Explanations of Attachment

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  • Created by: Andreia
  • Created on: 17-05-13 13:28

Explanations of Attachment

Learning Theory - Classical Conditioning

  • Learning through association.
  • Before Conditioning: Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) produces an Unconditioned Response (UCR). 
  • After Conditioning: Conditioned Stimulus (CS) produces a Conditioned Response (CR).

Same principles can be used to explain attachment:

  • Food (UCS) naturally produces a sense of pleasure (UCR) - reduces discomfort.
  • The person who feeds the infant (CS) becomes associated with the food. 
  • The feeder is eventually produces the pleasure associated with the food; pleasure now becomes a conditioned response (CR).
  • The association between the individual and sense of pleasure is the attachment bond.

Operant Conditioning

  • Learning occurs when we are rewarded for doing something - anything such as money or praise.
  • When you do something that results in pleasant consequences, the behaviour is reinforced and becomes more likely that you will repeat that behaviour.
  • If you do something that results in an unpleasant consequence, it becomes less likely that you will repeat that behaviour - punishment.

Dollard and Miller (1950)

  • Offered an explanation for attachment based on operant conditioning.
  • Suggested that a hungry infant feels discomfort and this creates a drive to reduce it.
  • When the infant is fed, the drive is reduced and feelings of pleasure are produced.
  • Food becomes the primary reinforcer because it reinforces the behaviour in order to avoid the discomfort.
  • The person who supplies the food is associated with avoiding the discomfort and becomes the secondary reinforcer.
  • Attachment occurs because the child seeks the person who can supply the reward.



  • We do learn through reinforcement and punishment however food may not be the main reinforcer - it may be that attention and responsiveness from the caregiver are more important rewards that create the attachment.


  • Validity: learning theory is based largely on studies with non-human animals therefore results aren't generalisable.
  • Human behaviour is more influenced by higher order thinking and emotions.
  • Reductionist: behaviourist explanations present an over-simplified version of human behiour.


  • Behaviourists believe that humans are no different from other animals - human behaviour patterns are constructed from the same basic building blocks of stimulus and response.
  • Therefore it is possible to generalise from animal experiments. 

More weaknesses

Harlow (1959)

  • conducted research using rhesus monkeys.
  • Harlow created two wirse mothers - one lactating mother with a feeding bottle attached to it and the other was wrapped in cloth but offered no food.
  • According to learning theory, the monkeys should have become attached to the lactating mother who was able to reduce hunger drive.
  • Harlow found that the monkeys spent most time with the cloth-covered mother and would even cling to it in frightening situations - a proximity seeking behaviour which is a characteristic of attachment.

Schaffer and Emerson (1964)

  • observed 60 babies from Glasgow for a period of a year.
  • They found that the infants were most attached to the person who was most responsive and interacted with them the most instead of the person who fed them. 
  • These studies show that reward and…



VERY detailed notes for the two main explanations of attachmrny (evolutionary and learning theory).

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