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AQA A-level Psychology Attachment

This section provides revision resources for AQA A-level psychology and the Attachment chapter. The revision notes cover the AQA exam board and the new specification. As part of your A-level psychology course, you need to know the following topics below within this chapter:

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Caregiver-Infant Interactions in Humans

When we refer to infancy, this is generally understood to mean the first year of a child’s life and the period before they begin to learn to speak.

One of the main key interactions between caregivers and infants is their non-verbal communication, for example, how they communicate without words or sounds.

It is believed that it is these interactions that form the basis of how attachment occurs between the caregiver and infant. The manner in which each responds to one another through how sensitive they are to one another’s signals determines the formation of attachment and how deep the relationship is.

Reciprocity and Interactional Synchrony

Reciprocity occurs between infants and carers resulting in mutual behaviour where both parties are able to generate a response from one another almost like a conversation e.g smiling by the parent results in smiling by the baby. Such interactions between the infant and carer facilitate and strengthen the attachment bond.

Brazelton (1979) suggested reciprocal behaviour was an important precursor for the development of communication later. Signals the infant gives allows the carer to anticipate the child’s responses and respond appropriately. It is this sensitivity to the child’s needs and behaviour which lays the foundation for attachment to develop.

Tronick et al. (1979) found that when mothers who had been engaged in dialogue with their babies were asked to stop moving and remain static, the babies would become puzzled and distressed when their smiles were unable to provoke a reciprocal response. This highlights how babies engage and anticipate reciprocal responses to their own behaviour.

Interactional synchrony involves infants imitating specific hand and facial gestures from an adult model and broadly refers to a finely tuned coordination of behaviours between the child and parent during speaking and listening. Infants and parents are seen to develop a shared sense of timing and rhythm which develops into a flow of mutual behaviours. Meltzoff & Moore (1983) demonstrated that interactional synchrony occurred with infants imitating facial expressions, tongue protrusions and mouth openings from an adult model when only three days old. This suggests the behaviour was innate rather than learned.

Reciprocity and Interactional Synchrony Evaluation

  • One major issue into observing caregiver-infant interactions is testing infant behaviour is incredibly difficult as their facial expressions are almost continuously changing. Behaviours observed in the Meltzoff & Moore study may lack validity as expressions involving sticking their tongue out, yawning, smiling, opening their mouths and movements of hands occur constantly in young babies. This makes it incredibly difficult to distinguish between general behaviour and actual interactional synchrony. Therefore such theories may lack internal validity due to not necessarily measuring interactional synchrony.
  • Meltzoff & Moore’s study also lacks reliability as successive attempts to replicate the findings have failed. For example, Koepke et al (1983) was unable to recreate the same findings although one weakness claimed by Meltzoff and Moore was their study lacked control and thus had validity.
  • One practical application for such findings is mothers can be placed in the same rooms with their children instantly so they can begin to form attachment bonds unlike previous practice where they were kept separate.
  • Deyong et al (1991) observed infants when they interacted with two objects. One simulated tongue movements while the other simulated the opening and closing of the mouth. They found infants within the median age of 5 to 12 weeks made little interactional synchrony or response to the objects. This suggests infants do display specific social responses to human interactions as reciprocity and interactional synchrony suggests as they do not simply imitate everything.
  • Interactional synchrony does not have cross-cultural support which weakens the idea that it is innate and necessary for attachment as it is not universal. Le Vine et al (1994) found that Kenyan mothers had little interactions with their infants yet a high proportion of them were still classed as securely attached.
  • Condon & Sander (1974) analysed infant video recordings to find they did co-ordinate their behaviour in sequence with the adults speech almost as if were a conversation involving taking turns. This supports the idea of interactional synchrony having validity as Isabella et al (1989) also found that infants with secure attachments also demonstrated such behaviour in their first year.

Possible exam questions for caregiver-infant interactions include:

  • What is meant by the term interactional synchrony? (2 marks)
  • What is meant by reciprocity? (2 marks)
  • Outline one study of infant-caregiver interactions (4 marks)
  • Discuss infant-caregiver interactions referring to reciprocity and interactional synchrony in your answer (12 marks AS, 16 marks A-level).

The Development of Attachment

We’re going to investigate this idea of attachment and where it stems from and why it exists too.

We all form attachments, whether that is with our family members, friends, animals or even partners and John Bowlby (a name you will become very familiar with) believed this was influenced by your very first attachment, which is normally with your mother (or caregiver).

John Bowlby proposed that it was through this special relationship, that we learn how to conduct ourselves in relationships with other people – almost as if it acts as a template for us to branch off from.

While reciprocity and interactional synchronicity explain how it begins, this section will now explore how it forms into an attachment.

Stages of attachment identified by Schaffer

stages of attachment by Schaffer

Rudolf Schaffer and Peggy Emerson conducted a landmark study into attachment in the 1960s which they used to help them construct a description of how attachment develops in humans.

There are proposed to be 4 stages of attachment according to Schaffer:

  • Stage 1: Indiscriminate attachments: From birth until approximately the 2-month stage, infants produce similar responses to all objects regardless of whether they are inanimate objects or not. Towards the end of this stage, they may begin to show a preference for social stimuli, such as a smiling face, and display more content when with other people. It is during this stage that reciprocity and interactional synchrony play a role in establishing the infant’s relationships with others.
  • Stage 2: Attachment begins: The second stage occurs between 2 months to 6 months with babies becoming more sociable and able to distinguish people with a preference for their company over inanimate objects. They do not display stranger anxiety allowing themselves to be comforted by anyone and enjoy the company of most people at this stage.
  • Stage 3: discriminate attachment: The third stage takes place from 7 months with babies beginning to display separation anxiety from their main attachment figure through protesting when separated. They also begin to show stranger anxiety and a sense of relief and joy when reunited with their primary caregiver showing a specific attachment towards them. The attachment bond is not always with the person who spends the most time with them but rather with the person who is most sensitive to the child’s needs with the quality of the relationship more important than the quantity and time spent.
  • Stage 4: Multiple attachments: Stage four occurs from around 10 months onwards with the infant displaying multiple attachments after the first attachment has formed with their primary caregiver. Schaffer and Emerson found that 29% of infants had formed secondary attachments within one month of forming their first attachment. At six months the infant will show multiple attachment behaviours to many people within their social circles such as siblings, the other parent, grandparents and even nursery minders. They may have five or more secondary attachment figures at this point. Schaffer & Emerson found 78% of infants at six months had multiple attachments and almost all displayed multiple attachments at the age of one year.

Evaluating Schaffer's Stages of Attachment

One major weakness for Schaffer & Emerson’s stages of attachment is this explanation is based on possibly unreliable data. Mothers reported their infants interactions which could have been biased towards displaying themselves in a positive light. For example, some may have been less responsive to their infant’s needs and protests and thus less likely to report them to prevent themselves from being seen badly. Others may have told researchers what they thought they wanted to here due to demand characteristics causing the data to lack validity. However the 4 stage model was based on research which has mundane realism as it was conducted under everyday conditions with respective carers and therefore conclusions could be argued to have high validity.

