Bowlby’s maternal deprivation hypothesis (MDH) (1951) - Attachment

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

Bowlby’s maternal deprivation hypothesis (MDH) (1951)


Bowlby’s maternal deprivation hypothesis (MDH) argues that if attachments are broken, even in the short term, serious, permanent damage will occur to children’s emotional, social and cognitive development. The MDH is examined by assessing the effects on children of various forms of disruption.

Separation consists of short-term attachment disruption, like being left with a babysitter. The distress is characterised by Bowlby’s PDD model (protest, despair, detachment). However, later research shows that such effects are avoidable if alternative, sensitive care is provided.

Deprivation consists of long-term attachment disruption, such as through divorce. Effects are more severe and longer lasting, but most children recover over time.

Privation involves never forming attachments, with severe developmental retardation occurring. However, such effects are generally reversible in the long term if sensitive care is provided.

Institutionalisation concerns childcare, such as that provided by children’s homes. The effects resemble those of deprivation and privation. Romanian orphanage studies have shown that such negative effects can again be overcome by the provision of sensitive, nurturing care.

Overall, Bowlby’s MDH can be seen to be valid in terms of the negative effects it details as a result of attachment disruption. However, contrary to Bowlby’s beliefs, most negative effects seem to be avoidable or reversible.


Fig 3.7 Professor Rutter’s studies of Romanian orphans have aimed to see if the effects of institutionalisation can be overcome through loving care by adoptive parents

Focal study

Rutter et al. (1998) investigated whether sensitive care could overturn the effects of privation suffered in Romanian orphanages. Three groups of children were studied: orphans adopted before 6 months of age, orphans adopted between 6 months and 2 years of age, and orphans adopted after 2 years of age. A control group of 52 British adopted children were also assessed (to see if negative effects were due to separation from caregivers or institutional conditions). The children’s level of cognitive functioning was measured. It was found that 50 per cent of Romanian orphans were cognitively retarded and underweight at initial assessment, while the children in the control group were not. At 4 years of age the orphans showed great improvements in physical and cognitive development, especially those adopted before 6 months of age, who did as well as the British adopted children. This suggests that negative effects of institutionalisation can be overcome with sensitive care.


• Robertson & Robertson (1971) found that children did show the short-term separation effects predicted by Bowlby’s PDD model, but that such effects were preventable if alternative sensitive care and a normal home routine were provided. This suggests that Bowlby is wrong, as attachment disruption effects are not inevitable.

• Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan (1999) found that 25 per cent of children had long-term adjustment problems after parental divorce but most eventually adapted. This suggests that the effects of long-term separation are reversible.

• Schaffer (1996) found that nearly all children are negatively affected by divorce in the short term, which suggests that the effects of long-term deprivation are universal.

• Freud & Dann (1951) reported on 6 orphans, rescued from a Nazi concentration camp, suffering from privation. They had little language, refused to be separated and displayed hostility to adults. They gradually formed attachments with their caregivers, developing rapidly both physically and intellectually. Follow-up studies suggested their recovery was full and permanent.

Positive evaluation

Image It would seem logical that long-term separation would have greater negative effects on children’s development than short-term separation, and research evidence backs this up.

Image Robertson & Robertson’s work detailing the effects of children undergoing short-term separations led to radical changes in hospital care. Regular visiting by family members was introduced, and work shifts were arranged so that children had consistent contact with familiar nurses in order for alternative attachments to form and negative separation effects to be avoided.

Image Morison & Elwood (2005) found similar results to Rutter with a group of Romanian orphans adopted in Canada, which suggests Rutter’s findings are reliable.

Negative evaluation

Image Most evidence linking short-term separation to negative outcomes is correlational and does not show causality. Other factors may be involved; indeed Kagan et al. (1978) found no direct causal link between separation and later emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Image Divorce can be beneficial to children, as it removes the negative environment of marital conflict and allows parents to have more time to give sensitive care to their children, meaning development actually improves in the long term rather than worsens.

Image As the Romanian orphans were not studied during their time within the Romanian orphanages, it is not possible to state which aspects of their privation were most damaging to their development.

Practical application

A practical application of research into long-term deprivation is that some American states legally require divorcing parents to attend educational classes that teach them to understand and avoid the difficulties associated with disrupted attachments.