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Deprivation and Privation

Bowlby’s theory of attachment led him to believe that there was a critical period for attachment formation. If a separation occurs between mother and infant within the first few years of the child’s life, the bond would be irreversibly broken, leading to severe emotional consequences for the infant in later life. He referred to this disruption of the bond with the mother as maternal deprivation.

Bowlby claimed that maternal deprivation had the following consequences on the child:

  • Aggressiveness
  • Depression
  • Delinquency
  • Dependency anxiety (‘clinging’)
  • Dwarfism (retarded growth)
  • Affectionless psychopathy (showing no feelings for others)
  • Intellectual retardation
  • Social maladjustment

Studies of the effects of maternal deprivation

There are many studies of the effects of deprivation and the implications for maternal deprivation theory.



Early studies of institutionalised children. Goldfarb (1943) showed that institutionalised children performed poorly on IQ tests compared with those that had been fostered. Spitz (1945) provided evidence that children raised in poor South American orphanages suffered from depression and apathy, while Spitz & Wolf (1946) claimed to show that recovery from early deprivation was rare. Finally, Bowlby (1944) claimed that there was an association between early deprivation and delinquency.


However, these early studies have been extensively criticised in terms of their methods and sometimes lack of basic controls. For example, Bowlby’s study of 44 thieves had a basic flaw in the design in that Bowlby found a sample of ‘thieves’ and then looked back for evidence of separation (this is itself a problem since it is relying on retrospective data). Bowlby should have compared a group of youngsters who had suffered MD with a matched group who had not. If he had found a difference in outcomes between the groups he would have had much more grounds for claiming that the delinquent behaviour was the due to early separation.


However, even if the results of these early studies are valid, the data is essentially correlational. Bowlby might claim that maternal deprivation was associated with a variety of adverse effects but he could not prove that it was the cause of these effects. There are a variety of circumstances associated with being raised in an orphanage, such as the lack of stimulation and social interaction, and these could be the crucial factors as far as development is concerned.


However, animal studies by Harlow and his co-workers appeared to lend weight to Bowlby’s theories. Harlow (1959) and Harlow & Zimmerman (1959) demonstrated severe behavioural abnormalities in rhesus monkeys deprived of contact with their mothers, including behaviour when they themselves became parents very similar to that shown by parents who abuse or neglect their children. However, the neglect suffered by Harlow’s monkeys was much more severe than just about any imaginable deprivation of children (except in rare cases of extreme privation discussed below). Also evidence from animal studies must be interpreted very carefully when applied to humans.


There is also evidence from studies of short-term separation. Robertson & Robertson showed how children separated from their mothers would follow a characteristic pattern of protest, despair and detachment (the distress syndrome). They argued that this was evidence of bond disruption. However, they admit that it is possible that the distress was the result of other factors, for example the stress of a novel environment. In further studies the Robertsons showed that children would actually adapt well to separations provided that they were made accustomed to their new surroundings and allowed to form an attachment to their new carer.


Evidence against Bowlby’s theory

During the last 40 years, psychologists have developed a much better understanding of the effects of deprivation. The early studies of deprivation failed to provide convincing evidence in support of Bowlby and there are further studies that undermine the maternal deprivation hypothesis. These include:

  • Schaffer & Emerson (1964): This study challenges a central assumption of Bowlby’s theory: the idea of monotropy. Schaffer & Emerson concluded that babies could form several attachments simultaneously and that even if there was a main attachment it was not always to the mother. Given the right responsiveness to the baby, it can attach to any carer.
  • Hodges & Tizard (1989): This study is discussed in detail in the section on privation. But the significant finding for the MD hypothesis is that the researchers showed that children can form attachments after 3 years of age despite Bowlby’s claim that this would be outside the critical period.
  • Skeels (1949): This study compared the intelligence of girls who remained in an orphanage with a group who were transferred at age 3 to a school for the mentally retarded. Here they were looked after by individual teenage girls who gave them much more attention and opportunity for play than they had received in the orphanage. Initial intelligence for both groups was similar with an average of 64 IQ points. At age 4, the group who remained in the orphanage had actually suffered a decline in measured intelligence to 60, while for those in the special school it had risen to an average of 92. Skeels concluded that it was lack of stimulation that had caused the poorer intellectual development, not maternal deprivation.


Privation versus deprivation

Deprivation really means the loss of or separation from an attachment figure (i.e. mother). While Bowlby saw that separation experiences in infancy and early childhood were the cause of affectionless psychopathy and delinquency, Rutter has argued that these are more likely to result from privation – failure to establish an attachment.


