In the middle of the twentieth century, psychoanalysts observed that children reared in large institutional homes, with minimal stimulation and no consistent contact with a loving caregiver, often became emotionally unstable, lacking in conscience or mentally retarded. These observations led to recognition of the importance of attachment, the enduring ties of affection that children form with their primary caregivers. Attachment includes a desire for proximity to an attachment figure, a sense of security derived from the person’s presence and feelings of distress when the person is absent.
Attachment in Infancy
For many years, psychoanalysts and behaviourists were in rare agreement on the origins of attachment behaviour, both linking it to feeding. Psychoanalysts assumed that the gratification of oral needs led infants to become attached to people who satisfied those needs. The behaviourists took a similar stance and thought that mothers became secondary reinforcers through their association with food, which is a primary reinforcer. Unfortunately, both these theories share one thing in common: they were both wrong. Definitive evidence came from a series of classic experiments performed by Harry Hawlow (Harlow & Zimmerman, 1959).
Harlow reared infant monkeys in isolation from their mothers for several months and then placed them in a cage with two inanimate surrogate ‘mothers’. One, a wire monkey that provided no warmth or softness, held a bottle of milk from which the infant could nurse. The other was covered with towelling to provide softness, but it had no bottle, so it could not provide milk. Baby monkeys spent much of their time clinging to the softer surrogate mother. They would also run to the softer mother when they were frightened, and ignore the wiry one with the bottle, except when hungry. Harlow’s findings established that perceived security, not food, is the crucial element in forming attachment relationships in primates; he referred to the ties that bind an infant to its caregivers as contact comfort.
Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment
John Bowlby, who developed attachment theory, linked Harlow’s findings to the psychodynamic literature on children reared in institutional settings. Bowlby was both a psychoanalyst and ethologist – a scientist interested in comparative animal behaviour – and he proposed an evolutionary theory of attachment. He argued that attachment behaviour is prewired in humans, as is similar behaviour in other animal species, to keep premature animals close to their parents. Bowlby noted the relationship between human attachment behaviour and a phenomenon studied by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz (1935) called imprinting. Imprinting is the tendency of young animals of certain species to follow an animal to which they were exposed to during a sensitive period in their early lives. According to Lorenz (1937), imprinting confers an evolutionary advantage: a baby goose that stays close to its mother or father is more likely to be fed, protected from predators and taught skills useful for survival and reproduction than a baby goose that strays – they are also less likely to get lost.
Bowlby argued that attachment behaviour in human infants, such as staying close to parents and crying loudly in their absence, evolved for the same reasons. Thus, when a child feels threatened, the attachment system turns on, leading the child to cry or search for its attachment figure. Once the child feels safe again, she is free to play or explore the environment. The attachment figure thus becomes a safe base from which the child can explore, and to whom she can periodically return to for emotional refueling. Toddlers who are playing happily often suddenly look around to establish the whereabouts of their attachment figures. Once they locate their caregiver or even run to their comforting lap,they will return to play. Later on in life, a university student’s phone calls home may serve a similar function. This sort of imprinting can occur between any animals, and can even occur with different species. Konrad Lorenz successfully managed to make a gaggle of geese follow him everywhere he went, similar to how we can manage to get our pet dogs to follow us. Below is an image of a dog that somehow managed to get baby ducks to follow her around.
The Origins of Attachment – Attachment behaviour emerges gradually over the first several months of life, peaking some time during the second year and then diminishing in intensity as children become more confident in their independence. Among the first precursors of attachment is a general preference for social stimuli, such as faces, over other objects in the environment. Visual recognition of the mother occurs at about three months; by five or six months, infants recognise and greet their mothers and other attachment figures from across the room. At six to seven months, infants begin to show separation anxiety, distress at separation from their attachment figures. Separation anxiety emerges about the same time in children of different cultures, despite widely different child-rearing practices (Kagan, 1983).
Bowlby’s colleague Mary Ainsworth recognised that children vary in their responses to separation: while some seem secure in their relationship with their attachment figure, others seem perpetually stuck in protest or detachment. Ainsworth demonstrated these differences among infants using an experimental procedure called the Strange Situation. In the Strange Situation, the mother leaves her young child (aged 12 to 18 months) alone in a room of toys. Next, the child is joined for a brief time by a friendly stranger. The mother then returns and greets the child (Ainsworth, 1973, 1979, 1991).
Ainsworth found that children tend to respond to their mothers’ absence and return in one of three ways, one of which she called secure, the other two, insecure. Infants who welcomed the mother’s return and sought closeness with her displayed a secure attachment style. Infants who ignored the mother when she returned, display an avoidant attachment style, while infants who are angry and rejecting while simultaneously indicating a clear desire to be close to their mother have an ambivalent attachment style. Avoidant children often seem relatively unfazed by their mother’s departure, whereas ambivalent children become very upset. Other research has discovered a fourth type of attachment, called disorganised attachment style, in which infants approach their returning mother often while gazing in another direction, or may appear disoriented.