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Attachment theory

Attachment theory is a theory (or group of theories) about the psychological concept of attachment: the tendency to seek closeness to another person and feel secure when that person is present. Attachment theory has its origins in observation of and experiments with animals. Much early research on attachment in humans was done by John Bowlby and his associates.

According to attachment theory, attachment is not just a consequence of the need to satisfy various drives, like Sigmund Freud thought. For example, children are not just attached to their parents because they provide food; their attachment also involves behaviour that is independent of their direct needs. Attachment theory assumes that humans are social beings; they do not just use other people to satisfy their drives. In this respect, attachment theory is similar to object relations theory.


Attachment of young monkeys to their mother

A series of experiments with infant monkeys (Harlow & Harlow, 1969) has shown that attachment is not a simple reaction to internal drives such as hunger. In these experiments, young monkeys were separated from their mother shortly after birth. After that, they were offered two dolls which were thought of as surrogates to the mother. The first doll had a body of wire mesh. The second doll had a body of terry cloth and foam rubber. Both of these dolls could be made a source of food by attaching a milk bottle to its chest. The objective of the experiment was to see what would determine to which doll the monkey would cling: the soft contact of the cloth or the source of food. It turned out that the monkeys would cling to the soft-clothed doll, irrespective of whether it provided food. The monkeys were also more exploring when the soft-cloth doll was near. Apparently, the doll provided them with a sense of security. However, the passive doll was not an adequate alternative for a real mother. Infant monkeys which were raised without contact with other monkeys showed abnormal behaviour in social situations. They were either very fearful of other monkeys or responded with unprovoked aggression when they encountered other monkeys. There also showed abnormal sexual responses. Female monkeys who were raised in isolation often neglected or abused their infants. This abnormal behaviour is thought to demonstrate that a bond with the mother is necessary for further social development.

Attachment of children to caregivers

Attachment theory led not only to increased attention to attachments as a psychosocial process, it also led to a new understanding of child development. Freudian theory suggested that as libidinal drives fixed on different objects, former attachments would be broken; failure to break an attachment effectively would constitute a sort of trauma that could lead to later mental illness. Attachment theory, however, suggested that growing children did not break former attachments, but rather (1) learned to become more active (or sovereign) within previously established attachments, and (2) added new attachments, which did not necessarily require a break with (and are not necessarily substitutes for) previous attachments.

The Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth is a developmental psychologist who devised a procedure, called The Strange Situation to observe attachment relationships between a human mother and child. In this procedure the child is observed playing for 20 minutes whilst caregivers and strangers enter and leave the room, recreating the flow of the familiar and unfamiliar present in most children's lives. The situation varies in stressfulness and the child's responses are observed. The child experiences the following situations:

  1. Being in the playroom with mother.
  2. A stranger enters to join them both.
  3. The mother leaves, leaving the child with the stranger.
  4. The stranger leaves, leaving the child alone.
  5. The stranger returns to be with the child.
  6. Mother returns to be reunited with the child.

Two aspects of the child's behaviour are observed:

  1. The amount of exploration (e.g. playing with new toys) the child engages in throughout.
  2. The child's reactions to the behaviour of the mother

Attachment styles

On the basis of their behaviours, the children can be categorized into three groups. Each of these groups reflects a different kind of attachment relationship with the mother.

Secure attachment

A child that is securely attached to its mother will explore freely whilst the mother is present, will engage with strangers, will be visibly upset when the mother departs, and happy to see the mother return.

The theory says that children are best able to explore when they have the knowledge of a secure base to return to in times of need. When assistance is given this bolsters the sense of security and also, assuming the mother's assistance is helpful, educates the child in how to cope with the same problem in the future. Therefore, secure attachment can be seen as the most adaptive attachment style. According to some psychological researchers, a child becomes securely attached when the mother is available and able to meet the needs of the child in a responsive and appropriate manner. Others have pointed out that there are also other determinants of the child's attachment, and that behaviour of the parent may in turn be influenced by the child's behaviour.

Anxious-Resistant insecure attachment

In the strange situation, a child with an anxious-resistant attachment style is anxious of exploration and of strangers even when the mother is present. When the mother departs, the child is extremely distressed. The child will be ambivalent when she returns - seeking to remain close to the mother but resentful, and also resistent when the mother initiates attention.

According to some psychological researchers, this style develops from a mothering style which is engaged but on the mother's own terms. That is, sometimes the child's needs are ignored until some other activity is completed and that attention is sometimes given to the child more through the needs of the parent than from the child's initiation.

Anxious-Avoidant insecure attachment

A child with an anxious-avoidant attachment style will avoid or ignore the mother - showing little emotion when the mother departs or returns. The child will not explore very much regardless of who is there. Strangers will not be treated much differently from the mother. There is not much emotional range displayed regardless of who is in the room or if it is empty.

This style of attachment develops from a mothering style which is more disengaged. The child's needs are frequently not met and the child comes to believe that communication of needs has no influence on the mother.

Attachment in intimate relationships

Building on the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth, other researchers have detected similar patterns of behaviour in adult relations with romantic partners and spouses. Securely attached people are able to place trust in their partner which, in turn, means they can confidently spend time apart. People with an anxious ambivalent attachment style may have difficulties because their way of behaving in relationships can be seen as needy or clingy by their partner. They are prone to worry about whether their partner loves them or whether they are valued by their partner. People with an avoidant attachment style are uncomfortable being close to others. They have diffulties in trusting other people and do not like to depend on others.

Such patterns are usually established in infancy. It has been suggested that adults grow up to have relations which reflect the style of attachment they had with the mother.


  • Harlow, H. F. & Harlow, M. K. (1969) Effects of various mother-infant relationships on rhesus monkey behaviors. In B. M. Foss (Ed.) Determinants of infant behavior (Vol.4). London: Methuen.
  • Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. Routledge; ISBN 0415077303
  • Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy; Brunner-Routledge; ISBN 1583911529

Last updated: 02-08-2005 09:17:20
Last updated: 03-13-2005 10:50:28