Evolutionary Explanations of Attachment
John Bowlby's theory
Perhaps the most influential explanation of attachment was presented by John Bowlby who began developing his ideas in the 1940s. Bowlby presented two key theories, namely the maternal deprivation hypothesis and his theory of attachment, which we shall consider here. The ideas behind these theories are closely linked.
Rather than locating the child's formation of attachment within the environment as learning theories do, Bowlby argued that attachment was an evolved mechanism that ensured the survival of the child. He drew on a variety of different influences to develop his theory.
- The underlying basis of Bowlby's theory was the innate or instinctive nature of attachment. He argued that attachment behaviours in both babies and their caregivers have evolved through natural selection to ensure the baby survives to reach maturity and to reproduce. Babies possess instincts such as crying and smiling, which encourage the caregiver to look after them. Parents, especially mothers according to Bowlby, possess instincts designed to protect their baby from harm and to nurture them to ensure survival to maturity. Those babies and mothers who did not possess such behaviours have been less successful and therefore their genes are no longer in the gene pool.
- A second important concept in Bowlby's theory was the idea of monotropy - a single attachment to one person who is most important to the baby. Bowlby did not deny that babies formed lots of attachments but he believed that for every infant, one relationship is more important than the rest and exists at the top of the hierarchy. This has been one of his more controversial claims.
- Bowlby took up and developed Freud's idea of the mother-child relationship being important for future relationships. He argued that the first attachment between the baby and their caregiver provided the child with an internal working model or template for their future relationships. In this first attachment, the child is said to build up a model of themselves as lovable or not, a model of the caregiver as trustworthy or not and a model of the relationship between the two. Bowlby argued that the internal working model, begun in early childhood, influenced the child's later relationships through to adulthood. This is referred to as the continuity hypothesis. Bowlby also drew on the work carried out by the Harlows with rhesus monkeys who were showing the importance of the mother-figure providing comfort and security for the infant, a concept he developed into the idea of a 'safe base'.
- Bowlby thought that the process of attachment took place within a sensitive period, during the first three years of the child's life. He borrowed this concept from the work of Lorenz and other ethologists who had pointed to the rapid formation of attachments in some animal species. From his research with troubled adolescents, he believed that the attachment between caregiver and child should not be disrupted or broken for any reason before the age of 3 years or there would be serious consequences.