Early attachment and Ainsworth

Some revision cards on early attachment and Ainsworth's strange situation. Use if you like, and please comment additional info you think should be added. Thanks :)

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Early relationships: Attachment

  • Attachment is a long lasting, strong emotional bond between two people that causes distress on seperation
  • Attachments are reciprocal; they are two-way.
  • Key features of attachment include: distress on seperation, joy at reunion, proximity seeking and general orientation towards the care-giver.
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Animal research into attachment

  • Learning theorists believed that babies attached to the person that fed them.
  • The person who feeds them becomes a secondary reinforcer through their association with the primary reinforcer of food.
  • A lot of these ideas stemmed from animal research, an important study being that of Harlow.
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Harlow (1958)

  • Harlow wanted to find out whether infant monkeys would show attachment to an object that provided food, or one that provided comfort.
  • He provided two wire mesh cylinders, one cylinder contained a ******, so the infant monkey could obtain milk, the other was covered with a cloth and the monkeys were raised without their mothers.
  • The monkeys spent more time on the cloth figure, and would jump on it if scared. They only went to the wire monkey for feeding.
  • This displayed that reinforcement through food isn't the main determiner of attachment.
  • This was an important finding by Harlow, yet it raises many ethical issues.

Another significant study was by Schaffer and Emerson (1964), who found infants often formed attachments to people who communicated and played games with them. These relationships would not have been predicted by psychoanalytic and learning theories

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How do attachments develop?

  • In many species, such as ducks and sheep, attachments are formed soon after birth.
  • Ethologists such as Conrad Lorenz investigated this
  • He noticed that newborn orphaned animals formed attachments to any animal that was present, and would follow it (eg, newborn lambs would follow the person who bottle feeds them.) 
  • This happens in precocial (mobile) species; animals who can move around very soon after birth.
  • Conrad studied geese in the 1930s. He divided geese into 2 groups; half were left to hatch with their mother, and the other half were placed in an incubator. For the group that was in the incubator, Lorenz ensured that he was the first moving object they saw hen they hatched. The goslings rapidly attached to him and would follow him around, even when the two groups were put together.
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  • Lorenz called this imprinting, which is the tendency to form an attachment to the first large moving object seen after birth.
  • Imprinting has to happen within the first 13-16 hours after hatching
  • If this does not happen within 32 hours of hatching, this will not happen, and they will have no attachment
  • This is known as the critical period; if attachment doesn't take place by 32 hours, it will not happen at all. 
  • This helps to ensure the survival of the species - the guardian will protect them from predators and feed them. They will also learn behaviours from the attached figure that will help them survive.
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  • Bowlby drew on these findings, and he believed that attachment in humans is the result of evolutionary pressures. 
  • He identified a number of infant behaviours which are part of an innate attachment system: cuddling, smiling, babbling, following, reaching. 
  • He also proposed that adults are likely to respond to these behaviours; crying is a particularly adverse sound to humans.
  • Bowlby suggested attachment should be seen as part of a control system.
  • The control system is provided for security. If an infant feels insecure, behaviours such as crying are produced to increase the sense of security.
  • If the infant feels secure, they're more confident to explore unfamiliar objects.
  • The settings for security could change as the infant ages.
  • A main criticism of Bowbly, however, is the concept of monotropism. Bowbly believed the additional attachments that occur after the first attachment are of less importance.
  • Schaffer and Emerson's study challenged this.
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Formation of attachments of parents and babies

  • Human newborns are not mobile, so there is a long period of immaturity and they only start to crawl at around 8 months.
  • The mother stays close to the baby again to ensure survival
  • Klaus and Kennell researched why the infant and mother had heightened attachment
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Klaus and Kennell (1976)

