How Has Attachment Theory Been Used to Account for Differences in the Development of Social Relationships?

1 January 2017

This assignment considers the answers to many fundamental questions. For example: What is it that differentiates the way in which individuals conduct social relationships; Why does one person behave differently to another; Is it fair to suggest that development through childhood plays a role in this; Is there a theory that can account for these differences? One theory that has attempted to address some of these questions is attachment theory.

This assignment will therefore look at attachment theory from its beginnings and the key figures that are involved in shaping the theory. It will attempt to analyse any contradictions of the theory and look at the way in which attachment theory may influence a child’s development and behaviours, development through to adulthood and the ability for adults to conduct social relationships. Attachment theory is a psychological theory which investigates the bond between individuals; it in effect refers primarily to the relationship and bond between a baby and their primary caregiver.

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Early attachment research was conducted through experiments with animals. Dependency on a presence of another being as an infant is essential to survival within all species. As Psychoanalyst Winnicott (1964: p. 88) observed “there is no such thing as a baby……if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship”. This occurrence of dependency is not unique to human beings.

Harlow (1958) conducted studies with macaque monkeys which observed infant monkeys separated from their birth mothers who had then been reared in isolation cages. After placing objects in the cages, in the form of a wire mesh cone which had a n attachment of a food source and a cloth cone, it was observed that “the infant monkeys overwhelmingly preferred to cling to the cloth mother….. in spite of the fact that the only the wire mother was their source of food” (Oates, Lewis et al. p. 19). The results of the studies conducted contradicted the behaviourist framework.

In summary, the behaviourist framework would suggest that the monkey should form the bond or attachment with the object which provides food, where the food is the primary reinforcer and the object the secondary reinforcer. Influenced by Harlow’s’ work, Bowlby (1969, p. 194) considered the importance of an infant’s’ relationship with its primary caregiver. This perspective therefore led him to become a founder of attachment theory. Bowlby (1969) defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”.

Bowlby (1969) in essence believed that attachment styles were developed during childhood predominantly through the relationship between the child and the primary caregiver and that these attachment styles would influence the individual throughout adulthood. Bowlby (1969) did not believe that only one attachment could be formed or indeed that a single attachment could be described to be the most beneficial. Instead he suggested that objects could be used and be helpful in aiding development of individuals.

According to attachment theory, throughout childhood and after repeated experiences, a system of thoughts, memories, beliefs, emotions, expectations and behaviours of oneself and others are formed, thus an Internal Working Model (IWM) was developed. IWM helps “individuals predict and understand their environment, engage in survival promoting behaviors such as proximity maintenance, and establish a psychological sense of “felt” security” (Bretherton, 1985; Sroufe & Waters, 1977).

Bowlby (1969) has been somewhat criticised by some for his work with attachment theory and there are arguments for and against this work. It is suggested that there was political motivation behind Bowlby’s (1969) initial research and a motivation to drive mothers back to being the primary caregiver. An additional factor to consider is that Bowlby (1969) suggests that the initiation for the need of attachment comes from the child. It could be argued however, that if this were the case, would parents ever leave their children alone?

However, there is further research that supports this attachment theory such as discussed earlier where it has been shown that there are strong links between primary caregivers and other species. In addition, studies such as the strange situations study have shown that young children can find separation from their primary caregiver as threatening. The strange situations study considered identifying infant attachment types through controlled observation of infants. Another influential theorist in attachment was Ainsworth et. l (1978).

She developed the notion of ‘strange situation’, to incorporate an observational study developed to measure the type of attachment that a child had formed. The children observed were aged between 12-18 months and the study consisted of eight episodes. The episodes were as follows: • Mother (or primary caregiver) enters room with child, child explores and settles at which point stranger enters • Stranger talks to mother and then subsequently talks or plays with child • Mother leaves the room Stranger stays and attempts to interact with child • Mother returns and the stranger leaves. • Mother leaves again • Stranger returns and continues to attempt to interact with child • Mother returns and stranger leaves. (Oates, Lewis et al, 2005) From the results of the observation, Ainsworth concluded that there were three main types of classifications of infants.

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How Has Attachment Theory Been Used to Account for Differences in the Development of Social Relationships?. (2017, Jan 26). Retrieved May 24, 2019, from
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