Another major issue is sample itself could be seen as biased as it was based on mother-infant interactions from people of a working class background for that particular period in time (1964). The results may apply to the working class population but not other social groups or cultures. Also the fact that the study was conducted in the 1960’s could also mean the findings lack validity to the modern day. Caring practices and guidance has changed considerably as well as the education and employability of mothers with many now working. Many infants are therefore in the care of nursery settings or with fathers who now stay at home instead and become the primary carer. Therefore if the study was repeated in todays modern world the findings may be unreliable and different.

Another weakness for Schaffers 4 stage model is it could be argued to be culturally biased towards western cultures and research by Sagi et al (1994) supports this. Comparing attachments between the communal settings of an Israeli kibbutzim and infants within a family based setting, attachment with mothers was almost twice as likely in the family based setting. This suggests attachment may not be universal and the 4 stage model has limited external validity to collectivist cultures and may apply only to western individualistic cultures.

Research by Carpenter (1975) weakens Schaffer & Emersons 4 stage model which assumes initially babies will interact with all objects and people between birth and two months. Carpenter found that when two week old infants were presented with familiar and unfamiliar voices and faces, they stared at their mothers face for longer when it was accompanied by her voice. They also showed themselves to become stressed when their face was accompanied by an unfamiliar voice showing babies are attracted to and recognise their mothers contrary to what the initial stage of Schaffers 4 stage model

The Role of the Father

The Role of the Father AQA Psychology

Traditionally fathers have been less likely to be the primary attachment figures and play secondary attachment roles according to Schaffer and Emerson. One possible reason is due to them playing traditional roles as the bread earner while mothers stay at home who establish closer bonds. However, Lamb (1997) reported there was little connection between the amount of time spent with the child and attachment suggesting it may be the interaction itself. Gender stereotypes in some cultures and pockets of society also continue to affect the role of the father as it is seen as feminine to be sensitive to the needs of children and again encourage masculine behaviour.

Other possible explanations suggest the father is less psychologically equipped to form close bonds, unlike the mother. This may be due to them lacking the emotional sensitivity required which Bowlby argued was more important than the amount of time spent with the child. Females produce oestrogen which promotes caring behaviour and sensitivity while males do not and this may be one explanation for the role of the father being secondary. Research suggests the father’s role has also been seen more as a playmate to encourage physical activity, challenging situations and thus encourage problem-solving through placing cognitive demands on the child and research has supported this (White et al 1992). The lack of sensitivity from the fathers may be seen as positive as it encourages this type of behaviour while the mother’s role is seen as nurturing and emotionally developing them in a more holistic way. This may explain why they form multiple attachments and why the father’s role differs for the child.

Research has also found other factors important in affecting the father-infant relationship. More secure attachments were apparent in fathers who are more sensitive to the needs of the child highlighting sensitivity as key in influencing the father role. The type of attachment fathers had with their own parents also appears to lead to similar attachment with their children. The intimacy shown between the father and mother is also another mitigating factor as well as the level of support he gives in co-parenting, all affecting attachment with the child.

Paquette (2004) found the father’s role tended to encourage toddlers to take more risks during physical play than mothers while also structuring talk around active play. Mothers were found to structure their talk around emotional support primarily to soothe and reassure the infant. Varissimo (2011) found that the quality of the relationship between father and toddler significantly correlated with the number of friends they had at preschool and this was more important than the attachment between mother and child. The possible link here is the father’s role may encourage social skills and connections through them being a playmate themselves.

Evaluating The Role of the Father

Lamb (1987) found children preferred interacting with their fathers but only when in a positive state themselves and wanting to be stimulated. Mothers were sought primarily for comfort when distressed supporting the idea of fathers being preferred playmates while mothers provided emotional support.

Research has found that children who have secure attachments with fathers develop better relationships with peers and less problematic behaviours through better managing their own emotions. Children who grow up without father figures have been found to do less academically well with higher levels of risk taking behaviour and aggression. This is especially true in boys and illustrates the positive role fathers play on the development of children.

One weakness of studies into the fathers role is they have primarily focused on single mothers from poor backgrounds. The higher levels of aggression and poor academic performance could be argued to be down to social economic standing and not necessarily the absence of fathers leading to more problematic behaviours. Also many studies have been based on correlational research and we cannot infer cause and effect for certain between the fathers relationship (or lack of) and problematic behaviour observed in children. It may be that other confounding variables affect their development such as being bullied due to not having a father figure rather than the lack of relationship itself.

Hardy (1999) found supporting evidence which suggested fathers were less able than mothers to detect low levels of emotional distress supporting the explanation that fathers are less suitable as primary attachment figures. However evidence from Lamb (1987) found fathers who became the main care providers as able to adapt quickly to develop greater sensitivity to the child’s needs. This suggests sensitivity and responsiveness to the child isn’t a biological ability limited to women and the fathers role may be due to environmental factors.

Evidence suggests that fathers are just as able to display the sensitive responsiveness required with their children as mothers and play an important role in secure-attachments even as secondary attachment figures. For example Belsky et al (2009) found high levels of marital intimacy correlated positively with secure father-infant interactions. This supports the explanation that the relationship between fathers and mothers affects the attachment type the father has with the children. However this data was correlational so it may well be that secure father-infant relationships result in greater marital intimacy as they offer more support in looking after the child. We cannot establish cause and effect for certain in this respect.

Possible exam questions for the development of attachment include:

  • Explain what is meant by the term ‘multiple attachments’ (2 marks)
  • Describe one study into the development of attachments (6 marks)
  • Outline the role of the father in the development of attachment (6 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate the stages of attachment identified by Schaffer and Emerson (12 marks AS, 16 marks A-level).

Animal Studies of Attachment

animal studies aqa psychology image

This section will focus specifically on key animal studies into attachment conducted by Lorenz (1935) and Harlow (1959) as they are named in the AQA A-level psychology specification.

To understand how attachment affects humans, animals were often experimented on to understand how their behaviour would be affected. We would then make generalisations to humans (which carries its own issues, but more on that later) however, they allowed us to test things which would be unethical to naturally set up with humans.

Konrad Lorenz's Imprinting Study 1935

aqa psychology attachment Konrad Lorenz imprinting

Lorenz (1935) conducted a study into attachment and demonstrated how imprinting occurred within the animal world. 

Lorenz split a batch of gosling eggs into two groups; one group remained with the mother while the other batch was incubated until hatched and Lorenz was the first living object they encountered. The goslings that hatched with Lorenz were found to imprint themselves on him and started following him around wherever he went.

This imprinting was evident even when Lorenz marked and mixed his hatched goslings with the natural mother’s goslings. Those familiar with Lorenz still followed him with no recognition for their biological mother and separated themselves towards Lorenz.

This process of imprinting was found to only occur if the animal was exposed to a moving object during a critical period within the first two days and was irreversible once established. If an animal is not exposed to a moving object during this “critical period” it would not imprint itself. Lorenz also found that birds who imprinted on to humans would then later in life once matured only attempt to mate with humans. Therefore imprinting has an impact on mate preferences too, also known as sexual imprinting.

The process of imprinting is similar to attachment in humans and supports the case for attachment itself being biological in nature. Imprinting shows how animals are biologically programmed to form a special relationship in the same way attachment is explained to occur with a primary caregiver and infant. Imprinting was found to occur only with nidifugous birds and not all birds.

