Learning Theory of Attachment

an overview of the 'learning theory' of attachment

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  • Created by: lozza day
  • Created on: 11-10-11 15:57

'Learning Theory'

Learning Theory is the idea that...

  • We are all born as BLANK SLATES (tabula rasa)
  • All we have at birth is the CAPACITY TO LEARN
  • All behavior is learned THROUGH THE ENVIRONMENT

there are two types of 'conditioning':

1) classical

2) operant

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Classical Conditioning

  • learning by association 

a stimulus - any change in the environment that an organism registers (e.g. food)

a response - any behaviors that an organism emits as a consequence of the stimulus (e.g. pleasure from food)

a reflex - a consistent connection between a stimulus and response

before conditioning of a baby and mother..

food (unconditional stimulus) -> baby happy (unconditional response)

mother (neutral stimulus) -> baby doesn't respond (no innate response to mother)

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Classical Conditioning

during conditioning...

mother (neutral stimulus) + food (ucs) -> baby happy (ucr)

after conditioning...

mother (conditioned stimulus) -> baby happy with mother's presence (conditioned response)

BASICALLY, the baby forms an association between the mother and the feeling of pleasure that comes from being fed. the baby is at first comforted by just food, but quickly associates the mother with the pleasure of being fed. the baby then feels happy when the mother is near. this is the beginning of ATTACHMENT

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Operant Conditioning

  • learning by consequences

reinforcement - anything that has the effect in increasing the likely hood of the behavior repeated.

positive reinforcement - by using consequences that are pleasant when they happen (e.g. receiving praise)

negative reinforcement - reinforcement by using consequences that are pleasant when they stop (e.g. the way a paracetamol makes headaches go away)

punishment - anything that has the effect of decreasing the likely hood of the behavior being repeated by using consequences that are unpleasant when they happen (e.g. shouting, time out)

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Operant Conditioning

the process of operant conditioning...

baby performs action (cries) -> baby receives reward (food relieves hunger)

the reward reinforces the action, so the baby repeats it (cries to get food)

the mother is negatively reinforced by this (feeding the baby stops noisy crying) so the mother is more likely to keep feeding the baby.

food is a primary reinforcer

mother is a secondary reinforcer (even without bringing the food) 

after conditioning, the presence of the 'caregiver' brings a feeling of pleasure.

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there have been other studies proving/disproving the learning theory, you will need to know them. 


studied 60 babies every 4 weeks throughout 1st year of life, then again at 18 months. assessed separation episodes. found babies were clearly attached to those who were not involved in physical care (disproving)


found the mother came associated with the removal of unpleasant feelings of hunger, as a form of negative reinforcement (supports operant conditioning)

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FOX (1977):

studied relationships between mothers, babies & metapelets (provide full-time care for newborns). children were found to be more attached to mothers. (disproves the learning theory)

HARLOW (1959):

used rhesus monkeys. separated them from mothers at birth, raising them in isolation cages. monkeys became distressed when 'baby blanket' was removed (attachment not based on association with food). harlow provided a wire mother with food and a soft mother without food. monkeys preferred soft mother; showing they had an innate, unlearned need for contact. (disproves learning theory)

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you may be asked to evaluate the learning theory. here are 4 points of evaluation to include in your exam answer..

  • conditioning explains simple behaviours, but attachments are complex behaviours with an intense emotion component
  • schaffer (1971) commented 'cupboard love' theories are backwards - babies do not 'live to eat' they 'eat to live', they are active seekers of stimultion, not passive recipients of nutrition
  • although conditioning & reinforcement play a part, research suggests food is not the main explanation for attachments
  • bowlby (1973) reported babies only periodically need food, but continually need the protection of emotional security that attachment figures provide
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