What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory focuses on the relationships and bonds between people, especially those between a parent and child.

This theory suggests that people are born with a need to forge bonds with caregivers as children. These early bonds may continue to have an influence on attachments throughout life.

John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist, he said

“The central theme of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant’s needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant learns that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world.”

In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded greatly upon Bowlby’s original work. Her groundbreaking “strange situation” study revealed the profound effects of attachment on behavior. In the study, researchers observed children between the ages of 12 and 18 months as they responded to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mothers.

Research on Bowlby’s theory of attachment showed that infants placed in an unfamiliar situation and separated from their parents will generally react in one of these ways upon reunion with the parents:

  1. Secure attachment: These infants showed distress upon separation but sought comfort and were easily comforted when the parents returned.
  2. Anxious-preocupied attachment: A smaller portion of infants experienced greater levels of distress and, upon reuniting with the parents, seemed both to seek comfort and to attempt to “punish” the parents for leaving.
  3. Avoidant attachment: Infants in the third category showed no stress or minimal stress upon separation from the parents and either ignored the parents upon reuniting or actively avoided the parents.
  4. In later years, researchers added a fourth attachment style to this list: the disorganized-attachment style, which refers to children who have a mix of both avoidant and anxious-procupied attachment.

Since then various ways of defining and subdividing categories of attachment have been preposed, but the easiest is to retain the four above.

In general, a persons basic attachment style is set around 18 months of age, although circumstances can and will change it. Also, these attachment styles exist on a spectrum. Most people have one overarching attachment style with minor elements involving another.

Bowlby studied how infants developed a kind of internal maps for the quality of attachment with their caregivers. This is an internal representation the infant has of his or her relationship with the primary caregivers. Bowlby  calls this an internal working model (IWM) and defines it as follows:

“In the working model of the world that anyone builds, a key feature is his notion of who attachment figures are, where they may be found, and how they may be expected to respond. Similarly, in the working model of the self that anyone builds a key feature is his notion of how acceptable or unacceptable he himself is in the eyes of his attachment figures. On the structure of these complementary models are based that person’s forecasts of how accessible and responsive his attachment figures are likely to be should he turn to them for support . . . whether he feels confident that his attachment figures are in general readily available or whether he is more or less afraid that they will not be available—occasionally, frequently, or most of the time.”

(p. 203)

The psychologist Mary Main thought of IWMs not so much as representations but as “a set of conscious and/or unconscious rules for the organization of information relevant to attachment” (Main et al., 1985, p. 67). She went on to say that,

“secure versus the various types of insecure attachment organizations can best be understood as terms referring to particular types of internal working models . . . that direct not only feelings and behavior but also attention, memory, and cognition . . . Individual differences in . . . internal working models will be related not only to individual differences in patterns of nonverbal behavior but also to patterns of language and structure of mind.”

(Main et al., 1985, p. 67)

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