Rutter suggests that rather than separation itself being responsible for the behaviour, it is much more important to look at the cause of the separation. Rutter (1970) looked at delinquency in young teenage boys from both London and the Isle of Wight. He could find little evidence for a link between early separation and delinquency. What mattered was the type of relationship the child had with the parent before separation. Where these were poor (for example as a result of conflict in the family) the child was more likely to show later delinquent behaviour. Rutter argued that family discord (e.g. arguing, lack of affection, stress) rather than separation was a contributory factor in latter antisocial behaviour, possibly because it prevented the formation of attachments (privation). It is important to realise that Rutter isn’t saying that these factors alone are the cause of delinquency, but that the underlying stress in the home can lead to increased vulnerability in children, whether or not the family remains together.


Extension Reading: Short term effects of separation


The effects of privation

It is now recognised that studies of institutionally reared children actually demonstrate the effects of privation (failing to form a bond) rather than deprivation (separation). Privation is the failure to establish a bond with any individual and, given the importance placed on this first relationship by most researchers, this would be expected to have damaging consequences for the child in later life.

According to Rutter (1981), privation can lead to an initial phase of clinging, dependent behaviour followed by attention-seeking and indiscriminate friendliness. In the long-term, it will result in a type of personality that shows an inability to form relationships, a lack of guilt and antisocial behaviour such as delinquency.

One issue that has been extensively researched is the extent to which the effects of deprivation/privation are reversible. Bowlby thought that they were not. Does the research evidence support this view?




Research into extreme privation: reversibility of early experience

Case studies of children who have suffered extreme neglect have provided important information about the effects of privation and, in particular, on the extent to which the effects are reversible.


A potentially very important case was that of Genie (Curtis, 1997). Locked in a room by herself from before the age of 2 until she was 13, Genie suffered the most extreme form of neglect imaginable. She had practically no social contact with other people and had never even eaten solid food. When found could not walk properly, rarely made a sound and was not toilet trained. Although her motor skills improved, Genie never really developed language (an attempt was even made to teach her sign language). Genie showed some emotional responses and there was evidence that she formed attachments to her carers, but she was never able to learn to look after herself and remains to this day in an institution.


On the face of it, the conclusion of the case study into Genie is that only a limited recovery from privation is possible, especially if its duration is prolonged. For example Curtis suggests that Genie’s case supports the idea of a critical period for language development (Lenneberg, 1967) in that it is impossible to acquire grammar if the child is not exposed to language before puberty.

However there are two important qualifications that need to be borne in mind before concluding anything from this case. The first is that it proved impossible to establish with any certainty whether Genie suffered from learning difficulties before she was isolated.


Secondly, the case study lacked scientific rigour. Assessments of Genie’s progress were not made in a systematic way and few results were published. In fact, as a result of the withdrawal of funding and other legal complications, the research project was abandoned after only a few years.


These considerations do not apply to the studies of the Czech twins reported by Jarmila Koluchová. This case demonstrates in a very graphic way that children who have suffered extreme privation can make up the deficit later. The case cited by Skuse (1984) of Mary and Louise is another example.


Studies of orphanage-raised children

Another test of the reversibility of the effects of privation is provided by studies of children brought up in orphanages. Wayne Dennis (1973) studied a group of children raised in a very poor orphanage in Lebanon. The children entered the orphanage shortly after birth and were reared in conditions of great privation with little human contact and a severe lack of stimulation, the harmful effects of which were readily apparent after even one year.


Development was only half the normal rate when tested at 12 months. By age 16, girls who had remained institutionalised progressed very badly. They could not read or write nor perform even basic arithmetic. In contrast the progress of children who were adopted was much more positive, even those adopted at the relatively late age of four years were only slightly retarded in terms of IQ. Interestingly the boys in the sample were transferred at age six to a much better staffed and equipped orphanage and they did much better than the girls. Although they still scored below normal on IQ tests when tested at 10-14 years they had progressed sufficiently to at least function in society.


In further studies of institutionalised children by Barbara Tizard and her colleagues, the basic findings of Dennis were confirmed. Children’s development will suffer if they experience the kind of privation found in understaffed orphanages where they are given little opportunity to form attachments. However adoption, especially if this is at a sufficiently early age, can reverse some of the effects.


In her 1975 study, Tizard showed that the then widely practiced policy of discouraging relationships in insitutions, coupled with high staff turnover, had prevented children in the institutionalised group from forming strong attachments. Following up the sample of children at eight years, Tizard & Hodges (1978) found that the majority of early adopted children had formed close relationships, despite the lack of early attachments when they were in care. Most of the original group of 26 had now been adopted. On some, though not all measures, it was found that this late adoption group still had behaviour problems, particularly when assessed by teachers. This pattern was confirmed at age 16 (Hodges & Tizard, 1989).


Tizard’s overall conclusion was that experiencing privation in early years was a risk factor in developing later behaviour problems, but that early adoption into a good home could go some considerable way to mitigate these risks.



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