Psychology: Attachment

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Introduction to Attachment

Definition: a strong emotional tie that develops over time between an infant and their primary caregiver(s)

It's a reciprocal tie because each partner is attached to the other

Maccoby (1980) identified 4 characteristics of this emotional tie:

  • seeking proximity, especially at times of stress
  • distress on separation
  • pleasure when reunited
  • general orientation of behaviour towards primary caregiver
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Explanations of attachment

Learning theory:

  • view put forward by behaviourists to explain how all behaviour is acquired using the principles of conditioning
  • Classical conditioning: 
  • infant is born with reflex responses
  • the stimulus of food produces a response of pleasure - an unconditioned stimulus and response respectively
  • person providing the food becomes associated with pleasure and becomes a conditioned stimulus 
  • food giver becomes a source of pleasure
  • according to learning theory, this is the basis of the attachment bond
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Explanations of attachment

Learning theory:

Operant conditioning:

  • Dollard and Miler (1950) provided a further adaptation of learning theory bsaed on operant conditioning
  • However, this includes a mental state
  • They suggested that when hungry, the human infant feels uncomfortable and experiences a drive state
  • this drive motivates the baby to find some way to lessen the discomfort of being hungry
  • in early infancy, baby can do little more than howl
  • being fed satisfies the hunger and makes it feel comfortable again
  • this results in drive reduction which is rewarding and the child learns that food is a reward or primary reinforcer
  • person who supplies the food becomes associated with it, known as secondary reinforcer
  • infant seeks to be with this person because she is now a person of reward
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Evaluation of learning theory as explanation of at

  • Schaffer and Emerson found it was not always true that the person who gives the greatest pleasure or drive reduction is probably the person who feeds the infant
  • fewer than half the infants in their study had a primary attachment to the person who usually fed, bathed and changed the infant
  • another source of evidence that doesn't support role of reinforcement from classic research is by Harlow and Harlow (monkey experiment)
  • this showed that feeding was not the main source of reinforcement and therefore not the sole basis for attachment
  • should however be cautious generalising human behaviour on basis of research carried out on monkeys
  • learning theory: often criticized for being reductionist, meaning it reduces the complexities of human behaviour to overly simple ideas such as stimulus, respose and reinforcement
  • may be that these behaviourist concepts are too simple to explain complex behaviour including attachment
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The evolutionary perspective: Bowlby's theory

John Bowlby (1969) proposed that attachment was important for survival

  • Infants are physically helpless and need adults to care for and protect them
  • cannot survive without such assistance
  • likely human beings have evolved with an innate tendency to form an atachment that serves to increase their survival chances
  • the term "innate" refers to any behaviour that is inherited
  • since attachment is reciprocal, likely adults are innately programmed to become attached to their infants
  • likely that attachment has a long term benefit in addition to short term benefit of food and safety
  • may be of fundamental importance for emotional relationships because it provides a template for relationships as a result of the internal working model
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Bowlby continued

3 important features of Bowlby's theory:

  • infants and carers are "programmed" to become attached
  • as attachment is a biological process, takes place during a critical period of development or not at all
  • attachment plays a later role in later development (continuity hypothesis and montropy)

Critical period:

  • feature of biological characteristics 
  • if development doesn't take place during set period, may not take place at all
  • any interference with development at critical stage will permanently affect development
  • Bowlby suggested that the critical period is up to the age of 2 and a half years
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Bowlby continued

The continuity hypothesis:

  • argument is that the relationship with one special attachment figure provides an infant with an internal working model of relationships
  • secure children develop a positive working model on themselves based on feelings of security derived from having a sensitive and emotionally responsie primary caregiver
  • avoidant children are assumed to have a primary caregiver who is rejecting
  • ambivalent children have a primary caregiver who is inconsistent 
  • continuity hypothesis provides one possible explanation of the fact early patterns of attachment are related to later child characteristics 
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Summary of Bowlby

