The origins of attachment theory

The origins of attachment theory

Bowlby in his theories speaks of the child’s hunger for the love and presence of the mother and defines attachment behavior as a way of acting that presents itself in an individual who achieves or maintains a closeness towards another person, identified clearly and believed to be able to deal with the various environmental situations in an adequate way.


Advertising message Bowlby’s first studies were on the experience of separation and the deprivation of the mother in children and showed how the latter experienced intense pain compared to separations and that, in the long term, they could lead to neurosis and delinquency, both in children than in adolescents, and mental illness in adults (Holmes, 1994). Bowlby’s theory, which speaks of hunger in the child for the love and presence of the mother, differs from the psychoanalytic descriptions of the mother-child relationship of his time, which saw in this link a type of love interested and aimed at satisfaction drive (ibidem). The theory of attachment starts from Bowlby’s criticism of psychoanalysis and from ethological discoveries.

The importance of attachment derives both from Lorenz’s (1989) experiments on goose babies, where the link between the baby and mother, or the mother’s surrogate, was independent of food and independent of nourishment, and from Harlow’s experiments (1958 ) on the young of Rhesus monkeys who, separated from their mothers, are raised by two “puppet mothers”, one with a bottle, the other without a bottle but made of soft cloth: the small primates showed a preference for the cloth mother with which they spent most of the day and from which they left only to go and eat from the bottle-fed one. If Lorenz’s experiment had shown that the bond is free from nourishment, Harlow showed that it is possible to feed without establishing a bond (Holmes, 1994).

Thanks to the influence of contemporary studies mentioned above and many others, Bowlby hypothesizes a biological predisposition in newborns towards a person, based on an intrinsic motivation and that, from birth, the child is equipped with species-specific motivational systems , or rather a series of innate behaviors unrelated to previous learning activated by external factors, such as the absence and return of the attachment figure, and internal factors, such as fatigue and suffering. For Bowlby, attachment behavior turns out to be, therefore, a way of acting that presents itself in an individual who achieves or maintains a closeness towards another person, clearly identified and considered capable of being able to deal with the various environmental situations in properly. This behavior becomes explicit whenever the individual is frightened, fatigued or ill, and fades when comfort and care are received (Bowlby, 1995). Attachment has a specific biological function which is that of protection: it allows you to remain close to a person who considers himself familiar, ready and available to come to the rescue in case of danger (ibidem).

There is a distinction to be made, however, between closely related concepts which are: attachment, attachment behavior and attachment behavior system. Attachment is a generic term that refers to

Advertising message By attachment behavior we mean any conduct that occurs in an individual to obtain or maintain closeness to someone else differentiated or preferred; this behavior is activated by the threat, by the real separation or by the departure from the caregiver and decreases through the proximity to the latter. The aforementioned concepts of attachment and attachment behavior are based on the system of attachment behaviors, where the self, the other significant ones and their relationship are represented and which codes the specific attachment pattern shown.

An attachment relationship can be defined on the basis of three basic characteristics (ibid):

Bowlby uses the notion of non-functional internal operating models to describe different patterns of neurotic attachment (Holmes, 1994). In fact, in addition to a type of secure attachment, which derives from the internalization by the child of an internal operating model that includes a person who takes care of him, sensitive and reliable and a representation of himself as worthy of love, there is also a type of insecure attachment that leads the child to see the world as a dangerous place and to consider himself as unworthy of love (ibidem). This type of insecure attachment arises from a type of refusing or unpredictable caregiver and the two basic strategies used in this case are avoidance or adherence, which will lead to a type of avoidant or insecure ambivalent insecure attachment.

However, Ainsworth will describe these categories for the first time, then enriched by Main (Main, Kaplan & Cassidy, 1985) and other authors such as Sroufe (1983). Mary Ainsworth, a pupil of Bowlby, starting from some research carried out in the United States and Uganda on the interactions between mother and child, devised the Strange Situation, a technique used to measure the attachment of the child, based on the systematic observation of the interaction of the child with the caregiver in a structured environment. The Strange Situation aims to intensify, as well as activate, the attachment behaviors in the child, placing him in a condition of moderate stress, which increases during the course of observation. The adjective attributed to the “strange” test means that the environment is not familiar (it is a laboratory) and that, in addition, the child is in the presence of a person alien to him; during the experiment the situation foresees a series of separations and reunions during eight episodes in a predetermined order (Santrock, 2013). Thanks to observation in this specific setting, it is possible to arrive at the classification of the different types of attachment, taking as a reference the function of the safe base to open the child to exploration, the child’s responses to the stranger and to continuous separations and meetings and finally, the quality of the game and exploration. In this way, three different types of attachment are detected: the secure one, the insecure avoidant one and the insecure resistant one (Main, 2008; Santrock, 2013). Only later did Main add a fourth type of attachment called disorganized (Main & Salomon, 1990).