Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bowlby, Ainsworth, the incomparable Harlow & Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is one of my favorites, so I will try not to get too carried away here.  Much of the theory is easy to take for granted if you don’t consider the era in which it was born.  After my son was born, he really liked to be held, as most newborns do.  I recall talking to a much older mother who told me how after her children (now in their 50s) were born, her doctor told her not to hold them too much so as to avoid spoiling them & turning the boys into sissies.  Kind of shows you how attachment theory has changed our thinking in the last 50 or so years.  Anyway, on to the theory!

Attachment theory was developed in part by John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth & contributed to by Harry Harlow’s research with rhesus monkeys.  The basic idea is that early relationships with caregivers play a major role in child development & continue to impact functioning & relationships throughout adulthood.  Again, this may inspire a “duh” reaction now, but 50 – 60 years ago, this was revolutionary stuff.  Attachment is a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194, qtd in Cherry n.d.).  According to attachment theory, infants who have mothers who are available and responsive will establish a sense of security & know that their caregivers can be relied upon.  Securely attached children will become distressed when they are separated from a caregiver & will be happy when the caregiver returns.  This is understood to be a normal reaction & indicative of a healthy or secure attachment.

Attachment theory got its start from the work of Bowlby & James Robertson, a social worker by trade.  Robertson created a film called “A Two Year Old Goes to the Hospital.”  You’ll never guess what it’s about!  All right, so that was kind of corny, but they film a young girl who goes in for an 8-day stay in an era when visits from parents were severely restricted by hospital policy.  What ensues (although I have not seen it) sounds totally heart-wrenching, as I’m sure you can imagine.  Bowlby argues that this young girl’s distress is not merely an unavoidable inconvenience, but rather a potentially serious psychiatric disturbance worth further investigation.  Check out more about it here:, including Robertson’s summary of the film & Bowlby’s commentary on it.

Bowlby also worked with Mary Ainsworth, who conducted the “Strange Situation” study in Baltimore, MD.  Wikipedia describes the set-up of the “Situation” here:, but in essence, tot comes in with mom, mom leaves tot with stranger briefly, mom comes back, stranger leaves, stranger returns & mom leaves again.  Each interval is about 3 minutes, so mom never leaves the tot for long.  Based on the infant’s behavior during the “Situation,” Ainsworth & company came up with a classification system that described their reactions.  A securely attached infant will engage with the stranger when mom is around, but not when mom leaves, will be upset when mom leaves & will calm when mom returns.  An anxious resistant infant will be very upset when mom leaves, not particularly interested in the stranger even when mom is around & will be ambivalent when mom returns.  An anxious avoidant infant will avoid or ignore the mom altogether & won’t show much change regardless of who is in the room with him or her.  Lastly, they observed a disorganized style, that was for infants whose behavior defied classification due to being unpredictable, or displaying stereotyped behavior, like rocking or hitting themselves.

Finally, there is the work of Harry Harlow.  I think you would be remiss to talk about attachment theory & not talk about Harlow.  Harlow’s best known research was conducted from 1957 – 1963 & would likely not be approved by any contemporary IRB.  Nevertheless, inspired in part by Bowlby’s theorizing, Harlow separated infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers & offered them a choice between a soft terry mother or a hard wire mother.  There were two groups, and in one group, the terry mother had the bottle & in the other group, the wire mother had the bottle.  Conventional thinking of the era would dictate that the babies were governed by their need to eat & would go where the dinner was.  Harlow’s monkeys, however, wanted the terry mother, whether she had food or not & would jump to the wire mother to eat, then go right back to the terry mother.  If the monkeys were afraid, they would go to the terry mother, even if the wire mother was there with food.  Harlow also did some research on isolating the monkeys at birth.  Suffice it to say that monkeys who were raised in isolation, even if only for a few months, had a difficult time integrating in with the rest of the monkeys.

As I’ve said about a lot of these theories, this stuff might seem kind of obvious now, but at the time, it flew in the face of what the general understanding was about what made babies tick & what the love between a mother & her child is all about.  I promised not to get carried away, and I’m not altogether sure I kept the promise.  I hope you found this helpful & interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this! It helped clarify so much! Loved the set out as well! Massive thanks again!!!