Learning theory argues that attachments are based on the principles of operant and classical conditioning. First attachments are quite often formed to the person who looks after the child, who feeds them, who changes their nappy and cuddles them when they are afraid. First attachment figures are a powerful source of pleasure for the baby as well as removing physical and emotional discomforts including pain, cold and hunger. An early version of learning theory based on both operant and classical conditioning was proposed by Dollard and Miller (1950).
Skinner was a behaviourist who worked with rats and cats, He placed hungry animals in cages (called Skinner boxes) and found that they would explore their surroundings. When the animal accidentally pressed a lever that supplied a pellet of food, it quickly learnt to repeat the behaviour in order to gain the food reward. According to the principle of operant conditioning, any behaviour that produces a reward (or positive reinforcement) such as food will be repeated. Behaviours that 'switch off' something unpleasant are also likely to be repeated (negative reinforcement). Behaviours that lead to an unpleasant outcome (or punishment) are less likely to be repeated.
Classical conditioning is based on learning through association. Pavlov noticed how hungry dogs quickly learn to associate the sound of their keeper's footsteps with mealtimes, In terms of attachment, milk is an unconditioned stimulus, which provides an unconditioned (reflex) response in the baby of pleasure at relief from hunger. This reflex response is automatic and does not need to…