The Ethological Perspective and Attachment Theory

John Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980) is one of the major proponents of attachment theory. His work was influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution and by psychoanalytic theory. In order to understand attachment theory, one must know something about a field called human ethology (See handout).

Attachment is an innate human survival mechanism. It is a control system that achieves these specific goals:

1) It helps the infant primate maintain proximity (closeness) to its caretaker.

2) It provides the young child with a secure base from which to explore the world.

3) It helps the child regulate his/her emotions.

Babies behave in such a way as to ensure proximity (closeness) to the caretaker. When fretful, they cry. This usually brings the caretaker, who tries to make the crying stop. Through this process, infants learns, in a fundamental way, that they can have an effect on the behavior of other people; that they can have an effect on the world.

As young children grow older, they gradually move farther away from the caretaker as they explore the environment. However, they maintain contact with the caretaker through visual and verbal communication. The attachment bond can be seen in the two-way conversation and visual interchange between an infant and its caretaker.

Mary Ainsworth describes attachment as an emotional tie that a person or animal forms with another person or animal. It is a tie that binds these two beings together and it endures over time. Human attachments last for a lifetime.

Attachment is an indicator of the quality of care received by the infant. According to the experts secure attachment relationships are established when we see parental behaviors that demonstrate

1) sensitivity to the child's need for stimulation and quiet

2) responsiveness to the child

3) playing with the child in ways that promote growth and development.

Attachment researchers note that too much stimulation can produce fussy, avoidant babies. Too little stimulation can produce anxiously attached babies.

The strength and quality of the infant's and toddler's attachment to the caretaker is formally assessed by observing the way the child reacts when separated from the caretaker.

Ainsworth, Sroufe, and others used the "Strange Situation Test" to study attachment behavior. The child's reaction to being separated from (and later reunited with) the caretaker is observed and recorded.

Attachment theorists believe that most babies one of the following: securely attached, insecurely attached, or resistant

When provided with responsive care, the infant acquires internal working models that have an impact on its future development. These involve the infant's expectations of the mother/caretaker and sense of itself as worthy/not worthy

Responsive, sensitive care results in the creation of a sense of self as a potent (effective) person - one that can have an impact on the world. Thus, security of attachment influences personality and the individual's feelings of self-reliance.

Recently, Michael Lewis (1998) and other psychologists have challenged some of the claims attachment theorists have made about the long-term effects of the attachment process. This is a very important issue, because our degree of optimism or pessimism about possibilities for personal change depends on how much weight we put on the long-term impact of early experiences. Can we overcome the difficulties of a traumatic infancy? Does the psychological evidence support the idea that those who don't form solid attachments to their parents early on will encounter difficulty later in life? Lewis provides a fascinating set of arguments in favor of the idea that our early experiences do NOT shape us for life. For an interesting and articulate discussion of this question, see Michael Lewis (1998), Altering fate: Why the past does not predict the future.

Last update 6/10/02.

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