Explanations of Attachment: Learning Theory

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Attachment is an emotional bond between two people. It is a two-way process that endures over time. It leads to certain behaviours such as clinging and proximity-seeking, and serves the function of protecting an infant.

It's a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space. (Ainsworth 1973; Bowlby 1969)

Learning Theory

Learning theory proposes that all behaviour is learned rather than inborn - this is put forward by behaviourists who believe we are born with as 'blank slates' (TABULA RASA) and everything we become can be explained in terms of the experiences we have.

Behaviourists suggest that all behaviour (including attachment) is learned either through classical or operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

This type of conditioning involves learning through association  - which may result in an attachment. Ivan Pavlov first described this type of learning.

Pavlov was conducting research on the salivation reflex in dogs by recording how much they salivated when they were fed. However found that right before he fed the dogs, when walking through the door, the dogs started salivating; the dogs had associated the sound of the door with food, they had learnt a new stimulus response.

In terms of attachment, classical conditioning can be applied in the following way:

  • Before conditioning - unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces an unconditioned response (UCR). For the infant, food (UCS) creates pleasure (UCR).
  • During conditioning - the primary figure feeding the infant occurs a number of times, the primary figure becomes associated with food (CS) which produces pleasure. The feeder is now associated with pleasure (CR)
  • After conditioning - Conditioned stimulus (CS) produces a conditioned response (CR). For the infant, person who


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