The concept of attachment was introduced into psychiatry and psychology by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst whose major books appeared between 1969 and 1980. Like many psychoanalysts, beginning with Sigmund Freud, Bowlby was interested in the early childhood roots of later personality patterns, including psychological disorders. But instead of focusing on imagined instincts, such as eros (sex) and thanatos (aggression), or sex and aggression, as Freud did, Bowlby focused primarily on the natural dependence of infants and children on their primary care-givers for protection, care, comfort, and emotional support. He noticed, as many informal observers have noticed throughout history, that infants become emotionally attached to their caregivers; look to them for comfort and support in times of stress, threat, need, or pain; and display greater curiosity, courage, and sociability when safely in the presence of these attachment figures. The tendency of human infants to become emotionally attached to their caregivers, a phenomenon that can also be observed in nonhuman primates and many other animals, seemed to Bowlby to be the result of an innate attachment behavioral system.
He was greatly aided in his theoretical work by a talented North American research psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, who did her graduate work on the topics of childhood dependency and security. She concentrated especially on the fact that a child’s confidence and courageous exploration of the environment depend on the degree of safety and security provided by caregivers (this is called the secure base effect). An important idea in Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment theory is that effective caregivers provide a safe haven and secure base from which the children in their care can explore the world and acquire life skills.
Because Bowlby and Ainsworth were interested not just in understanding emotional attachments (or attachment bonds) but also in using insights from their research to guide clinical assessments and treatment of troubled children and adults; they were especially interested in differences between secure and insecure attachments. When an attachment figure is consistently available and responsive to a child, the child becomes confident that protection, support, and help with emotion regulation will be forthcoming if needed or requested. Under such conditions, a child benefits from what attachment theorists call felt security. This feeling that rock-solid support is available allows a child to become more outwardly directed, self-confident, and capable over time of dealing with challenges and stresses autonomously. In contrast, if a child repeatedly discovers that attachment figures are unreliable, self-preoccupied rather than emotionally available, intrusive, punishing, or coolly distant, the child develops an insecure attachment and suffers from a variety of observable difficulties, including pervasive anxiety, unregulated anger, sadness about separation, abandonment, or neglect, and low self-esteem.
One of Ainsworth’s major contributions to attachment theory was a laboratory assessment procedure, the “strange situation,” which is used to assign a 12- to 18-month-old child to one of three major attachment categories: secure, anxious, or avoidant. Secure infants play comfortably in an unfamiliar strange situation, when in the presence of their previously supportive attachment figure (often mother). They are sociable toward a stranger, and although they become distressed and worried if their attachment figure leaves the room unexpectedly, they quickly recover, show signs of relief and affection, and play effectively with novel toys following reunion. Researchers, beginning with Ainsworth, have obtained massive evidence that this pattern of behavior results from an attachment figure’s reliable availability and responsiveness to the child’s needs and bids for help.
Anxiously attached children, in contrast, are vigilant concerning their attachment figure’s attentiveness and responsiveness. They become extremely upset about unexpected separations, and most characteristically, continue to be upset and angry even when their attachment figure returns to the room, a pattern of behavior that interferes with normal exploration and effective emotion regulation. Anxious attachment has been found, in extensive home observations, to result from attachment-figure unavailability, intrusiveness, unpredictability, and periods of neglect.
Children classified as avoidant in the strange situation tend not to pay attention to their attachment figure, sometimes seem more favorable toward a friendly stranger than to their own attachment figure, remain quiet during unexpected separations, and are cool and ignoring toward their attachment figure upon reunion. This pattern of behavior, which is thought to involve intentional deactivation and inhibition of natural behavioral tendencies, is accompanied by a high heart rate, indicating that the outward coolness is not matched, at least in young children, by true lack of concern. The avoidant pattern of behavior in childhood is predictable from caregiver behavior that is also cool, distant, rejecting, or punishing.
Years after Ainsworth identified these three patterns of behavior, Mary Main and her colleagues found that in more troubled samples there is often a fourth kind of child behavior, which they called disorganized or disoriented. In the strange situation, a disorganized child approaches his or her mother oddly during reunion episodes, for example, veering off at an angle and hiding behind a chair or lying facedown on the floor rather than seeking to be picked up. These unusual behaviors seem to be related to the mother’s own unresolved memories and feelings about attachment-related losses or traumas. Mothers of disorganized children are more likely than other mothers to have been abused, to be drug abusers, or to be living under unstable conditions (e.g., with boyfriends who come and go or are abusive toward the mother or her child).
Between 1980 and the present, hundreds of studies of childhood attachment have been conducted, and together they indicate that early attachment experiences cast a long shadow as a child grows older. The effects can be seen in preschool interactions with both teachers and peers; in later self-concept, emotions, and attitudes; and in interpersonal relationships all through life. Hence, many interventions have been proposed and studied in an effort to inform parents about the importance of emotional availability and responsiveness, and the needs of children for a safe haven and secure base as they work to develop their social skills, cognitive capacities, and emotion-regulation abilities.
This research has provided a foundation for the study of attachment patterns in subsequent adolescent and adult relationships. In the late 1980s, Main and her students developed the Adult Attachment Interview, which can be used to classify adults’ attachment patterns. Many studies have subsequently shown that these patterns predict the attachment patterns of the interviewed adult’s children and that the form of the influence is “like fosters like”: Secure parents tend to rear secure children, anxious parents to rear anxious children, and avoidant parents to rear avoidant children. Parents who are particularly troubled and have disorganized mental representations of prior attachments and losses tend to have children with disorganized attachment patterns. Although one might suspect that the continuity is attributable to shared genes rather than social experiences, research so far suggests otherwise.
Also in the late 1980s, social psychologists, beginning with Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, developed questionnaire measures of attachment style in adult relationships. Since then, many other researchers, including Mario Mikulincer, have conducted hundreds of studies mapping the emotion-regulation strategies and relational behaviors of people with different attachment styles. This research is currently being extended to studies involving physiological markers (e.g., the stress hormone cortisol) and patterns of brain activation. Moreover, what Bowlby called the attachment behavioral system has been linked to the functioning of other innate behavioral systems, such as caregiving, exploration, and sex, with results that are being applied clinically in individual and couples therapy. Today, Bowlby and Ainsworth’s concept of attachment has become central in all areas of psychology, and their theory’s influence shows no sign of waning.
- Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock.
- Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (Eds.). (1999). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York: Guilford Press.
- Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
- Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Patterns of attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guilford Press.