Learning theory explanation of attachment

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Classical conditioning

Learning theory explanation of attachment

Classical conditioning involves learning through association. Ivan Pavlov conduced research on the salivation reflex of dogs, he recored how much they salivated each time they were fed.He noticed that they started salivating before they were fed. The dogs salivated as soon as they heard the door open, signallingthe arrival of food. The dogs had come to associate the sound of the door with food, They had learned a new stimulus response (S-R). They learned to salivate (response) when the door opened (stimulus). 

The same principles can be used to explain attachment. Food (unconditioned stimulus) naturally produces a sense of pleasure (unconditioned response). The person who feeds (conditioned response) the infant becomes associated with the food. The 'feeder' eventually produces the pleasure associated with the food; pleasure now becomes a conditioned response (CR). This association between an idividual and a sense of pleasure is the attachment bond.

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Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning

Learing also occurs when we are rewarded for doing something - rewards can be anything such as money or praise. Each time you do something and it reuslts in a pleasant consequence, the behaviour is reinforced. It becomes more probable that you will repeat that behaviour in the future. If you do something and it results in an unpleasant consequence, it becomes less likely that you will repeat that behaviour. These two outcomes are called reinforcement and punishment.

Dollard and Miller (1950) offered an explanation of attachment based on operant conditioning. They suggested that a hungry infant feels uncomfortable and this creates a drive to reduce the discomfort. When the infant is fed, the drive is reduced and this produced a feeling of pleasure (which is rewarding). Food becomes a primary reinforcer because it reinforces hte behaviour in order to avoid the discomfort. The person who supplies the food is associated with avoiding discomfort and becomes a secondary reinforcer, and a source of reward in his/her own right. Attachment occurs because the child seeks the person who can supply the reward

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Strengths of learning theory

The strength of the learning theory is that it can provide an adequate explanation of how attachments form. We do learn through association and reinforcement. However, food may not be the main reinforcer; it might be that attention and responsiveness from a caregiver are important rewards that create the bond. 

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Weaknesses of learning theory

Weaknesses of learning theory

Schaffer & Emerson (1964) studied the attachments formed by 60 infants from birth from mainly working class homes in Glasgow for a period of about a year. They found that a significant number of infants formed attachments with a person other than the one doing the feeding, nappy changing, etc. and that the primary attachment was often with the father and not the mother. They found that it was the quality of interaction with the infant that was most important - stronger attachments were formed with the person who was most sensitive and responsive to the infant's needs.

Harlow (1958) experimented with the attachments formed between rhesus monkeys and surrogate mothers. In this case the surrogate mothers were wire framed models that provided food and therefore satisfied the monkeys' primary needs, or ones that were comfortable and padded but provided no food. The findings were that the monkeys would cuddle up to and be more distressed at losing the comfortable padded surrogate mother that provided no food than they were the uncomfortable wire-framed surrogate mother that fed them. According to the learing theory the young monkeys should have become attached to the mother who could provide food and the reduction of the hunger drive. In fact the monkeys spent most time with the cloth-covered mother and would cling to it, especially when they were frighted (proximity seeking behaviour).

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