Evaluating Konrad Lorenz's Imprinting Study 1935

  • Numerous studies have replicated Lorenz’s work and found similar findings showing this animal study into attachment has reliability. For example Guiton (1966) showed how leghorn chicks would become attached to yellow rubber gloves when used to feed them. This highlights that imprinting is designed to occur with not only living objects but any objects that are moving within the time critical period of 2 days. These chicks would also try and mate with the gloves later in life supporting Lorenz’s findings that it affects sexual behaviour too in later life.
  • However other evidence suggests imprinting may not be irreversible or even biological and simply a learned response. Guiton (1966) later found that chickens who had imprinted themselves to yellow rubber gloves and tried to mate with them would later begin mating with other chickens provided they spent enough time with them. This suggests imprinting may have a learned element too and it may not be completely biological in nature.
  • Other research has found imprinting is irreversible which supports the view it is biologically programmed unlike learned behaviour which can simply be modified. The fact that birds are designed to form a strong attachment only within a time critical period of within 2 days where there is only a small window for learning suggests a biological element to the behaviour. This would also suggest attachment in humans is a biological process although we cannot fully generalise the findings of bird studies to humans due to differences in biology between species.
  • The fact that imprinting only occurs within a critical time period is similar to Bowlby’s idea of a critical period within human infants. This suggests the study does have external validity and generalisation as there is some key similarities with humans which may help us better understand human attachment and the importance of the early years of development for children. Also, the fact that imprinting appears to impact later sexual behaviour would also support Bowlby’s internal working model explanation which suggested early attachment would affect later relationships, including sexual behaviour. Imprinting, therefore, provides strong evidence for attachment in humans being shaped by early childhood experience and providing a template for later relationships.
  • Understanding imprinting in birds has also led to practical real-world applications. for example, imprinting migratory birds to microlight aircraft to teach them migratory flight paths has been used successfully to reintroduce birds to areas where they have become extinct.

Harry Harlow’s Study 1959 – ‘The Origins of Love’

Harry Harlow Origins of Love Study

Harry Harlow conducted research to show attachment is not necessarily a learned process due to feeding bonds. 

Rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and raised in isolation cages and exposed to two mother figures. One was a wire mother while the other a cloth covered mother for comfort. 

Four of the monkeys were exposed to the cloth mother having a milk bottle while another four were exposed to the wire mother with the milk bottle. Measurements were made through observations on the amount of time the monkeys spent with each mother as well as their responses when frightened for example by a mechanical bear.

The findings were that all the monkeys, despite who fed the milk to them, spent the majority of their time with the cloth mother. The study also found that when frightened all of the monkeys would cling to the cloth mother for reassurance as well as remain touching them with their feet when playing with new objects. These findings demonstrated how infant monkeys do not necessarily develop an attachment with only the person that feeds them (feeding bond) but rather the person offering contact comfort.

Other variations of the study included placing the monkeys in a large room with toys. When the wire mother was present they were seen to be sat in a state of fear. When the cloth mother was introduced they would explore the room, clinging to the cloth mother if startled or worried as if it was a safe base to explore from similar to Bowlby’s attachment theory for humans.

Harlow’s study also found that as the monkeys grew up they would later be seen to have some abnormal traits in behaviour. Motherless monkeys were socially abnormal and scared of other monkeys as well as display abnormal sexual behaviour or comfort their own babies. Harlow found there was a critical period as Bowlby suggested and as Lorenz found in his imprinting study. If motherless monkeys spent time with their peers they showed recovery but this was provided it was before the age of 3 months. Monkeys who spent more than six months with a wire mother did not appear to recover which demonstrated the long-lasting effects on behaviour.

Evaluating Harry Harlow’s Study 1959

A major criticism to Harlows study is it was based on monkeys and their attachment behaviour which may not necessarily be representative of human behaviour due to us being different species and humans being governed by greater awareness of their thought processes in their decisions. Therefore the findings from Harlows study could be argued to lack external validity and generalisation to the human population but also internal validity as it could be argued to only demonstrate attachment behaviour in monkeys. On the other hand, however, monkeys share approximately 94% of our genetics suggesting the findings could have validity in humans to some degree.

There is however research support for Harlows findings from Schaffer & Emerson’s study into the stages of attachment in humans. They found infants were not necessarily attached to those that fed them but instead to those who were more sensitive to their needs. This has some links to the cloth mother as this appeared to provide contact comfort and thus sensitivity to the monkey’s needs during times of distress.

Harlows research raises serious ethical concerns particularly in regards to the inhumane treatment of the rhesus monkeys many of which died as well as animals in general. The monkeys experienced great distress from being separated and were subjected to intentional emotional harm through fear tactics to observe their behaviour. They were also found to have long-lasting effects which negatively impacted them in later life as they struggled to form later relationships with peers. Harlows study was deemed so morally unethical that the American animal liberation movement was born which highlights the question of how far animal research can go in the name of science.

On the other hand, many would argue that this research was a gateway for us to better understand attachment behaviour in humans through a setup which would be incomprehensible to do with humans. Also, the observation of monkeys is far easier as they provide a simpler model of behaviour for us to interpret than humans would. Also, our understanding into attachment has benefitted us so future care for humans and even animals can be improved as we now understand the serious adverse affects poor attachments can have. Due to this many would argue the benefits outweigh the costs due to the real-world applications the study has provided in improving child care practices as well as animal care.

Possible exam questions on animal studies of attachment include:

  • Outline one animal study into attachment including what the researchers did and their findings (6 marks)
  • Describe Lorenz’s research into attachment (4 marks)
  • Describe what animal studies into attachment have shown (4 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate animal studies of attachment (12 marks AS, 16 marks A-level)

Explanations of attachment

Explanations for why attachment occurs tend to focus on two main explanations, one of which is learning theory. The other explanation is ‘Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory’ which we will explore further down in the spread.

Learning theory was the more popular explanation in the first half of the 20th century and explains attachment between an infant and mother based on the principles of conditioning (learning).

In contrast, Bowlby’s monotropic theory, explains attachment occurring due to innate biological programming which is hardwired into our genetics.

The Learning Theory of Attachment

The basic principle for learning theory put forth by behaviorists is that all behaviour is learned rather than innate. Behaviorists propose an infants emotional bond and dependance on the caregiver can be explained in terms of reinforcement either through classical conditioning or operant conditioning.

Based on Classical Conditioning the baby would receive pleasure when given food (an unconditioned stimuli) and the association of pleasure (unconditioned response) is formed with the caregiver as they are the person giving the food. Therefore positive emotions, pleasure and attachment behaviour towards the caregiver is merely a conditioned response due to their association with pleasurable acts such as feeding. This is then proposed to occur even in the caregivers presence when feeding does not occur as it continues as a conditioned response.

Another way attachment is explained is through Operant Conditioning through positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when behaviour is rewarded and this increases the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated. Infants feel discomfort when hungry so therefore desire food, a primary reinforcer, to remove this unwanted feeling. They learn that through crying they gain their caregivers attention who feeds them and therefore removes this unwanted feeling of discomfort. This is known as negative reinforcement where the consequences of a behaviour (crying for example) leads to an unpleasant feeling ceasing (hunger). The child therefore displays proximity seeking and attachment behaviour with the caregiver as they become a secondary reinforcer and a source of reward (food) and remover of unwanted feelings.

