Explanations of attachment - Attachment

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Explanations of attachment


Explanations of attachments give reasons as to why and how attachments form.

Learning theory is a behaviourist explanation that sees attachments as developing through conditioning processes, where an infant learns to associate a caregiver with feeding. With classical conditioning the stimulus of food, which produces a natural response of pleasure, is paired with the stimulus of a caregiver, until the caregiver alone produces the pleasure response. With operant conditioning caregivers are a source of negative reinforcement (escaping something unpleasant), as they become associated with removing the unpleasant sensation of hunger.

Bowlby’s monotropic theory is an evolutionary explanation of attachment. It sees infants as having an innate tendency to form a bond with one prime attachment figure, which brings with it a survival value through keeping close proximity to that attachment figure. Infants have social releasers (innate social behaviours), such as crying, smiling, vocalising and following behaviours, which stimulate adult caregiving. These behaviours become focused on the adult giving the most sensitive care. Bowlby believed there was a critical period, a specific time period within which this attachment must form, else it never would. Bowlby saw the monotropic attachment (to one person) as forming an internal working model, a blueprint for all future relationships.


Fig 3.5 Learning theory sees attachments as forming due to an association being developed between mother and feeding

Focal study

Fox (1977) investigated learning theory’s central belief that attachments occur due to feeding from the main caregiver. The participants were 122 children who were born and raised on Israeli kibbutzim (collective farms). Due to their parents’ working commitments, the majority of the children’s caregiving, including feeding, was provided by metapelets (specialist child caregivers). Care was provided by the metapelets in specialist children’s centres, with some children returning to their parents in the evenings and others only at weekends. Separation and reunion behaviours with both metapelets and mothers were observed and recorded. It was found that although children protested equally to either mother or metapelet separation when left with a stranger, generally children were more attached to their mothers. Some children showed little if any attachment to their metapelets. As metapelets did most of the feeding, these findings go against the learning theory.


• Dollard & Miller (1950) calculated that babies are fed over 2,000 times by their mothers in the first year of life, thus presenting ample opportunities for attachments to form via association, in line with learning theory.

• Schaffer & Emerson (1964) (see page 38) found that in 39 per cent of cases, the mother, who was usually the main caregiver and feeder, was not a baby’s main attachment figure. This goes against learning theory, as it suggests that attachments are often made not for reasons of food.

• Rutter (1981) found that infants display a whole range of attachment behaviours towards a variety of attachment figures, not just mothers. Indeed there is no particular attachment behaviour used specifically and exclusively for mothers. This lowers support for Bowlby’s theory of monotropy (that infants form one prime attachment to a mother-figure).

Positive evaluation

Image Although not generally supported by research evidence, learning theory did stimulate a lot of interest in attachment theory and research into it eventually led to Bowlby’s more favoured theory.

Image There is plenty of evidence to support many aspects of Bowlby’s theory, for instance the continuity hypothesis, where later relationships are seen to reflect early attachment types. Research has shown that the quality of early attachment patterns is indeed reflected in later romantic relationships.

Image Bowlby’s theory puts attachment behaviour into an evolutionary perspective, showing how attachments have developed through natural selection. Those who demonstrated such behaviour had an adaptive advantage to survive to maturity, reproduce and pass on the genes for attachment behaviour to their children. Thus the behaviour became more widespread throughout the population.

Negative evaluation

Image Schaffer (1971) argued that learning theory puts things the wrong way round: babies do not ’live to eat’, but ’eat to live’. Therefore they are active seekers of stimulation, not passive recipients of nutrition.

Image Learning theory, via conditioning, explains the acquisition of simple behaviours, but not more complex behaviours like attachment, which has an intense emotional component.

Image Bowlby sees attachments as forming due to mere exposure of infants to caregivers. However, Schaffer & Emerson’s (1964) study showed that attachments form with those adults who display the most sensitive responsiveness, identifying and responding appropriately to an infant’s needs. This suggests that attachment formation is a more dynamic process than Bowlby claimed.

Practical application

A practical application of Bowlby’s theory is that parents should receive parenting classes that emphasise the importance of sensitive responsiveness in developing secure attachments — important not just immediately, but also in developing successful romantic relationships in later life.