Infants are strongly avoidant of mother and stranger, showing no motivation to interact with either adult. The stranger is treated similar to the mother (does not seek contact).

This type of attachment occurs because the mother ignores the emotional needs of the infant.

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The Strange Situation

Insecure resistant = 15%

The main characteristics of this attachment type are:

(i) infants are clingy to their mother in a new situation and are not willing to explore – suggesting that they do not have trust in her.

(ii) they are extremely distressed when left alone by their mother.

(iii) they cannot be comforted by a stranger and will not interact with them – they treat the stranger and the mother very differently.

(iv) when the mother returns they are pleased to see her and go to her for comfort, but then cannot be comforted and may show signs of anger towards her.

This type of attachment occurs because the mother sometime meets the needs of the infant and sometimes ignores their emotional needs, i.e. the mother's behaviour is inconsistent.

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The Strange Situation


A problem of the study is that it lacks of population validity. The original study used American infants. The study tells us about how this particular group behaves and cannot be generalised to the wider population and other cultures.

Another criticism of the study is that it has low ecological validity, and the results may not be applicable outside of the lab. The environment of the study was controlled and the eight scripted stages of the procedure (e.g. mum and stranger entering and leaving the room at set times) would be unlikely to happen in real life.

One strength of the study is that it is easy to replicate. This is because it follows a standardised procedure involving the 8 episodes of the mother and stranger entering the leaving the room.

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Cultural Differences

Research Procedure

Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenberg (1988) did not collect the data for their study, instead they analysed data from other studies using a method called meta analysis. Data from 32 studies in 8 different countries was analyzed.

All the 32 studies used the strange situation procedure to study attachment. Using a meta analysis (statistical technique) they calculated the average percentage for the different attachment styles (e.g. secure, avoidant, resistant) in each country.

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Cultural Differences

Research Findings

Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenberg found that secure attachment was the majority of infants (70%). The lowest percentage of secure attachments was shown in China, and the highest in Great Britain. It was also found that Western countries that support independence such as Germany had high levels of insecure avoidant.

Whereas Eastern countries that are more culturally close, such as Japan, had quite high levels of insecure resistant. The exception to the pattern was China which an equal number of avoidant and resistant infants

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Cultural Differences


One problem is that many of the studies used in the meta analysis had biased samples which cannot claim to be representative of each culture. For example, only 36 infants where used in the Chinese study which is a very small sample size for such a populated country. Also most of the studies analyzed where from Western cultures.

The Strange Situation was created and tested in the USA, which means that it may be culturally biased (ethnocentric), as it will reflect the norms and values of American culture. This is a problem as it assumes that attachment behaviour has the same meaning in all cultures, when in fact cultural perception and understanding of behavior differ greatly.

For example, the belief that attachment is related to anxiety on separation. This may not be the case in other cultures, e.g. Japan.

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Disruption of Attachment

Disruption of attachment occurs when children have formed an attachment and are then separated from their attachment figure. There are a number of situations in which an attachment can be broken either temporarily, for example by hospitalisation or permanently through death.

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Disruption of Attachment

Short Term Effects (PDD Model)

Robertson and Bowlby (1952) believe that short term separation from an attachment figure leads to distress.

They found 3 progressive stages for distress (i.e. the PDD model):

Protest: The child cries, screams and protests angrily when the parent leaves. Panic is usual. This can last from a few hours to a few weeks!

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 (i.e. apathetic). They continue to cry occasionally and call for mother.

Detachment: The child cries less and is more interested its surroundings and will start to engage with other people again.

Onlookers may think that the child is getting over the separation, whereas in fact the child is hiding its feelings. When the mother returns the child shows little interest and may even be angry or push the mother away. However, the attachment is soon rebuilt.

Note, the initial distress varies according to the attachment security and gender of the child. If the child is securely attached it copes better with separation. If the child is avoidant then it gets the full blown PDD effects.

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Disruption of Attachment

Long Term Effects - Maternal Deprivation

Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis suggests 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. Bowlby originally believed the effects to be permanent and irreversible.

Use the acronym - ADDIDDAS: Aggression, Delinquency, Dwarfism, Intellectual retardation, Depression, Dependency, Affectionless Psychopathy, Social maladjustment.

Affectionless psychopathy is an inability show affection or concern for others. Such of individuals act on impulse with little regard for the consequences of their actions. For example, showing no guilt for antisocial behavior.