Learning theory provides a plausible explanation on attachments forming as we do learn from reinforcement and association. Other explanations put forth since have proposed the reward that drives attachment may even be the responsiveness and attention given by caregivers.

Alternative explanations have incorporated social learning theory with Vespo et al (1988) suggesting that infants observe their parent’s affectionate behaviour and simply imitate this back. Parents would also be teaching appropriate behaviour within relationships and rewarding this accordingly encouraging it further.

Evaluating The Learning Theory of Attachment

Emerson et al found evidence to support learning theory as an explanation for how attachment forms through studying 60 babies over 18 months. At 3 months old they showed no preference however after 4 months preferences started to develop with a special attachment from 7 months onwards with separation anxiety displayed on separation from their primary caregivers. This study found attachment was most likely to form with those who were most sensitive and responsive to the child’s need (through feeding and attention) as this would be most rewarding for them.

However other research suggests feeding alone cannot fully explain attachments. Harlow et al placed young monkeys with two “mothers”. One was made of wire with a feeding bottle while another was covered in cloth without a feeding bottle. Behaviorists would predict the monkeys should spend more time with the wire mother as it provided food and a means to remove hunger in line with learning explanations. Observations however found the monkeys preferred the cloth mother especially when distressed highlighting attachment is not merely about food but also contact comfort. More interestingly as adults the monkeys went on to struggle in forming reproductive relationships and tended to be poor mothers themselves suggesting the lack of interaction from a caregiver may cause maladjustment in later life. Evolutionists such as Bowlby may argue this highlights how attachment may be innate and serve a purpose in future reproduction and relationships and not just a learn’t response. Some even proposed the monkeys clinging to the cloth mothers in distress was further evidence for an evolutionary drive behind attachment as many creatures look for safety and comfort when under threat.

However with animal research we may not be able to generalise such findings to humans as behaviour may vary greatly due to differences in intelligence, awareness and emotions between humans and animals. Therefore such studies may lack external validity to wider generalisation and considered reductionist for attempting to present an oversimplified version of human behaviour through animals. Behaviourists would argue our core behaviour patterns are the same however and therefore generalisation from animals do apply as we share approximately 94% of our genetics with monkeys.

Ethical issues also arise with research such as Harlow’s study as baby monkeys were isolated for up to 12 months with some even dying due to stress related anorexia brought about due to isolation. This highlights how cruel Harlow’s study was purely in the name of understanding attachment behaviour and questionable as to whether we learn’t anything meaningful from such cruelty simply to highlight attachment was not a learnt response.

A major weakness for learning theory is it explains how attachment can occur but not necessarily why unlike Bowlby’s attachment theory which provides a more holistic explanation. Bowlby argued the advantages centered around protection and survival which is more in line with our understanding of evolution.

Bowlby’s Monotropic Attachment Theory 1969

Evolutionary theories such as Bowlby’s propose attachment occurs due to innate biological programming as it serves an evolutionary purpose in aiding survival and reproductive value in the longterm in line with Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Social behaviours expressed by infants such as clinging, sucking, smiling were described as “social releasers” which elicit caregiving and facilitates an interactive and innate two-way relationship between the baby and caregiver.

Bowlby suggested this innate drive to form attachments ensures they remain in close proximity to a caregiver that will protect and feed them, increasing their chances of survival and ultimately reproducing in the future.

Bowlby believed the primary caregiver provided a safe base for them to explore the world and return to when threatened. An attachment was also seen to aid cognitive development as well as provide an opportunity to learn through imitation.

Evolutionary theorists propose there is a sensitive period where the attachment can form with Bowlby proposing this occurs from the 3-4 month mark and with attachment more difficult in the months that follow.

The relationship with the primary caregiver would ultimately act as a template and develop the infant’s own expectations of what future relationships with others may be like and Bowlby referred to this as the internal working model. This also provided the child with an insight into their caregiver’s behaviour and some level of influence so a relationship can form between the two.

The Continuity hypothesis proposes there is a link between early attachment and later relationships with poorly attached children then having more difficulty in childhood and adulthood while securely attached children form more stable relationships.

Secondary attachment figures may also aid in social development as well as act as a safety net for healthy psychological wellbeing. Bowlby called this his monotropic theory as he believed that babies will have one special attachment figure for whom they form a special bond and in most cases, this may be the mother but this was dependent on who was most sensitive to the child’s needs rather than who spent the most time with them.

Evaluating Bowlby’s Attachment Theory 1969

Support for an innate drive to form attachments comes from Lorenz study into “imprinting” with geese. He demonstrated how geese separated from their natural mothers would imprint and form an attachment towards him or any moving object they had been first exposed to. This supports the idea there is an innate drive in animals and possibly even humans in forming attachments as similar behaviour are seen across other species.

The importance of secondary attachment figures was demonstrated by Harlow’s study with monkeys. Baby monkeys who were raised only with their mothers for the first 6 months appear socially inept and showed no desire or interest in engaging with their peers highlighting the crucial sensitive period Bowlby described.

However, both studies were animal studies and findings from them may not necessarily translate across to humans due to clear differences in intelligence. Also with monkeys, their behaviour may be more competitive for survival/resources as opposed to humans and therefore lack internal validity as this may not necessarily be a measure of human behaviour. Also, such studies may lack external validity and wider generalisation into humans for this reason also due to such differences.

A case study of Genie, a young girl raised in total isolation up until the age of 13 and abused by her father adds weight to the problems that can follow without attachment aiding development. Even after rescue her cognitive development was limited and she struggled to learn language skills beyond the very basics. Behavioural problems were also evident and she was never seen to recover. Bowlby’s emphasis on the early development of attachments and consequences of failure to form this for cognitive development as well as the development of an internal working model appears to have credibility here.

The Koluchova twins actually disprove Bowlby’s theory of a time-sensitive period to form attachments and support learning explanations. The two boys were raised in isolation beyond this sensitive period and once rescued, through the efforts of their adoptive mothers, showed no signs of abnormal behaviour at age 14 when re-examined. In fact, they had close attachments to their mothers and went on to live normal lives into adulthood with stable relationships. This highlights the role of “nurture” and how even this can be a mitigating factor in later life for children that do not form attachments. More importantly, the real-world practical application here is that it suggests children in foster care can lead normal lives if attachments are disrupted with the right support.

However, both were isolated case studies and it is difficult to know for certain whether Genie had any mental impairment from birth which may have factored in. With the twins, it has been argued they always had each other to form attachments too which may have mitigated for their lack of a primary caregiver. Therefore wider generalisation is difficult based on these two studies alone as they may lack internal validity themselves and not be measuring the true effects of what no attachment can do to people in the longterm.

Possible exam questions on Bowlby’s Attachment Theory include:


Ainsworth’s Strange Situation 

Mary Ainsworth's Strange Situation Study

Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby actually knew each other and were even friends. Her research into attachment had a considerable influence on Bowlby’s own theory of attachment as they shared their notes and research findings from different studies.

