Psychology 101 – Development II: Social Development

Internal Working Models of Relationships

internal working modelAttachment does not just refer to a pattern of behaviour. Bowlby proposed that infants develop internal working models, or mental representations of attachment relationships that form the basis for expectations in close relationships. For example, a child whose early attachment to her mother is marked by extreme anxiety resulting from inconsistent or abusive care taking may form a working model of herself as unworthy of love. She may also see romantic partners as being hostile or unpredictable. Her behaviour might appear disoriented or disorganised because she cannot form a coherent model of representation of her relationship with her mother that both makes sense and provides a feeling of security. The concept of internal working models may help explain why infants and toddlers who are secure with one caretaker may not be secure with another. A child’s experience with one person, such as the mother, may feel secure, while another relationship may feel less comfortable because the child has different internal working models of the relationship. The concept of internal working models may also help explain why attachment classification in infancy predicts not onlt social but cognitive variables years later, such as the ability to sustain attention: infants who feel safe and secure will have more freedom to explore their environment than insecure infants, whose time and attention are more likely to be consumed by attachment related thoughts, feelings and motivations.

Implications of Attachment For Later Development

primary school childrenAttachment patterns that begin in infancy can persist and find expression in a wide range of social behaviours throughout the life span. Children rated avoidant in infancy tended to be described by their teachers as insecure and detached in preschool and to have difficulty discussing feelings about seperation at age six. In contrast, preschool children who were securely attached as infants tend to have higher self-esteem, are more socially competent, show greater sensitivity to the needs of their peers and are more popular. Children with a disorganised style in infancy tend to be rated by their teachers in early primary school as impulsive, disruptive and aggressive, particularly if they are also below average intellectually (Lyons-Ruth et al., 1997). The theory of internal working models helps to make sense of why attachment security with parents predicts the quality of peer relationships years later, particularly close peers, as well as with later attachment figures, notably romantic partners. Children who are secure with their parents have more positive expectations about what they can expect from relationships. This security leads them to be more trusting and engaging with peers and lovers, who are then more likely to respond to them positively. As a result, they then form more positive representations of peer and love relationships – creating a self-reinforcing cycle, in which positive initial working models foster good relationships, which maintain those models.

Adult Attachment

adult attachmentSome of the infants first assessed in longitudinal studies using the Strange Situation are just reaching adulthood, and evidence suggests that early attachment patterns remain influential in adult life (Waters, Merrick et al., 2000). Adult attachment refers to ways of experiencing attachment relationships in adulthood. Researchers study adult attachment by interviewing participants and coding the way they describe and recall their relationships with their parents, or by measuring the ways they describe their experiences with attachment figures such as spouses on self-report questionnaires.

  • Adults with secure attachment styles speak freely and openly about their relationships with their parents.
  • Adults with ambivalent/anxious attachment styles appear preoccupied with and ambivalent about their parents.
  • Adults with avoidant attachment styles dismiss the importance of attachment relationships or offer idealised generalisations about their parents, but are unable to back them up with any specific examples. When asked about times when they felt rejected, mistreated or were separated from their parents in childhood, these adults tended to deny having such experiences – while spiking on measures of physiological reactivity indicating emotional distress at the questions.


Attachment patterns in adults predict a range of phenomena, from whether people want to have children (Rholes, Simpson, Blakely, Lanigan, & Allen, 1997), to how they balance the needs of those children with the needs of work (Vasquez, Durik, & Hyde, 202), to how they cope with stressful life events (Mikulincer & Florian, 1997; Myers & Vetere, 2002), to how upset they get at airports when separating from their romantic partner (Fraley & Shaver, 1998) and to how troublesome they find the increasing independence of their adolescent children to be (Hock, Eberly, Bartle-Haring, Ellwanger, & Widaman, 2001). Perhaps most importantly, adults’ attachment patterns in relation to their own parents, as assessed by psychological interview, predict their own children’s atatchment styles with remarkable accuracy (Main, 1995). For example, mothers who are uncomfortable or avoidant in describing their own attachment to their mothers tend to have avoidant infants and children.

To be continued!

  • Socialisation
  • The role of parents
  • The role of culture
  • Socialisation of gender
  • Friendships
  • Sibling relationships
  • The role of emotion
  • Empathy
  • Moral development
  • Social development – adolescence/adulthood/old age

Other guides in the Psychology 101 series:

3 thoughts on “Psychology 101 – Development II: Social Development

  1. Pingback: Psychology 101 – Development I: Physical and Cognitive Development | END OF THE GAME

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