Learning theory is known as the behaviourist theory, and focuses on the baby wanting its needs fulfilled. Conditioning is given as an explanation for how attachments form.
Classical conditioning: about learning associations between different things in our environment. Getting food naturally gives the baby pleasure. The baby's desire for food is fulfilled whenever its mother is around to feed it. So an association is formed between mother and food. So, whenever its mother is around, the baby will feel pleasure - i.e 'attachment'.
Operant conditioning. Dollard and Miller (1950) claimd that babies feel discomfort when they're hungry and so will have a desire to get food to remove discomfort. They find that if they cry, their mother will come and feed them - so the discomfort is removed (negative reinforcement). The mother is therefore associated with food and the baby will want to be close to her. This produces 'attachment behaviour'.
Learning theory strengths and weaknesses
Learning theory of attachment has lots of support from scientific research.
It is reductionist - it tries to expain complex attachment using simple stimulus-response processes.
Lots of evidence for learning theory uses animal research, so the finding aren't always generalisable.
Shaffer and Emerson's (1964) findings don't fully support learning theor. In their study, half of the infants don't have their mother as the primary attachment.
There are other theories of attachment which also have support, such as Bowlny's theory.
Bowlby's monotropic theory - Evolutionary
Bowlby (1951) argued that something like imprinting occurs in humans. He deeloped several claims:
- Attachment can be explained by evolution
- We create one special attachment
- We create an internal working model of attachment
- There is a critical period for attachment
Attachment explained by evolution
We have evolved a biological need to attach to our main caregiver.
This biological need has developed through natural selection to ensure the survival of the child to maturity.
We create one special attachment
We create an internal working model of attachment
Bowlb's theory says that formin an infant attachment gives us a template for all future relationships - we learn to trust and care for others. This forms an internal working model for all later attachments.
The model is a working model because it can change and develop over time, depending on how the person's relationships change.
The primary caregiver provides the foundations for the child's future relationships. This is called the continuity hypothesis.
Critical period for attachment
The first three years of life are the critical period for attachment to develop - otherwise it may never do so.
If the attachment doesn't develop, or if it's broken, it might seriously damage the child's social and emotional development.
Bwlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis assumes if the relationship between the primary caregiver and infant is disrupted or stopped during the critical perios, there are long-term consequences.
Evaluation of Bowlby's theory
There is some evidence for his claims. Harlow's study supports the idea that we have evolved to a need to attach. It also suggests that social and emotional development might be damaged if an attachment isn't formed.
Scahffer and Emmerson (1964) provided evidence against Bowly's claims about monotropy. They found that, rather than one main attachment, many children form multiple attachments, and many not attach to their mother.
Harlow's study of monkeys raised in isolation also goes against the idea of monotropy. Other monkeys who didn't have a mother, but grew up together, didn't show signs of social and emotional disturbance in later life. They didn't have a primary caregiver, but seemed to attach to each other instead.
There is mixed evidence for the claims of a critical period for attachments to develop.
The effect of attachmen not developing, or being broken, may not be as bad as Bowlby claimed.
Bowlby's report in the 1950s led to an increase in 'stay at home' mothering. This had a subsequent impact on the economy as fewer women were going to work.