  • Klaus and Kennell had a hypothesis that it was early skin to skin contact which led to closer bonds between the infant and mother. The typical practise was for babies to be put in a nursery after birth to allow the mother to recover.
  • The experimenters divided mums from a North American hospital into 2 groups and followed them from birth, until the babies were one year old.
  • The control group had routine contact - saw the baby after delivery and brought to mother for feeds. The experimental group had extended contact; ie, 1 extra hour of 'skin-to-skin' contact after the birth and an extra 5 hours contact over the next 3 days.
  • The experimental group (extra contact) showed more soothing behaviours, such as cuddling, when given a routine medical exam, and they maintained closer proximity to their babies and tended to gaze more at their babies.
  • Klaus and Kennell concluded that these behaviours showed that mums had formed closer bonds with their babies, even up to one year later.
  • The study suggested there was a sensitive period immediatly after birth, which was important for bonding to take place.
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Evaluation of Klaus and Kennell

  • Such findings led to changes of childbirth practise in Western countries, and most hospitals now keep mums and babies together after birth.
  • Findings also showed it would be beneficial for fathers to be present at the birth.
  • Some argue that the 2 groups of mothers were young, unmarried and came from a disadvantaged background. This may have meant that the closer bonds shown may be due to the extra attention given to them in the experiment, rather than the actual effects of spending extra time with their baby.
  • Other studies have replicated Klaus and Kennell's, and found similar results.
  • De Chateau et al (1987) carried out a similar study on Swedish mothers, and their babies - this study further showed that early skin-to-skin contact can, indeed, promote bonding.
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Definition of the sensitive period

The sensitive period is the period of time immediatly after birth, which may be important for bonding to take place

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The formation of attachments

  • Attachments take much longer in humans to develop and it is not till around 8 months that babies show their first real lasting attachment.
  • Shaffer and Emerson investigated the concept of monotropism (forming only one one attachment.)
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Shaffer and Emerson (1964)

  • This was to test whether infants first form an attachment to only one person (usually the mother.)
  • 60 infants were observed every month during the first year, and again at 18 months. The mothers were interviewed of the infant's responses to seperation
  • Nearly a third of the infants had an initial attachment to more than one person. At 18 months, only 13% were attached to just one person. Attachments were formed to people other than the mother, and feeding didn't seem to be relevant for attachment.
  • No support was found for Bowlby's idea of monotropism, and the findings also showed that feeding wasn't critical for the formation of attachment.
  • It was a longutudinal study, and is widley quoted as it makes two important points of attachment:
  • Monotropism isn't an accurate description of attachment
  • Social interaction, rather than feeding, is important for the development of attachment to particular people.
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The development of attachments

The stages and types of attachment:

  • Asocial (0-6 weeks) - babies respond in a similar way to people and objects, although they prefer to look at human-like stimuli
  • Diffuse (6 weeks- 6 months) - Babies show no particular preference for a specific individual and will be comforted by anyone.
  • Single strong attachment (7-12 months) - Babies show a strong preference for a single individual and will show a fear of strangers.
  • Multiple attachments (from 12 months) - Babies will show attachment towards several figures and by 18 months, some infants have as many as 5 attachment figures.

Schaffer states that the child also develops object permanence which is the understanding that an object or person continues to exist, even though it can no longer be seen. Before an infant develops this, something out of sight would be out of mind. Children develop this around 8 months.

More recent findings suggest even babies in the first months of life are able to distinguish their mother from other individuals. DeCasper and Spence found babies prefer to turn their head in one direction, to hear their mother, than turn in the other direction, to hear another female.

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Types of attachment

  • There are considerable differences in attachments formed between parents and caregivers, in terms of their strength and type
  • This was researched by Ainsworth, who worked with Bowbly at a London clinic.
  • Ainsworth (1970) devised the Strange Situation, which is a method of measuring attachment.
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Ainsworth's strange situation

  • Ainsworth and Bell (1970) aimed to produce a method for assessing the quality of attachment by placing an infant in a situation of mild stress (to encourage the infant to seek comfort) and of novelty (to encourage the exploration of behaviours.)
  • Both of these behaviours indicate the quality of attachment.
  • It was known that ethical issues such as the lack of informed consent and stress from the infant may arise.
  • Ainsworth also used 100 middle class American infants and their mothers. This can't be generalised due to the children being American, and middle class. They are not representative of the whole population, and therefore lacks external validity.
  • Ainsworth used a controlled obsevation in a lab setting. The controlling of extrenous variables make it more likely for the experiement to be reliable, yet being a lab study, it lacks ecological validity and therefore the results cannot be generalised to real life settings.
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Ainsworth's strange situation