While Bowlby was more concerned about the universality of attachment, Ainsworth wanted to try and better understand the individual differences and try and categorise these.

The Strange Situation study 1971 – 1978

Ainsworth’s strange situation was devised to assess how securely attached infants between the ages of 9 and 18 months were to their caregiver. There were 7 episodes each lasting approximately 3 minutes some of which placed the infants in conditions of mild stress in unfamiliar settings to observe their reaction.

The 7 episodes were:

  1. The caregiver enters a room and places the child on the floor and sits on a chair. The caregiver does not interact with the child unless the infant seeks attention.
  2. The stranger enters the room, talks to the caregiver and then approaches the child with a toy.
  3. The caregiver exits the room. If the infant plays, the stranger observes without interruption. If the child is passive the stranger attempts to interest them in the toy. If they show distress the stranger attempts to comfort them.
  4. The caregiver returns while the stranger then leaves.
  5. Once the infant begins to play again, the caregiver may leave the room, leaving the child alone briefly.
  6. The stranger enters the room again and repeats behaviours mentioned in step 3 (observing, engaging and comforting as needed).
  7. The stranger leaves and the caregiver returns.

The “strange situation” places the child in a mildly stressful situation in order to observe 4 different types of behaviour which are separation anxiety, stranger anxiety, willingness to explore and reunion behaviour with the caregiver. From this study, Ainsworth identified 3 types of attachments.

Secure attachment see’s infants show some anxiety when the caregiver leaves but they are easily soothed and happy when reunited with their caregiver. Such children can play independently but return to the caregiver for reassurance using them as a safe base from which to explore their environment. They are seen to be comfortable with social interaction and intimacy (closeness).

Insecure-avoidant children show indifference at their caregiver leaving the room and do not show anxiety. They may show frustration and anger at their attachment needs not being met. When the caregiver returns they may actively avoid contact with them. Such children may explore the room even without the caregiver present and play independently.

The Insecure-resistant attachment style (also known as ambivalent) see’s infants become distressed as the caregiver leaves and rush to them when they return however their behaviour is characterized by seeking and rejecting social interaction and intimacy at the same time. They may not be consoled so easily and explore the environment less than other children.

Evaluating Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Study

One major criticism of the strange situation study is it only measured the relationship type with one of the primary attachment figures and usually their mothers. It may be in some cases the child was more attached to the father and the study has wrongly assumed children may be simply closer to the mother. Therefore the study may lack internal validity as it may not actually be measuring attachment styles with the primary caregiver in some cases skewing the results.

Also, criticisms and ethical issues arise in putting children through such stressful situations as they were intentionally emotionally harmed. 20% of children cried desperately at one point highlighting how it is ethically inappropriate to deliberately inflict such emotional harm which goes against psychological ethical guidelines.

The strange situation was based primarily on western culture and due to this may suffer from cultural bias with the study lacking population validity when generalising across different cultures. Therefore the findings and conclusions may only apply to the western society. The study was also seen to lack ecological validity as it was conducted within a laboratory setting and results gained from this controlled setting may not generalise to real-world settings as attachment behaviour may be different.

The benefit however of this study was it allowed researchers to replicate the study to test the reliability of findings which is a strength of this laboratory study. It also allowed researchers to control for extraneous variables that may impact results giving greater control too.

A longitudinal study by Main et al assessed children’s attachment types in Ainsworth’s strange situation before the age of 18 months with both parents and retested at 6 years old. Results found considerable consistency in attachment with 100% of those classed secure as infants re-classified the same again and 75% of avoidant babies re-classified the same again at age 6. This shows how attachment types are consistent for the most part but also highlights the role of nurture and the environment too with those infants who were reclassified differently suggesting the environment can play a mitigating factor also.

There is also evidence of another attachment type which has been ignored by Ainsworth’s research. Main and Solomon (1986) found a fourth attachment type may exist known as insecure-disorganised. Observing over 200 strange situation recordings they found this attachment type was characterized by a lack of any consistent patterns of social behaviour with infants not displaying any consistent attachment type. Some struggled with any coherent strategy of dealing with the stress of separation which was characterized by separation anxiety when their caregiver leaves but also then an avoidant/ fearful attitude towards them on their return. This suggests Ainsworth’s research did not offer a complete explanation to attachment nor explain how or why these differences in attachment form.

Understanding attachment behaviour has real-world application that can help improve the relationship children and their caregivers have which would lead to more successful secure relationships in adulthood. Intervention strategies such as the Circle of security projects (Cooper et al 2005) teachers caregivers to be responsive to the distress signals infants give off as well as their understanding of the anxiety children feel. This study was found that those classed as disordered decreased from 60% to 15% and those classed as securely attached increased from 32% to 40%. Therefore attachment research can be used to improve the lives of children and parenting skills.

Possible exam questions on Ainsworth’s Strange Situation include:

  • Outline and explain one form of attachment (2 marks)
  • Outline the Strange Situation procedure (4 marks)
  • Explain one limitation of using the Strange Situation to investigate attachment (3 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate the Strange Situation (12 marks AS, 16 marks A-level)

Van IJzendoorn’s Study Into Cultural Variations In Attachment

Van Ijzendoorn conducted a meta-analysis examining the findings of 32 cross-cultural studies of attachment behaviour. Over 2000 strange situation classifications were examined from 8 different countries which examined the differences of attachment behaviour between cultures as well as differences and findings within the same culture. They found little differences between cultures with the most common attachment type being “secure” followed by insecure-avoidant which was evident in most countries except Israel and Japan. They found the variation and differences within cultures was 1.5 times higher than variations between cultures. This study demonstrated how secure attachment was a global pattern and not limited to just western cultures such as the US. This could be seen to support the view that attachment was an innate biological process which aids healthy social and emotional development as well as aid survival as it was evident across the globe.

Important to note however was that although over 2000 children were examined, some samples such as the Chinese sample were very small comprising of only 36 children. It may, therefore, be unwise to generalise the results across all Chinese children as findings may not be representative of the whole population.

Grossman et al (1991) found German children tended to be classified as insecurely attached which went against the majority of other cultures which were classed as secure. Child-rearing practices were believed to have influenced this as German culture promotes interpersonal space between children and parents. Within Ainsworth’s strange situation children would therefore not display proximity seeking behaviour and be classed as insecurely attached. Therefore due to cultural differences in child-rearing practices, a secure-attachment may be incorrectly interpreted which suggests Ainsworth’s model of classifying attachment may be flawed in itself.

Tronick et al (1992) studied the Efe, an African tribe who lived Zaire and within extended family groups. Infants were looked after and breastfed by various different women but would on most occasions sleep with their mother at night. At 6 months of age, despite such differences in child-rearing practices they still showed a preference towards one primary attachment figure suggesting it may be an innate biological process as Bowlby suggested.

