Learning theory and Bowlby's theory of attachment

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  • Created by: charlie
  • Created on: 21-05-13 18:46

Learning theory – 12 mark


·         Theory that explains attachment via conditioning. It is a behaviourist approach which states that attachments form as a result of learning through association. There are two types.

·         Classical conditioning

o   Unconditioned stimulus (UCS) results in unconditioned response (UCR)

o   Before conditioning the mother providing the food is a neutral stimulus (NS)

o   After conditioning the mother is a conditioned stimulus (CS) as she provides the original UCS. The child associates the mother with the food and so she can produce a conditioned response (CR), this is a basis for attachment.

o   Example – UCS (food) results in UCR (pleasure). The NS, the mother, provides the food and as such becomes a CS to the child. She can produce pleasure in the child as the child associates her with food, and food with pleasure. The pleasure is a CR.

·         Operant conditioning

o   Child is fed, sating hunger and reducing discomfort (drive reduction)

o   Food is therefore a primary reinforcer as it causes the happiness, and the mother who provides it is a secondary reinforcer

o   Child will attach to the mother as she gives the reward of food for behaviours such as crying


(-) One weakness is that feeding may not be important in the formation of attachments. Harlow’s monkey study found that the infant monkeys preferred the pseudo-mother that had a blanket which provided comfort to the one that offered food.

             (-) A weakness of Harlow’s study is the use of animals. Results cannot be generalised to humans as we are different physiologically and psychologically. Also it is arguably unethical to deprive the monkeys of a mother figure and replace it with a fake one

(-) Schaffer and Emmerson conducted a study which found that feeding did not play a key role in attachment behaviour as often the one who offered food to the individual was not the primary attachment figure.

             (-) Longitudinal studies such as…



A great resource if you're struggling to write an essay on learning theory or evolutionary theory.


Thank you for sharing this with us. Very useful!

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