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Disruption of Attachment

John (aged seventeen months) was put into a fairly typical residential nursery for nine days while his mother had a second child in hospital. His father was at work all day, and there were no relatives nearby to look after him. Nurses were not assigned to the care of individual children and even when John managed to obtain their attention they soon had to put him down to tend to one of the others. John’s protests and anger were ignored.

He entered a period of despair which lasted for several days. He started to cry pitifully, for long periods of time. Now the nurses gave John all the attention they could, but it was nowhere near enough. He began to refuse food, and he wouldn’t sleep. With each day that passed John’s condition worsened. His cries of distress became huge sobs of despair.

As the separation neared its end, John’s behaviour changed again. He stopped trying to be near to the nurses. Instead he would play with whatever toys he could, particularly a large cuddly toy. He began to ignore his father on his nightly visits. John slowly became emotionally detached. When his mother finally came he didn’t seem to want to know her. He wouldn’t go to her, wouldn’t look at her, and resisted her attempts to comfort him.

The Robertson’s suggest that children who are separated from their mothers for several days will pass through the same sequence of behaviour as John.

The child will protest, and then despair, and then, if not attended to, the child will become emotionally detached.

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Effects of Privation

Privation refers to situations where children do not form an attachment with anyone. Note, you need to describe the effects of privation - this means the results of research studies rather than the procedure (i.e. what happened).

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Effects of Privation

Genie Case Study

One case study that has reported on the effects of failure to form an attachment is the case of Genie, reported by Curtiss in 1977. Genie was found at the age of 13. She had spent all her life severely neglected and possibly also abused. She had had little or no physical contact with either of her parents or her brother and no opportunity to interact with other people.

Results: When she was found, Genie’s motor skills were very poor, and so too were her language and cognitive skills. Her language did not develop properly, and she never got beyond communicating using basic speech, for example, ‘Go store bananas’ for ‘We need to go to the store to buy some bananas.’

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Effects of Privation

Evaluation: Despite spending a period of time with a group of psychologists that worked hard to help her overcome the effects of her early experiences, she never fully recovered. However, she was able to develop attachments to her foster carers despite suffering from privation.

However, there are problems with this conclusion, as we cannot be sure that Genie’s developmental problems were not present from birth, and not due to experiencing privation.

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Effects of Privation

Harlow's Monkey Study

Harlow again studied Rhesus monkeys using a lab experiment. He took babies and isolated them from birth. They had no contact with each other or anybody else. He kept some this way for three months, some for six, some for nine and some for the first year of their lives. He then put them back with other monkeys to see what effect their failure to form attachment had on behaviour.

Results: The monkeys engaged in bizarre behaviour such as clutching their own bodies and rocking compulsively. They were then placed back in the company of other monkeys. To start with the babies were scared of the other monkeys, and then became very aggressive towards them. They were also unable to communicate or socialise with other monkeys. The other monkeys bullied them. They indulged in self-mutilation, tearing hair out, scratching, and biting their own arms and legs.

Harlow concluded that privation is permanently damaging (to monkeys). The extent of the abnormal behaviour reflected the length of the isolation. Those kept in isolation for 3 months were the least affected, but those in isolation for a year never recovered the effects of privation.

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Effects of Privation

Evaluation: Harlow’s work has been criticized. His experiments have been seen as unnecessarily cruel (unethical) and of limited value in attempting to understand the effects of deprivation on human infants.

In addition Harlow created a state of anxiety in female monkeys which had implications once they became parents. Such monkeys became so neurotic that they smashed their infant's face into the floor and rubbed in back and forth.

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Effects of Institutional Care

Institutional care refers to situations where children spend part of their childhood in a hospital, an orphanage or a residential children’s home. Note, you need to describe the effects of institutional care - this means the results of research studies rather than the procedure (i.e. what happened).

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Effects of Institutional Care

Hodges and Tizard

Procedure: Studied the social and emotional development of 65 children who had been in institutional care from only a few months old. The care provided was of good quality, but carers were discouraged from forming attachments with the children (i.e. privation occurred).

Also, the children had an average of 50 different caretakers by the age of 4. The study was also a natural experiment. The independent variable (what happened to the children at age 4) occurred naturally. Children either remained in the care home, were adopted or could have been restored to their biological parents.

The children were assessed for social and emotional competence at four, eight and sixteen years old (the DV). The assessment comprised interviewing the children, their parents and teachers and also obtaining data from questionnaires. This is known as a longitudinal study (lasted 12 years from ages 4 – 16 yrs).