Takahashi (1990) used Ainsworth’s strange situation to study the attachment behaviour of 60 infants from middle-class Japanese families. His findings were similar to what Ainsworth had found in the US sample with similar rates of secure attachment supporting Bowlby’s attachment theory. One major difference, however, was that the Japanese infants showed high rates of insecure-resistant attachment (32%) and no evidence of insecure-avoidant attachment. Another interesting finding was Japanese infants showed extreme anxiety at being alone and for 90% of the infants in the study, the experiment had to be stopped. This cultural variation in attachment behaviour can be explained through differences in child-rearing practices. For example in Japan infants are rarely separated from their mothers which would explain their distressed state compared to the infants in the US study. This may, therefore, make them appear to be insecurely attached suggesting the strange situation may not be universally applied as a measure of attachment behaviour in other cultures.

Evaluating Van IJzendoorn’s Cultural Variations In Attachment Study

The fact that there are cross-cultural similarities in attachment behaviour would suggest a strong case to support Bowlby’s attachment theory as the process could be argued to be innate and thus apparent across most cultures and countries. However, a weakness for these findings is they could even be explained due to nurture and psychological factors from the environment. For example, media influences are apparent across cultures in the form of television and books which portray ideas on what parenting should be like. As a result of this, parents and children all over the world are influenced by similar forms of media on what secure attachments should look like and therefore cultural similarities may not be due to biological processes but rather media influences. This would present a major weakness in Bowlby’s theory of attachment.

Another issue with Van Ijzendoorn’s study is there is an imposed etic based on western cultural values which may not translate into the same meaning in other cultures or countries. For example, in Ainsworth’s research, it was assumed that children who were willing to explore their environment were “securely attached” based on western values. However, dependence is encouraged in Japanese culture as a form of secure attachment which would limit such behaviour and be translated incorrectly by Ainsworth’s strange situation scenario. This would mean such studies lack validity as they are not measuring true attachment behaviour across cultures but only western ideals of secure attachment.

Further cultural bias is evident when you compare what is deemed to be securely attached behaviour between cultures. For example, Rothbaum (2000) argued the theory behind attachment behaviour was too heavily based on western interpretations of what secure attachment looks like as a child as well as in adulthood. Bowlby and Ainsworth suggested the continuity hypothesis and that securely attached children would go on to be securely attached adults through being emotionally and socially competent. Competence itself is defined by them in terms of being able to show independence exploration and emotional regulation. In Japanese culture, secure attachment is seen as being group focused and inhibiting emotions. This highlights that childrearing practices are different between cultures and need to be examined to interpret the findings of the strange situation scenario.

Fox et al examined infants raised on Israeli kibbutzim who were mostly cared for in communal children’s homes by nurses. The strange situation was used to test attachment styles to study how their relationships differed between the nurses and their actual mothers with similar behaviour expressed by children towards both. The only difference was found in reunion behaviour towards their mothers whom they showed a greater attachment towards. This highlights how a primary attachment figure may exist even in shared care environments suggesting attachment behaviour was more universal as Bowlby proposed supporting the idea of attachment being universal.

Intra-cultural differences could be attributed due to differences in the socio-economic backgrounds of the family of infants involved. For example, some US samples were from middle-class families while others were from poorer families and intra-cultural differences in attachment being 1.5 times higher could be explained due to this. Sub-cultures exist within cultures and each may have their own child-rearing practices. Van Ijzendoorn and Sagi (2001) studied attachment behaviour from people from an urban background in Tokyo and found results similar to the attachment types of western studies. However, when studying attachment from a more rural sample they found more insecure-resistant individuals. They concluded that caution should be taken and generalisations of a countries attachment type could not be assumed from samples based on a culture or subculture of people from one country. The implication here is that drawing conclusions using Ainsworth’s strange situation is almost impossible as it is certainly going to lack validity and generalisation for that culture and sub-culture.

Possible exam questions on cultural variations in attachment include:

  • Describe research by Van IJzendoorn on cultural variations in attachment (6 marks)
  • Explain one criticism of research into cultural variations in attachment (4 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate research on cultural variations in attachment (12 marks AS, 16 marks A-level)

Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation

Before John Bowlby developed his theory of attachment, he produced a theory of maternal deprivation and the consequences of deprivation of maternal care rather than the benefits of maternal attachment.

What is deprivation?

In the context of child development, deprivation refers to the loss of emotional care that would normally be provided by a primary caregiver.

Bowlby suggested attachment was essential for the healthy social and emotional development of children and it stands to reason that deprivation of this could have negative effects on social, intellectual and emotional development even if it was a short-term disruption. His theory was based on his study of 44 juvenile thieves* and he outlined 3 important components to his maternal deprivation theory.

Bowlby believed maternal love from an attachment figure was just as important for mental health and emotional development as vitamins were for physical health. Without this he proposed a link occurred between maternal deprivation and affection-less psychopathy and emotional maladjustment in later life and therefore maternal love was seen as essential for good mental development.

Bowlby also believed that loss or prolonged separation from an attachment figure during the critical period could lead to emotional disturbance. Separation from an attachment figure would only contribute to this if it occurred before the ages of 2 and a half and only if there was no suitable substitute for the attachment figure who was sufficiently sensitive to the needs of the child. If suitable emotional care is provided by a substitute then deprivation may be avoided as well as the potential for long-term psychological harm.

Maternal deprivation and its long-term effects were seen as inability to form bonds with other people, an avoidant/dismissive attachment type as well as a higher risk of depression. Such individuals may most commonly be diagnosed with an attachment disorder due to their emotional maladjustments.

Bowlby’s 44 Thieves Study 1944

Bowlby's 44 Thieves Study

Bowlby created his maternal deprivation theory based on the findings of his 44 thieves study (1944).

He analysed the case history of children attending the child guidance clinic. 44 had been identified as having been caught for theft and persistent offending while another 44 were a control group.

Bowlby identified a subgroup (32%) which he labelled “affectional psychopaths” who lacked the normal signs of affection, any sense of responsibility or shame for their offending behaviour. Through interviews with the children, he identified this group had experienced early periods of prolonged separation from their mothers, often due to hospitalization or being in foster care. He viewed this as a causal link for causing later emotional difficulties and this was the basis for his maternal deprivation theory.

Evaluating Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Theory

A weakness of Bowlby’s research is that it was based on retrospective information requiring the parents and children to think back many years and this could lead to inaccuracies in recall.

Also, some of the children were only separated for short periods and it is difficult to believe this contributed to their delinquent behaviour as many children who spend time apart from parents don’t always result in offending or psychopathic behaviour.

Bowlby’s theory does not also specify how long the disruption of attachment has to occur for it to be classed as maternal deprivation. Therefore the theory is too deterministic in assuming any child experiencing disruption even for a short period may suffer ill effects or emotional development as this is clearly not true. Kagan et al (1978) found no direct causal link between separation and later emotional and behavioural difficulties which undermines Bowlby’s deprivation theory.

Furthermore, as the results were based on correlational data, we cannot prove cause and effect for certain. For example, it may well be that children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be hospitalized due to poorer care or socio-economic factors resulting in poorer sanitation. Therefore poverty may be the cause and a confounding variable of such behaviour and not necessarily a disruption or lack of attachment that leads to emotional difficulties.

There is evidence to suggest that a lack of emotional support and maternal love which Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory proposes is crucial and deprivation can lead to insecure attachment behaviour.

