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The development and variety of attachments


Socialisation is the process whereby the young infant learns what is expected of him/her in order to be accepted as a member of society. Through socialisation we learn the norms of behaviour that are associated with social roles.


Socialisation can be thought of as a kind of bond holding all of society together, but before socialisation occurs, the infant first forms attachments to others. According to some psychologists, the quality and timing of these attachments can largely determine later individual development of the child. This is one of the reasons why the study of attachment has been a major focus of research into early social development.


The ethologists suggest that attachment bonds are important, because they ensure the survival of the infant by keeping it close to its caregiver. A similar process of bonding (imprinting) occurs in all higher animals (including humans). Thus, ethologists have suggested that human infants imprint onto their mother resulting in the formation of an attachment bond between the infant and its mother. However, we have to be aware of the problems of generalising the findings of animal studies to humans (anthropomorphism). From a different viewpoint, Sigmund Freud suggested that close emotional relationships with our parents were essential for the normal development of the personality — especially the superego (conscience).


In the 1940s John Bowlby, influenced by the theories of both Freud and the ethologists, suggested that sometimes bonding could fail between children and their mothers, and that such maternal deprivation could have serious consequences for the child.


Stages in the formation of attachments


Attachments are an important sub-variety of affectional bonds. They are the emotional bonds that children form with their caregivers during the first year of life. Following on from the work of John Bowlby, Ainsworth described it as ‘a relatively long-enduring tie in which the partner is important as a unique individual and is interchangeable with none other. It is an affectional bond where there is a desire to maintain closeness to the partner’. (1989, p.711.) When attached, an infant feels (or expects to feel) a special sense of security and comfort in the presence of the other person and uses the other as a ‘safe base’ to explore the world.

Attachments are internal states and so cannot be directly observed. Instead we must infer attachments by observing the infant’s behaviours. Thus if a baby is attached then it should show behaviours to maintain proximity, such as smiling, making eye contact, crying, clinging, calling out and so on.


The infant’s attachments to parents emerges gradually. Bowlby suggested three phases:

  • Non-focused orientation and signalling. Humans are born with a set of innate behaviour patterns designed to shape and control the behaviour of carers, the most important of these ‘proximity promoting’ behaviours are sucking, cuddling, looking smiling and crying (see Box 3.4). At the start these behaviours are emitted rather than being directed at one person in particular.
  • Focus on one or more figures. At about 3 months the proximity promoting behaviours are beginning to be directed at those people who regularly take care of the infant and not at strangers. However the baby is still not attached as there is no fear of strangers
  • Secure base behaviour. At around 6-7 months the baby can move about the world and this coincides with the formation of a true attachment. Behaviours change from ‘proximity promoting’ to ‘proximity seeking’ (Ainsworth).


By the time that a clear attachment has been formed a number of related behaviours occur, principally stranger anxiety (or fear-of-strangers) and separation anxiety. The former is usually triggered when a stranger tries to make contact with the baby. Male strangers cause the most anxiety while child strangers elicit the least. Separation anxiety first appears at around six months and reaches a peak at around 15 months. Separation anxiety can be reduced if the child is in familiar surroundings (such as a day care centre) or left with a brother or sister or other familiar person.



Explaining attachment


Cupboard love: psychoanalytic & learning theories

Although usually opposed to each other, both psychoanalytic and behaviourist theories are agreed on the primary source of attachments: the satisfaction of the infant’s basic needs. Freud believed that a baby’s instinctual needs (for food, security and oral sexual gratification) are satisfied by the mother, who then becomes desired in her own right. Behaviourists also see infants as becoming attached to those who satisfy their needs. However the mechanisms are through conditioning. Caregivers act as conditioned reinforcers who become associated with gratification; this generalises into a feeling of security when the caregiver is present. Both these explanations suggest that attachment is a form of ‘cupboard love’ — ‘I’ll love you because you can satisfy my needs’. Cat owners may be familiar with this type of bonding!


However, the classic experiments of Harlow & Zimmerman on rhesus monkeys demonstrated that this theory was inadequate. It could not explain the behaviour of the monkeys who became attached to a cloth surrogate mother with no feeding bottle, rather than a wire one with a bottle. If attachment was merely ‘cupboard love’ the infant monkeys would have chosen the surrogate which supplied the food. From the monkeys’ behaviour it was clear that they had indeed formed an attachment to the cloth mother; they used her as a secure base from which to explore their environment and ran to her when confronted with frightening stimuli. Studies with humans provide evidence that infants do become attached to people who do not perform caregiving activities (e.g. Schaffer and Emerson, 1964).


Ethological theory

Ethologists suggest that it is vital for the survival of young animals to stay close to their parents, and that this is something that is too important to be left to chance learning. They investigated the phenomenon of imprinting, the tendency, particularly among precocial species, for a newborn to attach to the first conspicuous object it sees. Imprinting is difficult to account for by learning theory, because the imprinting infant attaches itself to the mother-figure prior to any rewards (reinforcements) being obtained. Ethologists suggest that attachment in humans too is the result of an imprinting-like process rather than learning through reinforcement.


Ethologists have suggested that attachment behaviour is subject to a critical period, and that if it does not take place within a few hours from birth, it will never occur. They argue that this critical period is under genetic control. However, this claim was disputed by, for example, Sluckin’s (1965) studies that showed that the period of imprintability can be extended and so the term ‘sensitive period’ is now generally preferred.


However a weakness of the idea of critical and sensitive periods is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that relationship between infant and caregiver is two-way; it is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon of one person bonding to another. According to Ainsworth, for example, the nature of the child’s attachment to the mother will depend on her sensitivity (or responsiveness) to the child.


Bowlby’s theory of attachment

Bowlby’s agreed with Freud’s emphasis on the importance of the child’s attachment to the mother as a basis for later emotional relationships. Because this attachment has such obvious survival value it cannot be left to chance. So, like the ethologists, he believed that maternal behaviour was as instinctive in humans as it appears to be in animals. Mothers and their babies form an instinctive bond with each other using genetically inherited skills such as smiling, cuddling, crying and so on.


‘The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals is a basic component of human nature, already present in germinal form in the newborn.’


According to Bowlby, the mother also inherits a genetic blueprint that programmes her to respond to the baby. There is a critical period during which the meshing together (synchrony) of the mother’s and baby’s behaviour produces an attachment. One of the more controversial aspects of Bowlby’s theory was the claim that infants display an innate tendency to become attached to one person (monotropy) and that this attachment is qualitatively different from other attachments. Disruption of this bond with the mother during the critical period can have serious long-term consequences (maternal deprivation).


There has been much discussion and debate around Bowlby’s notions. Evidence against monotropy is as follows:

  • Attachment behaviour is shown to a wide variety of people (Rutter, 1981)
  • Mothers don’t have a monopoly of attachments (Schaffer & Emerson, 1964)
  • Fathers can be adequate attachment figures


Individual differences in attachments

During the first three months of life, babies respond in a more or less similar way to everyone. They are unattached and show no fear of strangers. At around four months they begin to stare at unfamiliar people, suggesting a recognition of the unusual. By six or eight months infants will show fear when a stranger approaches, and will become distressed when separated from their primary care-giver. Fear of strangers and separation anxiety are indications that an attachment has been formed.


Research has shown however that not all infants react in the same way to separation and strangers. Mary Ainsworth noticed this when conducting naturalistic observations of infants and their mothers in Uganda. In order to measure the differences more scientifically, Ainsworth and her colleagues developed a test known as the ‘Strange Situation’.





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