Explanations of Attachment: Bowlby`s monotropic theory. The concepts of a critical period and an internal working model

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Bowlby`s Monotropic Theory

  • Bowlby rejected learning theroy as an explanation of atachment, instead he looked at the work of Lorenz and Harlow for ideas and proposed an evolutionary theory - that attachment was an innate system that gave a survival advantage
  • Imprinting and attachment evolved because they ensure that young animals stay close to their caregivers, thus protecting them from hazards - millions of years ago this would be wild animals, but today it is traffic and electricity


  • This theory is described as monotropic as he placed great emphasis on a childs attachment to one specific caregiver (hence mono) and this attachment is different / more important than others.
  • While Bowlby stated that the primary attachment figure is the mother, he was clear that this didn`t have to be the biological mother.
  • He stated that the more time a baby spent with this figure the better, and put forward two principles to identify this:
  • 1. The Law of continuity states that the more constant and predictable a child`s care is, the better the quality of the attachment
  • 2. the law of accumulated separation stated that the effects of every seperation from the mother add up
  • Evaluation: Bowlby believed that babies generally formed one, special attachment to a primary caregiver - and was therefore different to later attachments. This is not supported by Schaffer and Emerson (1964) - while they found that babies attach to one person first, they found a significant minority appeared able to form multiple attachments at the same time.It is also unclear whether there is something unique about the first attachment - studies if attachments to mother and father tend to show that the attachment to the mother is more important in predicting later behaviour (Suess et al 1992). However, this could simply mean that attachment to the primary attachment figure is just stronger than other attachments, not necassarily different in quality.

Social Releasers and the Critical Period:

  • he suggested that babies are born with a set of innate "cute" behaviours like smiling, cooing and gripping that encourage attention from adults. He called these social releasers as their purpose is to activate the adult attachment system / make the adult feel love towards the baby.
  • He acknowledged that attachment is a reciprocal process between mother and baby - they both have an innate predisposition…


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