Bowlby's theory of attachment File




Bowlby’s attachment theory

John Bowlby’s theory of attachment

John Bowlby

Psychoanalyst John Bowlby is a pioneer into child psychology who closely followed the work of Freud. He also believed that the most important years were those first few in life. As an infant, Bowlby never saw much of his mother during the day as he was looked after by a nanny, and was sent to boarding school at aged 7 years. These experiences have affected his views on the importance of attachments in childhood.

A timeline of Bowlby’s attachment theory

There are a number of strands to his theory of attachment. His maternal deprivation hypothesis was published in 1951 and he developed his ideas during the 1950s and 1960s, leading to what is seen as his attachment theory-proper.

1946: Forty-four juvenile thieves

Bowlby completes a study whilst working at a child guidance clinic in London, looking at a group of juvenile thieves and their background to identify a relationship between early attachments and future behaviour

1950: WHO commission

The World Health Organisation asks Bowlby to look at the consequences of childhood deprivation (those who’d lost their parents in World War II, whose parents were in hospital and those who were in care or nurseries) and gave him some evidence to do so; Bowlby examined what limited evidence there was available in Europe and the USA – e.g. the findings of Spitz (1946) and Goldfarb (1943, 1945)

1951: Maternal deprivation hypothesis

His report on his maternal deprivation hypothesis is published, and a shorter version of the report was published into a book which sold over 500,000 copies (so not just academics reading the paper)

1952: Film collaboration with James Robertson

Bowlby works with James Robertson, a psychology student, to produce a short film “A two year old goes to hospital”

1957: Evolutionary basis of attachment (and social releasers)

Bowlby builds on his attachment theory using various ethological theories (e.g. Lorenz), and looking at the developmental and cognitive psychology approaches; using the ideas of evolutionary theory, Bowlby applies these ideas to explain the use of social releasers in human infants

1969: Internal working models

Bowlby suggested that a child develops a mental representation of their first attachment (with the primary caregiver) which will then profoundly affect all future relationships and their own success as a parent

The consequences of Bowlby’s work

Bowlby’s work was very influential in a number of areas, not just in changing the way people approached psychology. His theories and hypotheses have had real-life applications and have affected a number of things, including:

 widespread changes in institutional care provided for infants and children (e.g. care homes – in the past, the focus of care homes was to ensure that all the children were well fed, well washed and well clothed, but nobody looked at their interaction with the nursing staff – Bowlby used his theories and observations to show that mental wellbeing was of equal importance, and so now the focus of care homes includes this interaction)

 hospital changes regarding visiting hours (e.g. in the past, it was believed that if children who were in hospitals in the long-term were visited by their parents for long periods of time, they would become upset, and so parents were discouraged from visiting, but in fact Bowlby’s work shows the importance of the attachments and so now parent’s are encouraged to spend as much time as possible with their children in hospital)

 the Government used the works and hypotheses of Bowlby for political purposes, most famously marketing that women should stay at home and look after their children, discouraging women from going out to work (and taking the men’s jobs) and leaving children in daycare www.


Evolutionary theory

Evolutionary psychology is an entirely separate branch of psychology which is based upon the knowledge and principles of biological evolution, which refers to increasing changes that occur in a population over time, produced at a genetic level as organisms’ genes mutate and recombine in different ways during reproduction, so that certain variations and adaptations can be passed on to future generations. When these adaptations help an organism to survive, this process is known simply as evolution.

Evolution suggests that, according to Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859), these adaptive traits will help an organism to survive in their environment. This concept is applied in evolutionary psychology, and Bowlby used this idea to help him devise his attachment theory. Evolutionary psychology stresses the importance of genes in biology in affecting behaviour, and so is mainly nature-focused, but does not reject the importance of the environment, and appreciates the fact that there is an interaction between genes and environment.

One example of an evolutionary characteristic is the giraffe’s long neck. The ancestors of the modern giraffe did not all have long necks, but presumably those who had the longer necks could reach more of the branches on the trees so they could eat and survive, whereas those with shorter necks couldn’t and so would not survive. The long-necked giraffes lived to reproduce and pass on the specific alleles (version of a gene) to denote long necks. Over time, more and more giraffes had longer necks and fewer had short necks, until only the long neck

(modern day giraffe) species was present.

Evolutionary psychology studies these types of characteristics and behaviours which function in a similar way but are present in humans. Again, these characteristics can be passed along in genes and natural selection, and will help a species or organism to survive. Examples of behaviours include the following:

Human characteristic… Explanation to why the behaviour has evolved… babies show a rooting reflex in the first few hours after birth – if its cheek is brushed a nipple or teat, the baby will turn its head ready to suck human children, like the young of other mammals, display curious and playful behaviours a baby without this instinct to feed will be less likely to survive, as it cannot obtain food – as with giraffes, this behaviour maximises the chance of living into adulthood and reproducing curiosity plays an important role in learning, so this teaches children what is safe to do and what they should be doing, as they learn from being inquisitive humans and other higher mammals have a strong innate need to form attachments when a vulnerable child, you need someone there to protect you, and an attachment means you will have someone to look out for you

All of these characteristics are said to be innate, rather than learnt, which acts as evidence that they have evolved and are passed along biologically. Each of them maximises the chances of living into adulthood and being able to reproduce, which is why they are all considered evolutionary characteristics.

