baby ducklings

The Psychology of Social Development

This is part 2 of the 2 parter on human development. This post focuses on social development, which are changes in interpersonal thought, feeling and behaviour throughout the life span. We will journey through the different relationships people form throughout life, from intimate attachments in infancy through to adulthood, to sibling and peer relationships; the development of beliefs and feelings about themselves and others; and the way these beliefs and feelings about themselves and others; and the way these beliefs and feelings are expressed in different social contexts.

Table of Contents

  1. Attachment
  2. Attachment in Infancy
  3. Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment
  4. The Origins of Attachment
  5. Attachment Patterns
  6. Internal Working Models of Relationships
  7. Implications of Attachment For Later Development
  8. Adult Attachment


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 monkey

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

ducks imprinting

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).

Attachment Patterns

strange situation

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.

Internal Working Models of Relationships

internal working model

Attachment 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 children

Attachment 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 separation 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 attachment

Some 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: