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Within the field of Developmental Psychology, researchers continue to evaluate the significance of early childhood experiences and how they impact on later development. Whilst some theorists propose that the quality of attachments in infancy is a strong determinant of socio-emotional and personality outcomes in later life (Waters, et al., 2000), many critics have also argued, that too much emphasis has been placed on the early bonds with parents, and that other factors such as individual and cultural differences are often neglected (Harris, 2009: Field, 1996). Whilst many theories of attachment have been proposed over the years, perhaps one of the most influential theories is that of British Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst John Bowlby. This report will therefore set out to discuss some of the main characteristics of Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment, whilst examining some of the supporting evidence and criticisms which have been levied against his pioneering work.[a]

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Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment

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Influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, Bowlby placed a great emphasis on early childhood experiences. However, unlike the orthodox Freudian views which focused on the instinctive drives and psychosexual conflicts of young children, Bowlby gave greater attention to the ongoing interpersonal relationship between mother and child (Lister-Ford, 2007: 17). Drawing on his initial interest in Lorenz’s (1937) ethological studies of imprinting on greylag geese, Bowlby’s evolutionary approach to attachment essentially centres on the theme that babies are genetically programmed from birth to form one unique and secure attachment to a primary caregiver, most often their mother (Holt, et al., 2012: 489). According to Bowlby, this unique bond, which he referred to as ‘Monotropy’, is a crucial element to the lifelong survival and healthy development of a child[b].

He suggested, that not only does this bond help to foster a sense of security in the child, and provide them with a safe haven and a secure base from which to explore the world; it also creates an ‘internal working model’ to assist the formation of future relationships. Furthermore, Bowlby also delineated the first 12 months of life as being the critical period in which such attachments should be formed, and implied that any separation or disruption to this attachment before the age of four, would subsequently result in ‘affectionless psychopathy and delinquency’ (Brain & PMukherji, 2005: 53-55). This was referred to as the ‘Maternal deprivation hypothesis’, and was primarily developed on the backbone of his research into the adverse effects of children who were separated from their parents during World War II.

Empirical Evidence


Bowlby attempted to conduct his own investigations into the associations between maternal deprivation and juvenile delinquency with his case study of ‘44 Thieves’. He examined the early experiences of 88 children, half of whom had behavioural problems and criminal convictions for theft, and the other half who were emotionally disturbed, but had no criminal record. Bowlby provided strong evidence to support his hypothesis, showing that for those who had been convicted for theft, the majority (86%) had reported experiencing maternal separation before the age of 5, as well as 32% of them being described as ‘Affectionless Psychopaths’. Conversely, none of the control group presented with any signs of affectionless psychopathy, and only 2 reported suffering from any kind of separation in early childhood[c]. However, whilst the study does offer some support to his ‘critical period’ hypothesis, the accuracy of data could still be questioned due to the retrospective nature of the study. Moreover, further criticisms have also been raised concerning the actual extent to which maternal deprivation causes affectionless psychopathy, and as such, it has been suggested that Bowlby overlooks other influencing factors such as the cause of separation itself (Brain & PMukherji, 2005: 53-55).

Despite some criticisms of Bowlby’s research, Mary Ainsworth (1978) went on to further develop the theory of attachment, by providing fundamental insights into the infant-mother relationship. Like Bowlby, she took a great interest in the quality and nature of the attachment relationship itself, suggesting that the security of the infant-mother attachment is ultimately determined by the sensitivity and responsiveness of the mother. Consequently, Ainsworth set about attempting to describe these attachments through her observations of children’s interactions with their mother, and subsequently went on to develop her famous experiment called the ‘Strange Situation’.

In her experiments, she devised situations which provoked ‘stranger anxiety’ and ‘separation anxiety’ in infants, and monitored the behaviours and interactions of the infants and mothers during episodes of separation and reunion. As a result of these studies, three types of attachment were identified, secure, insecure avoidant and insecure resistant, as well as identifying the importance of sensitive and responsive caregiving for the development of secure attachments. (N-Hoeksema, et al., 2009: 91-94). Whilst Ainsworth’s research has been replicated with consistent results appearing in other studies (Smith & Pedersen, 1988; Lewis & Feiring, 1989), it could be argued, however, that the ‘Strange Situation’ revolves around westernised norms and values towards attachment and so cultural differences may exist[d].

More recent evidence has been provided to support Bowlby’s theory on attachment in studies which have been conducted on the ‘Cinderella Effect’, which is a term coined by psychologists to describe the increasing rates of abuse and maltreatment experienced by children at the hands of their step-parents. According to Workman & Reader (2014: 212) studies conducted by Daly and Wilson (1998), have shown that step-children are at a higher risk of being maltreated by their step-parent than their biological parent, and have shown that parents who are not genetically related, are 120 times more likely to murder their step-children than their own genetic offspring. Their studies have also shown that for children under the age of three, who have a step parent present in the family home, there is a 7 fold increased risk of experiencing abuse than if they had two biological parents present. As such, these findings could offer some weight to Bowlby’s evolutionary views on the biological inheritance of attachment behaviours, as the evidence suggest that step-parents are more likely to discriminate against their step-children than their own genetic offspring[e].


Criticisms of Bowlby’s theory, have however been provided by Rutter (1970). He decided to conduct his own study into the effects of maternal deprivation, and looked at the relationship between juvenile delinquency and boys who had experienced separations due to either ill health or maternal mental health. As a result of this study, he found that juvenile delinquency was more apparent in boys who experienced separation due to maternal depression, whereas those who were separated due to illness had no problems readjusting after the separation (Eysenck, 2000: 392-394). Thus Rutter distinguished between Deprivation and Privation, by suggesting that it is not separation per se, which causes the problems, but the consequence of attachments failing to develop in the first place[f].

In addition to these findings, if Bowlby’s assumptions are correct, attachment behaviours amongst infants and caregivers should be a universal feature in all cultures, however Rothbaum, et al., (2000) proposed otherwise. They suggested that research into attachment theory is culturally biased, as it is mainly grounded in the norms and values of westernised culture. As such, differences in the concept of sensitivity, continuity and notion of having a secure base, may be perceived differently. For example, they found that Americans are more concerned with sensitive and responsive caregiving which encourages regulation of emotions and promotes autonomy, whereas in Japan a more collectivist approach is taken, preferring to promote interdependence and discourage displays of emotion (Gelfand, et al., 2011: 163-172).


It is evident that both Bowlby and other theorists of attachment have made some major contributions to the understanding of child development and later psychopathology. And whilst the literature highlights the diverse interplay of biological, environmental and cultural influences upon the infant-mother dyad, what is still clear, is that most researchers are consistent in their acknowledgement of the fundamental role of early infant experiences, and the impact which they have on the healthy development of the child.

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