Bowlby has a rather significant interest in ethology – the study of animal behaviours in their environments – and he tried to use some of these aspects of sciences to bring in to his studies of child psychology.

Maternal deprivation hypothesis

Bowlby suggested that children deprived of their mother (their attachment figure) would have problems later in life. The word ‘maternal’ is used because mothers were the primary caregivers, not because he was making a judgement. He did acknowledge that the bond made could be with another figure, other than the mother, but the mother is used as the assumed primary caregiver in his theory.

The term monotropy was devised by Bowlby to describe this warm, loving relationship which was shared with only one person, i.e. the attachment is made with one person only. He claimed that social, emotional and intellectual development would be irreversibly affected causing problems later in life if anything should happen to cause the mother-child bond to break prematurely. This hypothesis is called the maternal deprivation hypothesis . www.


The first 18-24 months of life are particularly important, and this is when Bowlby believed the attachment with the mother was most crucial to socialisation – learning the rules of society and how to interact with others, including understanding spoken language and appropriate body language. His hypothesis stated that a child needs the continuous presence of the mother throughout this critical period.

If an attachment is not formed, or the development of it is disrupted, he believed that there would be two serious consequences:

 affectionless psychopathy – the inability to experience guilt or deep feelings for others, which can lead to delinquency

 developmental retardation – simply meaning improper development (Bowlby suggested that those who do not form a strong bond with their primary caregiver will always suffer from low intelligence)

However, a big criticism of Bowlby’s maternal deprivation hypothesis is that he does not clearly distinguish between deprivation and privation . The hypothesis clearly states that these consequences arise from either the failure of forming a bond or if a bond forms and is broken, but in fact if a bond is never made, that is privation , not deprivation – so Bowlby is often criticised for not having suggested a separate consequences for the two, as privation would most likely have more serious consequences than deprivation.

Social releasers

One of the main features of deprivation is the loss of the primary caregiver. This separation causes separation anxiety

(distress caused due to the separation of the primary carer and the child), which triggers some sort of response in the infant which is designed to bring the mother back to the infant. These actions are called social releasers . They are innate and instinctive behaviours infants are born with which aid survival. They involve species-specific behaviours to shape and control the behaviour of the caregivers, so in humans, there are various examples, including:

 sucking – it has been shown that this is also a thing of comfort, as it can reduce the level of stress in an infant

 cuddling – in humans, a baby will mould its body to its mother’s, which enhances the attachment

 looking – studies have shown that if an infant looks at their mother and the mother does not respond, the infant’s level of distress is increased (so looking is seen as an invitation to provoke a reaction from the mother)

 smiling – an innate social releaser which looks for a response (social smiling is not learnt until later on)

 crying – associated with pain and needing help (for example, immediately after childbirth when the baby cannot move or do anything, so it cries out)

It is claimed that mothers are born with a genetic blueprint which enables them to appropriately respond to these various social releasers. It is important to understand that: social releasers are a consequence of separation anxiety (due to maternal deprivation); and also that social releasers aid survival because they aim to reunite the mother and infant, as a social releaser should draw the attachment figure back to the infant.

Internal working models

The final strand of Bowlby’s theory explains the concept of internal working models which infants develop. An internal working model is simply a mental representation of a child’s attachment with their primary caregiver, which would have profound effects on their later relationships and on their own success as a parent. It is said that all future relationships are based on this mental representation of that first relationship, with the mother.

Bowlby was fairly controversial in his claims. He suggested that a child who internalises a working model of attachment as kind and reliable will tend to bring those qualities to future relationships, and should succeed as a parent themselves. On the other side, he suggested that those who internalise a negative working model (children who are neglected or abused), will have a chance of reproducing those patterns in future relationships, which means they will not be able to be in any future long-term relationships, and their own parenting will not be successful.

Whilst it is something of a myth that only those who have had the ‘model upbringing’ can be successful parents, as

Bowlby did suggest, it would seem that for everyone, the attachment which they first form with the primary caregiver will have some sort of effect on the way in which they form an attachment with their own children. This was demonstrated by

Fonagy et al (1993), who assessed pregnant women’s internal working models using the AAI (adult attachment interview) which measured how securely attached their babies were at 12 and 18 months. It emerged that those mothers who reported insecure attachments to their own mothers had the least secure attachments to their own babies. www.