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Conditioning within Attachment: Learning Theory

Classical Conditioning:

  • Food (Uncontrolled Stimulus) ------> Baby feels comforted (Uncontrolled Response)

  • Food (Uncontrolled Stimulus)  + Mother (Neutral Stimulus) ------> Comfort

  • Mother (Controlled Stimulus) -------> Bay feels comforted (Controlled Response)Classical conditioning suggests an attachment is learned through association of the carer with food

    The baby forms an association between the mother (Neutral Stimulus) and the feeling of comfort/pleasure that comes from being fed (innate response)

  • At first the baby feels comforted just by the feeding however because the primary caregiver (mother) is always with the food so the baby quickly makes an association with the primary caregiver and the feeling of comfort

  • Before long the presence of just the mother produces a feeling of comfort, this is the beginning if an attachment

    Operant Conditioning

  • The baby gets the food (reward) by crying

  • The reward of being fed provides the feeling of comfort/pleasure so is the primary reinforcer as it removes the negative feeling

  • Food never comes without the mother so the mother becomes the secondary reinforcer, eventually the mother reduces discomfort and brings a feeling of comfort without the presence of food

    The reward reinforces the action so the baby repeats it


  • Harlow' study: Used rhesus monkeys to show the importance of comfort as they spent 22 hours with the cloth covered wire as it provided the most comfort - proves comfort over food

  • Schaffer and Emerson - Self report surveys with 60 babies from working class families and found that infants were not most attached to the person who fed them. Thus disproves the leaning theory as the babies were most attached to the person who was most responsive.  however this study has methodological flaws; such as a self-report surveys may cause social desirability bias and therefore the research is not as reliable as it first appears

  • Harlow’s study does support some aspects of the learning theory; process of learning attachment does occur but comfort is more important than food

  • The learning theory provides an adequate explanation for attachment however food may not be the primary reinforcer; it fails to consider the attentiveness of the caregiver.

    Evolutionary Theory: Bowlby 1969

  • According to Bowlby attachment is a behavioural system that has evolved because of the need for survival and reproduction

  • Children have an innate drive to become attached to its primary caregiver as it has long term benefits

  • He believes there is a sensitive period for an attachment to form

  • Study - Lorenz and his geese (Imprinting) - The geese were split into two groups one group was hatched naturally and the other in an incubator. Lorenz found that the geese became attached to the first thing they saw (either Lorenz or the mother goose) suggesting that animals imprint onto the first living thing sees.

  • Attachment is an adaptive behaviour that increase the chances of survival and reproduction

  • Infants are born with characteristics called social releasers (crying, smiling, and gurgling) which provoke a need for care to be given.

  • Bowlby believed that infants form many attachments but they have one special bond (monotropic bond) with its


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