  • The mother and child are introduced to the room
  • The mother and child are left alone and the child can investigate the toys
  • A stranger enters to room and talks with the mother. The stranger gradually approaches the child with a toy
  • The mother leaves the child alone with the stranger, and the stranger interacts with the child
  • The mother returns, greets and picks up the child. The stranger leaves.
  • The child is left alone
  • The stranger returns and tries to engage with the child
  • The mother returns to greet and comfort the child
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Types of attachment found in Ainsworth's study

The secure attachment features: happy in mother's presence, willingness to explore is high, as is stranger anxiety. They are distressed when the mother leaves, but calms on return (easy to soothe) and is enthusiastic of mother's return. The caregiver's behaviour is sensitive.

The avoidant attachment features: Ignores the mother, seems indifferent, willingness to explore is high, and stranger anxiety is low. Seperation anxiety is indifferent - they treat the mother and stranger the same, and is easily comforted by the stranger. They avoid contact with the mother on return and may ignore her.

The resistant (ambivalent) attachment features: The child is fussy and cries a lot. Willingness to explore is low, and stranger anxiety is high. They are distressed when the mother leaves, and not comforted on return. The caregiver is ambivilent.

The disorganised attachment features: No clear pattern is found across the episodes, and bizzare responses to seperation and reunion may be shown. sometimes associated with infants at risk for maltreatment (Introduced by Main et al in 1985.)

In this study (in North America), 67% of infants were secure, 21% were avoidant and 12% ambivalent.

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Evaluation of the strange situation

  • As a measuring instrument, the strange situation has reasonable short term reliability (Thompson et al, 2000), and a child tested at one age is likely to have a similar attachment classification when tested a little while later.
  • It focuses on the relationship with one person, and as a result, the network of social relationships with other individuals are ignored.
  • In Japan, Miyake et al (1985) found that 35% of infants were ambivalent. Takahasi (1990) suggested Japanese infants may become distressed as they are rarley left alone. Some argued that this shows the strange situation is not appropriate for measuring attachment in non western cutures (Rothbaum et al, 2000.)
  • Kagan (1984) argued the strange situation may be measuring temprament, rather than attachment. If this is true, an infant is expected to produce similar attachment behaviour with their mother and father. De Wolff and van Ijzendoorn conducted a systematic review of research findings (a meta-analysis) and concluded they have different attachment styles. This provides evidence against Kagan's argument.
  • Securely attached infants tend to be more cooperative with their mother during problem-solving tasks at 24 months (Matas, 1978), they are seen as social leaders in pre-school (Sroufe, 1983) and have a more positive self-concept at 11 years (Elicker et al, 1992) 
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The adult attachment interview

Similar types of attachment have been found in the strange situation and the adult attachment interview (AAI), which supports the claim that the strange situation does measure what it intends to. The AAI involves a semi-structured, one hour interview, and the questions concern early relationships and the wasy individuals think these have affected them. The main attachment types in the AAI are similar to the infant attachment types:

  • Autonomous - recall of particular events and willingnes to see positive and negative features of experiences (links to secure infant attachment types.)
  • Dismissive - Attachment seen to be of little relevance or importance (links to avoidant.)
  • Enmeshed - Persons still engaged with issues with their parents (links to ambivalent.)
  • Unresolved - Often the result of a trauma over the loss of a parent (links to disorganised)

The AAI can be very stressful - particularly for those who's adults had negative attachment experiences. Dismissing and preoccupied adults tended to have children who were identified as insecure in the strange situation. A mother's own childhood experiences were shown to affect how she interacts with her child, and the type of relationship established (Main et al, 1985.) The link to the attachment types found in Ainsworth's study was proposed by Lewis et al, but further research needs to be done.


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