Marian Radke-Yarrow et al (1985) studied mothers who were severely depressed and unable to provide emotional care to their children. Consequently, the results found that 55% of the “depressed sample” of mothers had children with insecure attachments compared to only 29% of a control group of non-depressed mothers. This lends support to Bowlby’s deprivation theory as it shows that a lack of maternal love can damage attachments as Bowlby suggested.

Support for disruption of attachment during the critical period causing later emotional disturbance comes from a study by Bifulco et al (1992). Studying women who had been separated from their mothers either due to death or temporary separation of more than a year, Bifulco found that 25% of these women later experienced depression or an anxiety disorder. A control group who had experienced no separation found only 15% suffered from such mental disorders. Of importance was the fact that for those who suffered the greatest of these problems, their loss had occurred before the age of 6 years old which supports Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory and this notion of a critical period.

Maternal deprivation theory had huge real-world implications especially during the post-war era where many children were left as orphans. This research impacted child-rearing practices as well as altered how children were cared for within hospitals as prior to his study, mothers and children were separated and visitation was limited. Bowlby’s work, therefore, led to a major social change in the way children were reared and cared for by institutions and provided real-world applications to help foster healthy attachment bonds.

One major criticism of Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation is that it is not clear exactly whether the children observed in his study had already formed attachments and then were broken (deprivation) or whether they had formed any attachment initially (privation). Rutter (1981) argued a distinction needed to be made as he believed a lack of attachment bond and privation would have far more of a negative impact on the child’s mental development than deprivation and an attachment bond being broken. Therefore in Bowlby’s study, it may be that the children who displayed the greatest signs of “emotionless psychopathy” had experienced privation rather than deprivation which would undermine Bowlby’s theory.

Possible exam questions on Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory include:

  • Explain what is meant by the term maternal deprivation? (4 marks)
  • Outline research into maternal deprivation (6 marks)
  • Describe and evaluate Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation (12 marks for AS, 16 marks for A-level)

Romanian Orphan Studies and The Effects of Institutionalisation

The specification for A-level psychology specifically names the Romanian Orphan study (Rutter et al 1998) which makes it necessary for you to know it in good detail.

The possible questions for this topic can also be asked as a general question, for example, on the “effects of institutionalisation” meaning we can use a broader range of studies too related to this.

We’ve included a host of studies so it covers both possible scenarios depending on the question you may get.

The Romanian Orphan study was conducted by Michael Rutter and Edmund Sonuga-Barke(1998) and was a longitudinal study that studied a group of Romanian orphans to observe the effects of institutional care and privation and whether these could be overcome through providing a nurturing and enriching environment.

165 Romanian children who spent their early lives in an orphanage were observed to see how institutionalisation would affect them.

111 were adopted prior to the age of 2 and another 54 by the age of 4 years old.

The developmental variable was the children’s level of cognitive functioning which was studied over time. The adopted children were tested at intervals from ages 4, 6, 11 and 15 to assess their cognitive, physical and social development. Parent and teacher interviews were also conducted to gather further information and they were compared to a control group of 52 British children who were adopted before the age of 6 months within the UK.

The findings at the initial assessment were that 50% of the Romanian orphans were ‘retarded’ in cognitive functioning and most were underweight.

The control group of British orphans did not display these deficits.

At the age of 4 years old the Romanian orphans showed great improvements with some catching up with their British counterparts and this was most evident in children adopted before the age of 6 months. Those adopted after the age of 6 months showed disinhibited attachment types and displayed social problems with peer relationships.

The conclusions were that the negative effects of institutionalization could be overcome by sensitive and nurturing care. Also, the fact that the British children who were also separated did not display developmental problems suggests that separation from carers alone will not cause developmental problems.

Rutter (2001) conducted a follow-up study and found that problems in attachment, hyperactivity and cognitive impairment could be linked to institutionalisation. This was most apparent on children who endured long periods of institutional care although about 20% showed normal functioning. Other apparent problems such as emotional problems, peer relationship problems and behavioural problems were concluded not to be linked to institutionalisation. This suggested that specific effects are related to long-term institutional care and only within certain types of people. Therefore individual differences in children also appear to play a role too in mitigating for developmental problems.

Another Romanian longitudinal study into the effects of institutionalisation comes from Le Mare and Audet (2006). 36 orphans were adopted by Canadian families with the dependent variable being physical health and physical growth.

At the age of 4, they were found to be physically smaller than a control group of children. This difference disappeared by the age of 10 however and their physical health also improved in line with the control group. This highlighted how recovery from institutional care was possible for physical development.

Various studies have concluded a number of effects of institutionalisation. For example, Gardner (1972) found a lack of emotional care may lead to deprivation dwarfism and physical under-development. Other studies have found cognitive development may be negatively affected by emotional deprivation as well as disinhibited attachments. Quinton et al (1984) found women who had been raised in institutional care tended to be poorer parents themselves and report extreme difficulty in parenthood when compared to a control group reared within the family setting.

Evaluating The Romanian Orphan Study

Cultural bias is one major criticism of research studies on how institutional care affects children, especially when the focus is on children from different countries. For example the Romanian orphans were in a country with poorer education system, healthcare and a collapsed governmental regime in 1989. This could be argued to be the main contributing factor for under-resourced institutions having children who struggle physically and mentally (not institutionalisation itself) when compared to western institutions which have greater resources for their orphans.

Individual differences also appear to factor in when it comes to development for children. Bowlby suggested that children who do not form a primary attachment within the sensitive period would be unable to recover however this is clearly not true of all children exposed to institutional care. Some children are not affected as much as others while others appear to have physical and mental functioning in line with control groups that were not orphans. This suggests that individual differences also play a mitigating role in physical and mental development which needs to be considered.

Research into institutionalisation has provided us with real-world applications which we can apply to improve the quality of care for children placed in institutions. Prior to such studies into how institutional care affected development, carers were discouraged from forming any attachment or close bonds. Understanding how this emotional interaction is important for physical and mental growth has contributed to improved care for children were bonds are encouraged.

Also, in the past mothers giving up their babies for adoption were encouraged to nurse their children for a significant period of time. By the time the child was adopted their sensitive period to form attachments may have passed which would affect their ability to form secure attachments with their new carers. Adoption practices have since changed on the back of institutional care studies with babies adopted within the first week of birth. Research by Singer et al (1985) has consequently shown that adopted children are just as securely attached as children who are not adoptive highlighting how this research has improved care for children.

One strength of Rutters Romanian study was it was a longitudinal study which helped measure the lives of children over many years to truly understand the lasting differences that occurred in orphans. This also helped identify consistent changes which may disappear over time but be mistakenly concluded to be definitively due to institutionalisation.

A weakness with longitudinal studies, however, is that a number of factors and extraneous variables may affect the results. For example, the Romanian orphans may actually display poor development, not due to institutionalization but other factors such as poor cognitive stimulation in care or training by staff.

Possible exam questions on the effects of institutionalisation include:

  • Outline research into the study of Romanian Orphans including what researchers did and the findings (6 marks)
  • Outline the effects of institutionalisation on the development of attachment (2 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate research related to the effects of institutionalisation (12 marks AS, 16 marks A-level)

The Influence of Early Attachment

This section focuses on Bowlby’s idea of an ‘internal working model‘, also known as a ‘schema‘. A good way to understand schemas is to think of them as a template we create to help us understand how things work.

