Bowlby's Theory of Attachment

Updated on May 23, 2018
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I'm currently a full-time student living and studying in London, For years I've written about the environment, science, and psychology.

John Bowlby
John Bowlby

What Is the Attachment Theory?

John Bowlby proposed a theory in 1958 which focuses on the attachment between a caregiver and an infant, how this attachment formed and the importance of attachment.

The 7 main concepts to Bowlby's theory are:

  • Attachment is adaptive and innate
  • Caregiving is adaptive
  • The sensitive period
  • A secure base
  • Internal working model
  • The continuity hypothesis
  • Monotropy and hierarchy

Before learning about Bowlby's theory or attachment in detail, you must know the different types of attachment that can form between an infant and their caregiver.

Secure Attachment

  • Refers to a harmonious and cooperative relationship between infant and caregiver.
  • If in a secure attachment, the child will be less likely to cry if their caregiver leaves the room and when feeling anxious they will be easily soothed.

Insecure-Avoidant Attachment

  • This refers to an anxious form of attachment involving children who tend to avoid social interaction and intimacy with their caregiver.
  • Children with this attachment show little to no response when separated from their caregiver and do not seek comfort and proximity from others.

Insecure-Resistant Attachment

  • This refers to an ambivalent form of attachment whereby the infant will both seek and reject intimacy, proximity and social interaction.
  • Children with this attachment will tend to show immediate and intense anxiety when separated from their caregiver.

Caregiving is Adaptive

According to Bowlby, it isn't just attachment that is innate and adaptive but also the drive to provide caregiving. Protecting and caring for your child will enhance offspring's survival and thus heighten the chances of you spreading your genes.

Infants are born with certain characteristics called social releasers (such as smiling and crying) which evokecaregiving. These social releasers bring out certain emotions in the people around it.

Konrad Lorenz (seen in the above picture) demonstrated that attachment is adaptive and innate and that infants were not born with a preconceived image of their parents.

In 1952 Lorenz took a clutch of gosling eggs and divided them into two groups - one group was looked after by the natural mother and the others were put in an incubator.

When the eggs in the incubator hatched the first thing that the goslings saw was Lorenz.

To test whether innate and apaptive attachment (imprinting) can occur Lorenz marked the two groups of eggs and soon realized that the goslings divided themselves and the incubator born goslings started following him around.

This suggests that a newly born animal will imprint on the first object that it sees.

The Sensitive Period

Bowlby suggested that since attachment is innate there is a limited time period in which it can develop, this is called a sensitive period.

Supposedly the second quarter of the infants first year is when they are most sensitive and prone to the development of attachments.

After this time period it will become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible, to form an infant-caregiver attachment.

Attachment is Adaptive and Innate

This is an evolutionary theory which says that attachment is a behavioural system that evolved because of its survival and reproductive value.

Bowlby suggested that children have an innate (inborn or natural) drive to become attached to a caregiver because this attachment can provide long term benefits - such as food and protection. The more attached the offspring is to the caregiver, the closer they will be to them and the more protection they will receive.

A Secure Base

Having an attachment with a caregiver is important for an infant because it provides protection from harm. This means that the caregiver is a 'secure base' from which the infant can explore it's surrounding environment but then always return to when threatened or scared.

This shows that attachment encourages independence rather than dependence.

Internal Working Model

Attachment starts as a relationship between an infant and it's primary caregiver. Depending on the route that this attachment takes, whether it's built on trust, inconsistency or uncertainty, it will give the person expectations about relationships.

This can dictate what the emotional relationships in a persons later life will be like, this is what Bowlby called the 'internal working model'.

Continuity Hypothesis

This is based on the internal working models theory that there is consistency between early attachments and later relationships.

The continuity hypothesis suggests that infants who have a secure relationship with their caregiver will grow up being more emotionally and socially competent than infants with insecure attachments.

Monotropy and Hierarchy

Bowlby believed that infants don't only form one attachment instead they form several with different people.

The bias towards one individual (the primary attachment) is called monotropy. This bias and strong attachment is usually, but not always, formed with the infants mother.

The other attachments will form a hierarchy in order of how effectively and sensitively the persons responds to the infant's social releasers.

© 2013 Emily


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    • profile image

      psychology student 

      3 years ago

      Bowlby originaly called the sensitive period a critical period in which if attachment was not formed with in said developmental period then the ability to form normal attachment would disapear.

      It was then later changed to sensitive period as was clear that "normal" attachment could form after the period.

    • Joe Salmon 117 profile image

      Joe Salmon 

      7 years ago from Newport, Isle of Wight

      Brilliant work on Bowlby here. I have studies Bowlby in depth and you really get to the point of his work. Great read!


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