  • Attachment is adaptive and innate, infants are born with a drive to become attached
  • they elicit caregiving through innate social releasers: adults respond to social releasers
  • bonds are formed with adults who respond most sensitively
  • this must occur during a critical period of development
  • infants fform one special relationship - Bowlby referred to this as monotropy
  • This leads to an internal working model (a schema) and the continuity hypothesis

There are flaws with the theory:

  • doesn't explain why some children are able to cope with poor attachment experiences while others suffer long term consequences

Despite criticisms Bowlby's theory continues to:

  • be major attachment theory, generate great deal of research, have an enormous impact on the emotional care of young children
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Types of attachment

Secure and Insecure attachment - Ainsworth's studies

Mary Ainsworth sought to develop a reliable method of measuring quality of attachment using a procedure called the Strange Situation 

Aim: producce a method of assessing quality of attachment by placing an infant in a situation of mild stress and of novelty. Both comfort seeking and exploration behaviours are indicators of the quality of attachment

- 100 middle class American infants and their mothers took part in the study
-Method of controlled observation was developed involving observing infants with their mothers during a set of pretermined activities. All sessions except first one took 3 minutes 

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Strange situation continued

1) Mother and child are introduced to the room
2) mother and child left alone and child can investigate toys
3) stranger enters room and talks with mother. Stranger gradually approaches infant with a toy
4) mother leaves the child alone with the stranger, stranger interacts with the child
5) mother returns to greet and comfort the child
6) the child is left on its own
7) stranger returns and tries to engage with the child
8) mother returns, greets and picks up the child

Observers recorded infant's and mother's behaviours nothing the following in particular:
- separation anxiety: unease the infant shows when the caregiver leaves
- the infant's willingness to explore
- stranger anxiety: infant's response to presence of a stranger with/without caregiver
- reunion behaviour: the way the caregiver was greeted on return 

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Strange situation continued

Findings from the Strange Situation:

  • Observational records led Ainsworth and Bell to classify infants into 3 broad groups
  • One group of infants tended to explore unfamiliar room, they were subdued when their mother left and greeted her positively on return. These were described as securely attached (Type B) infants. 66% of infants classified in this group + mothers described as being sensitive
  • Second group didn't orientate to their mother while investigating toys and room, didn't seem concerned by absence, showed little interest when she returned. Described as avoidant-insecure (Type A), 22% of infants put in this group. Observed these mothers sometimes ignored infants
  • Third group: showed intense distress especially when mother absent, rejected her when she returned. Called resistant insecure (Type C), 12% of infants classified in this group. Mothers appeared to behave ambivalently towards these infants
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Conclusions and Evaluation of Strange Situation


  • Study shows there are significant individual differences between infants and these can be represented using 3 broad categories or types
  • shows most of the North American children who were observed were securely attached
  • Appears to be association between mothers' behaviour and infants' attachment type, suggests that mothers' behaviour may be important in determining attachment type 


  • would be unreasonable to make generalisations about all infant behaviour on the basis of this sample
  • study and its findings are restricted to middle-class American infants i.e the findings and conclusions are culturally biased
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Cross cultural variations in attachment

  • Most psychological research has been conducted in America, means most psychological theories are based on this group of people
  • it is assumed that all other pepole in the world will be similar
  • in the last few decaes, psychologists have come to recognize that this is a narrow view of human behaviour
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Disruption of attachment

Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis

  • hypothesis focuses on importance of a continuous relationship between a child and mother (or mother substitute)
  • relationships that are discontinuous become unstable and less predictable which disrupts the development of the relationship
  • Bowlby suggested that the development of this continuous relationship must occur during a critical period. If a child experiences repeated separations before the age of 2 1/2, likely to become emotionally disturbed
  • Bowlby did NOT suggest that the relationship had to be with the child's mother
  • Term "maternal" used to describe motherhing from a mother "or any mother-substitute" 
  • Believed that a child needed to form a relationship with one primary caregiver for healthy emotional development to take place. Most likely to be child's mother but does not have to be
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Privation and the effects of institutionalization

Research into the effects of privation:

  • longitudinal studies of children in institutional care
  • case studies of children raised in extreme isolation
  • studies of reactive attachment disorder, a category of mental disorder attributed to a lack of early attachments 

Czech twins:

  • Male identical twins whos mother died after giving birth
  • children went to children's home for 11 months, spent 6 months with aunt, went to stay with father and stepmother
  • father low intelligence, stepmother exeptionally cruel
  • boys never allowed out of house, were kept in small unheated cellar
  • when discovered at 7 years, children could hardly walk and speech was very poor
  • after being placed in hospital and foster home, excellent gains made and they became cognitively able and well adjusted
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Case study of isolation: Genie

  • Found when she was 13 years old 
  • Her history was one of isolation, severe neglect and physical restraint
  • she was kept strapped to a child's potty in a bare room
  • father punished her if she made any sound
  • on discovery, her appearance was that of a 6/7 year old child
  • was described as "unsocialized, primitive and hardly human"
  • made virtually no sounds and was hardly able to walk 
  • never achieved good social adjustment or language despite intervention and being placed with a foster family
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Are effects reversible?

  • Some evidence suggests that first 2 years of life are decisive for emotional and social development
  • Studies of reactive attachment disorder suggest that the effects of early privation are irreversible but it is not certain that privation is the cause of such a disorder
  • case study of Genie suggests it's not possible to recover from early privation even with good subsequent care
  • other case studies such as the Czech twins indicate that when children are offered good emtional care, even after age of 5 they can recover
  • however they may have formed attachments with each other in the early critical years
  • answer about whether early privation is irreversible appears to be uncertain
  • in general it is likely that children can recover given the right set of circumstances
  • there are many problems in interpreting the data
  • most importantly, many of these children experienced more than deprivation/privation
  • difficult to conduct well-controlled studies in this area of psychology
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The impact of day care on social development

Types of day care:

  • When we talk about "day care", we are usually talking about some regular form of childcare that takes place during the day while parents work or engage in some other activity that prevents them looking after their own children
  • tends to take place outside the child's own home and may be group based
  • children may experience day care for a morning or afternoon only 
  • Day nurseries: in UK, most nurseries provide for about 26 and 4 chidren although some are smaller and some are larger
  • children usually divided into smaller groups based on their age
  • there should be one member of staff for every 8 children aged 3-5 and one member of staff for every 4 children aged 2-3
  • childminders: a childminder will have a maximum of 3 children in their care and will usually look after children in a home environment
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Quality of daycare

Further condiseration is that the quality of day care can very along a number of dimensions:

  • number ratio of staff to children
  • the staff turnover
  • physical provisions
  • training of the staff
  • dediciation of the staff
  • the type of children recruited
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Effects of day care on social development

  • One aspect of social development that could be affected by day care is a young child's attachment to its parents
  • findings don't provide a clear message
  • number of early studies failed to identify marked differences in the quality of mother-infant attachment between infants reared at home and those who attended day care
  • some investigations suggest that extensive non-parental care was associated with increased avoidance and insecurity of attachment
  • Belsky and Rovine found that children who spent more than 20 hours per week in day care were more insecurely attached than home-cared children
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Effects of day care on aggression

  • Number of investigations have reported that children who have been in day care are more likely to exhibit higher levels of aggression
  • EPPE project has followed 3000 children in the UK since he age of 3 in a variety of preschool settings including nurseries, childminders and play groups
  • the findings indicate that there is a slight risk of increased antisocial behaviour when children spend more than 20 hours a week in nurseries
  • risk increases noticeable when they spend more than 40 hours in care
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Effects of day care on peer relations

  • Findings about relation between day care and peer relations are mixed
  • in EPPE project, attending a pre-school institution was associated with greater independence, cooperation, conformity and sociability with other children
  • these effects were greatest in institutions with higher quality care involving staff with higher qualifitications
  • Clarke-Stewart et al found that children in group based day are were actually more sociable and better to negotiate with peers than children cared for at home or at childminders
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