Explanations of Attachment

Behavioural Explanation of Attachment

The behavioural explanation proposes that all behvaiour is learnt rather than born (innate). When children are born they are like blank slates and everything they become can be explained in terms of the experiences they have. Learning theory is put forward by behaviourists who focus solely on  behaviour - what people do rather than what they might be thinking. Behaviourists suggest attachment can be explained using the concepts of classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

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Classical Conditioning

Food (unconditioned stimulus) naturally produces a sense of pleasure in a child (unconditioned response). The person who feeds (neutral stimulus) the infant initially provides no natural response but over time the 'feeder' eventually produces the pleasure associated with the food; pleasure now becomes a conditioned response and the feeder the conditioned stimulus. The association between an individual and a sense of pleasure is the attachment bond. 

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Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is learned through reinforcement of behaviour. Crying is an automatic response to hunger. If an infant is fed each time they cry, they learn that crying results in food, which is rewarding, and so they repeat this behaviour more often - this is positive reinforcement. The caregiver's attention results in food, and so is also reinforcing. The primary reinforcer in this process is the food. The secondary reinforcer is the caregiver. The infant learns that crying will maintain the caregiver's attention and food supply, so attachment behaviours such as separation distress are formed. The caregiver is also conditioned by the infant. The caregiver feeds the infant, who stops crying. Feeding is repeated to avoid discomfort of hearing the infant cry. This is negative reinforcement for the caregiver. 

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Learning Theory - Evaluation 1 (Contradicts)

Point: Research contradicts the learning idea that food is the key to attachment. 

Evidence: Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found that in 39% of cases infants were not most attached to those that fed them.

Explain: This demonstrates that learning theory cannot be the only explanation for attachment as in this study 39% of infants did not attach to the person who fed them. 

However, it must be remembered that in the majority (61%) of cases it was the person who fed the child that they attached to so it does lend some support. 

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Learning Theory - Evaluation 2 (Contradicts)

Point: Research that contradicts the learning theory comes from Harlow and Harlow.

Evidence: Harlow and Harlow found that baby monkey's would cling to a wire mother covered with cloth rather than a wire model that could feed it. The monkey's spent 22 out of 24 hours clinging to the cloth mother. 

Explain: This evidence contradicts the learning theory because the baby monkeys chose comfort over food. 

However, the study used monkeys and so we can't generalise it to humans. Also, the study is very unethical. 

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Learning Theory - Evaluation 3 (Supports)

Point: Research to support the learning theory comes from feral children.

Evidence: Feral children who have been fed in some way by or with animals seem attached to animals rather than humans and show behaviour that is more similar to animals than humans. 

Explain: This supports the learning theory because the children became attached to the thing that fed them even if it wasn't a human being. This shows that food is the most important thing. 

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Bowlby's Theory of Attachment

Bowlby's evolutionary theory of attachment suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them survive. The infant produces innate behaviours such as crying and smiling that stimulate caregiving from adults. The determinant of attachment is not food but care and responsiveness. Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one attachment (monotropy) and that the attachment figure acted as a secure base for exploring the world. The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences. Also Bowlby believed that if attachment wasn't formed within the first two years and a half that attachments could not be formed at all. 

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Bowlby's Theory - Contradictory Evidence

Schaffer and Emerson (1964):

  • They observed 60 infants over a period of time in Glasgow and found that by 18 months old, only 13% of the babies were attached to one person. Many of the infants had as many as 5 attachment figures. 
  • This contradicts monotropy.

It is too simplistic and ignores other explanations such as the learning theory. 

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Bowlby's Theory - Supporting Evidence

Harlow and Harlow (1962): 

  • They found that baby monkeys would cling to a wire model covered with cloth rather than a wire model that could feed it.
  • This supports the theory because the baby monkeys spent 22 out of 24 hours with one of the wire models, which shows monotropy. 
  • It also supports innate programming because it didn't learn to depend on the cloth monkey, but was an instinctive decision. 
  • The internal working model is supported as well because these monkeys were not real mothers and so the baby monkeys didn't have a good prototype for future relationships. 

Hazan and Shaver (1987):

  • They discovered that infants who have been securely attached went on to have happy, lasting and trusting relationships as adults, yet insecurely attached infants had less successful adult relationships. 
  • This supports the internal working model as those who were securely attached as a child had happy and long relationships and the less securely attached infants didn't. 
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