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Effects of Institutional Care

Findings: All the children who had spent their early years in institutions were more attention-seeking from adults and showed some difficulties in their social relationships, particularly with their peers. For example, the children were less likely to have friends or to be liked by their peers. They were more likely to be bullies. This shows that institutional care effects peer relationships.

Both the “restored” children and the adopted children were more likely to show attention seeking behaviour towards adults, even strangers. They also had a lack of fear of strangers; and made inappropriate physical contact with adults. Lack of checking back to parental figures in stressful situations – i.e. they did not use their caregiver as a safe base in times of anxiety.

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Effects of Institutional Care

Evaluation: It was a natural experiment, therefore high in ecological validity but the extraneous variables were not controlled for example the adopted children might have been more socially able than the “restored” children and the children who remained in the institution.

Attrition was also a problem as it was a longitudinal study many participants dropped out.

Institutionalized children don’t just suffer emotional privation but also poor physical care such as bad diet and also lack of stimulation. As a result it is difficult to separate out the effects of privation and of physical care.

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Day Care

Day care involves temporary care for a child provided by someone other than close family and taking place outside the home (excluding school). For example, nurseries or child minders.

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Day Care

The impact of different forms of day care on children’s social development, including the effects on aggression and peer relations

Research has shown mixed results regarding the effects of day care on social development – with some showing beneficial effects and some showing harmful effects. Social development involves both peer relations and aggressive behaviour.

Peer relations includes how well children get on with other children. This could include the child’s ability to make friends and play cooperatively with other children. Aggression is behaviour intending to harm another person, it may be verbal or physical.

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Day Care

Peer Relations

Shea (1981) video taped 3 and 4 year old children during play time in their first 10 weeks of nursery school. The method was a naturalistic observation. This was an independent group design with the two groups consisting of full time attendees (5 days a week) and part-time attendees (2/3 days a week). The time spent in day care was the naturally occurring independent variable. Levels of sociability (peer relationships) and aggression were the dependent variables.

He found that children from the full time group were more sociable in that they went looking for people to talk to, and made more contact with others. He also found that over a 10 week period aggressive behaviour decreased in all groups of children. Shea concluded from this that day care is a positive experience and it lowers aggression and increases social skills

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Day Care

Evaluation: However, we should be cautious when wishing to apply these results to other situations as Shea only observed behaviour in one nursery. It is possible that something specific to either that nursery or those children could have contributed to the results. Extraneous variables such as the age at which children start day care and the time they spend there each week are also important, as is the quality of care they receive

Conversely, there are some positive evaluations to make here. The naturalistic nature of the study allows children to engage in normal, actual behaviours as they are in their normal setting. As such there can be said to be a high level of ecological validity. This is a measure of real life. As the study is not contrived or set up in any way there will be no demand characteristics (cues in the environment) to alter the child’s behaviour.

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Day Care


Belsky (2002) conducted a longitudinal study researching the development of 1083 children across the USA. Children in extended hours of care (30 hours per week) were almost three times more likely to show aggressive behaviour than children attending less than 10 hours per week. Aggression included fighting, talking too much, arguments, cruelty, and demanding a lot of attention.

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Day Care

How research into attachment has influenced child care practices

How do you answer a question like this?

You explain historically what the problems were then match a study up to it that fits and then say how it has changed now with time.

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Day Care

Institutional Care

Historical problems: Carers told not to make attachments with children. Carers changed over time.

Key Study: Hodges and Tizad.

Change / influence

There are now key workers for each child who are encouraged to form attachments. This helps children's future social and emotional development. Institutions try and keep siblings together when possible. Many institutional care homes have now been shut down as well.

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Day Care

Hospitalisation of Parent / Child

Historical problems: As late as the 1960s, there would be strict rules applied to parental visiting times and limits placed on our long parents could spend with their children. This could lead to young children going through the PDD model of behaviour (protest, despair, detachment).

Key Study: Robertson study of John in residential nursery.

Change / influence

Following the findings of Robertson and Robertson’s study that children require continuing emotional care and as much contact as possible with natural parents, visiting hours were extended. Today hospitals sometimes allow around the clock visiting hours

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Day Care

Day Care Provision

Historical problems: Each nursery was different as there were no national standards for best practice.

Key Study: No Specific Study – Just say ‘Research shows…’

Change / influence

Children need fairly continuous, high-quality care. High-quality day care would include appropriate caregiver/children ratio, key worker, appropriate staff training, and low staff turnover. Child/staff ratios should be kept low. The NICHD recommend no higher than 3 children to each carer. Similarly children should be kept in small groups so fewer strangers need to be dealt with.

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