Your early experiences of attachment formed between you and your caregiver (normally a parent), form a template (schema) for how you will go on to judge what other future relationships with other people.

This particular section focuses on how childhood and adult relationships are affected by this internal working model so we need to prepare for 3 possible questions which are:

  1. Explain Bowlby’s Internal Working Model
  2. Explain how the Internal working model affects childhood relationships
  3. Explain how this internal working model affects adult relationships

What is the Internal Working Model?

Research into early attachment and its effects have focused on Bowlby’s concept of an internal working model which is closely linked with the Continuity Hypothesis.

This sees a continuity between early attachment types being reflected in later relationships in both childhood and adulthood relationships. Bowlby’s Internal Working Model is similar to the concept of a Schema or “template”.

He proposed infants had an innate tendency to form attachments with one particular caregiver who was the most sensitive to their needs, usually the mother. Bowlby saw this attachment as unique and the first to develop as well as the strongest of all as it formed a model template of future relationships the child can expect from others, hence the continuity.

This internal working model created a consistency between early emotional experiences from the primary attachment figure and later relationships as it teaches a child what relationships are like and how people behave within them. This also helped children form an opinion of themselves and shaped their attachment types. This experience is then used to predict what future relationships should look like in both intimate partners but also peer relations.

Research from the Minnesota child-parent study found continuity between early attachment and later emotional and social behaviour. Individuals classed as securely attached in childhood were rated highest for social competence during childhood, were less isolated, more popular and empathetic.

Harlow’s research also demonstrated a link between poor attachment and later difficulties with parenting. Quinton et al demonstrated this generalised to humans and the lack of an internal working model means an individual lacks a reference point to form relationships with their own children.

Mental health is also believed to be affected by the lack of an internal working model. Children with attachment disorder have no preferred attachment figure and struggle to relate and interact with others which is evident before the age of five. This has been classed as a distinct psychiatric condition within the DSM.

The Influence of Early Attachment on Childhood Relations

Attachment theory would predict that children with an internal working model shaped around a secure attachment style would go on to be more confident with their interactions with friends and people. Research evidence from numerous studies (Wippman (1979), Willie (1986) and Lieberman (1977) et al) all support this with secure attachment styles being associated with closer friendships and greater emotional and social competence into adolescence. Hartup et al (1993) suggested this was due to securely attached children engaging in social interactions with other children more hence they become popular.

Children with an internal working model shaped around an insecure-attachment type have in contrast found to be more reliant on teachers for emotional support and interaction (Fleeson et al 1986). Alpern et al (1993) conducted a longitudinal study and found the attachment types of children at 18 months was the best predictor of problematic relationships at the age of 5 years again showing consistency between early attachment and later childhood relationships.

Belsky et al (1992) found securely attached children aged 3-5 were more curious, competent and self-confident than children not securely attached. They also got along better in their peer relationships with other children and were more likely to form close friendships too. This shows a positive correlation between secure attachment encouraging competency in peer relationships as well as personal development during childhood.

The Influence of Early Attachment on Adult Relationships

the influence of early attachment on adult relationships

Research evidence suggests adult relationships are also shaped by early attachment. Harlow’s research with Rhesus monkeys highlighted how poor attachment early on could translate into poorer parenting with monkeys themselves. Quinton et al (1984) found mothers raised in institutional care (which negatively affected their attachment styles) were more likely to struggle as parents themselves. It is believed that this lack of an internal working model (due to no parental figure within institutions) provides no template to subsequently base their own parenting on for their own children.

Hazan and Shaver (1987) investigated the effects of attachment on intimate adult relationships. A “love quiz” was placed in a local newspaper and respondents were asked which of the three descriptions best described their feelings about romantic relationships.

The descriptions related to being either securely-attached, insecure-avoidant or insecure-resistant for their current adult attachment style. Participants also completed a checklist regarding their childhood relationships with parents to assess the same attachment types when younger. 620 responses from 205 men and 415 women were collected from people aged 14 to 82 years old.

The results found that attachment styles in adulthood were closely matched with what people reported during infancy with 56% classified as secure, 25% as avoidant and 19% as resistant.

Securely attached individuals had a positive Internal working model and conception of love and trust within relationships. Insecure avoidant-respondents were doubtful about the existence or durability of love and claimed not to need partners to be happy. Insecure-resistant expressed the most self- doubt and was most vulnerable to loneliness, followed by insecure-resistant.

This key study demonstrates how for the most part early influences into attachment have continuity into adult relationships.

Evaluating the Influence of Early Attachment

  1. A major weakness in the link between early attachment, the internal working model and later relationship experiences is it is all based on correlational data. Due to this, we cannot say for certain that early attachment types and later love styles are based on a cause and effect relationship as it may be that other variables in-between are influencing this relationship. For example, individual differences and innate temperament may be an intervening variable and influence how a parent responds to the child itself in the formation of their attachment style. The temperament hypothesis suggests the quality of adult relationships is determined biologically from innate personality. This temperament may then be the basis for how later relationships are conducted.
  2. Another weakness in Hazan and Shavers study, as well as others which have investigated the link between early experiences and later relationships, is many are based on retrospective data. Participants are asked to recall their lives from when they were children to determine their early attachment styles and such recollections may be flawed and prone to bias based on their present experiences. Because of this such data may be inaccurate and lack validity in determining how early attachments influence relationships.
  3. A strength, however, is longitudinal studies, such as one by Simpson et al (2007), have found support for a link between early attachment classifications and how this influences later relationships. Infants assessed as securely attached at the age of one were rated as having higher social competence as children when aged 16. They were also more expressive and emotionally attached to their partners and this supports the notion that early attachment type does predict later adult relationships.
  4. Research into how early attachment influences later relationships is overly deterministic as it assumes early childhood attachment types are fixed into adulthood. Also, the assumption that those who are insecurely attached at the age of one are definitively going to experience emotional unhappiness in relationships as adults is clearly incorrect. Researchers have found many cases where people who were not securely attached as infants go on to lead happy adult relationships later in life. Simpson et al (2007) himself concluded himself that the past does not unalterably determine a persons future and many factors may intervene to influence later attachment.
  5. Wood et al (2003) offered an alternative view which undermined the role attachments having continuity in later life. He believed that the quality of the relationship is dependent on the attachment styles of both individuals. He proposed insecurely attached people can have secure relationships if they were to find themselves with partners who were securely attached themselves. This may, in turn, influence their own attachment style to become secure and this is something which hasn’t been investigated; how one partner’s attachment type can influence the other.
  6. A major weakness for the Internal working model is there is evidence from research studies to suggest it is not fully supported. Steele et al (1998) found only a small correlation of 0.17 between a secure attachment type in early childhood and into early adulthood. This is further supported by Zimmerman et al’s (2000) study which found that a child’s attachment type at 12-18 months was unable to predict the quality of their later relationships. In fact, nurture and psychological factors such as life events were a better predictor for this, for example, parents divorcing. The role of nurture influencing attachment types and further undermining the internal working model comes from Hamilton (1994) who found that securely attached children would actually later be diagnosed as insecurely attached if they experienced negative life events prior.
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