Explanations of Attachment: Bowlby’s Theory

– Bowlby rejected learning theory as an explanation of attachment

– He looked at Lorenz’s and Harlow’s research and proposed an evolutionary explanation

– He suggested that attachment was innate system that gave a survival advantage

– Attachment means that young animals have to stay close to caregivers which means that they are more protected and more likely to survive


– Monotropic is the idea that the one relationship that the infant has with their primary attachment figure is of special significance in emotional development

– Bowlby’s theory is described as monotropic

– He placed great emphasis on a child’s attachment to one particular caregiver – and he believed that the child’s attachment to this one caregiver is different and more important than others.

-Bowlby believed that the more time a baby spent with this primary attachment figure, the better.

-He put forward two principles to clarify this:


– The more constant a child’s care, the better the quality of their attachment.


– The effects of every separation from the mother add up.



– Babies are born with a set of innate ‘cute’ behaviours like smiling; cooing and gripping that encourage attention from adults.

– He called these social releasers

– Their purpose is to activate the adult attachment system and make them feel love towards the child


– The interplay between infant and adult attachment systems gradually builds the relationship between infant and caregiver, beginning in the early weeks of life

– Bowlby proposed that there is a critical period around two years when the infant attachment system is active.

– If an attachment is not formed at this time, a child will find it much harder to form one later.


– Bowlby proposed that a child forms a mental representation of their relationship with their primary caregiver.

– This is called an internal working model because it serves as a model of what relationships are like.

– For example, a child whose first relationship is loving with a reliable caregiver will tend to form an expectation that all relationships are as loving and reliable, and they will bring these qualities to future relationships.

– Most importantly the internal working model affects the child’s later ability to be a parent themselves.

– This explains why children from functional families tend to have similar families themselves.



Support for social releasers

– There is clear evidence to show that cute infant behaviours are intended to initiate social interaction and that doing so is important to the baby.

– Brazelton et al observed mother-infant interactions, reporting the existence of interactional synchrony

– He instructed primary attachment figures to ignore the baby, some responded by curling up and lying motionless.

-The fact that the children responded so strongly suggests Bowlby’s ideas about the significance of infant social behaviour in eliciting caregiving.

Support for internal working models

– Bailey (2007) assessed 99 mothers with one-year-old babies on the quality of their attachment to their own mothers using a standard interview procedure.

– The researchers also assessed the attachment of the babies to the mothers by observation.

– It was found that the mothers who reported poor attachment to their own parents in the interviews were much more likely to have children classified as poor according to the observations.

– This supports the idea that an internal working model of attachment was being passed through the families.


Mixed evidence for monotropy

– Bowlby believed that babies generally formed one attachment to their primary caregiver, and that this attachment was special.

-Only after this attachment was established could a child form multiple attachments.

– However, Schaffer and Emerson found that a significant minority of babies appeared able to form multiple attachments at the same time.

– It is also unclear whether there is something unique about the first attachment.

– Studies tend to show that attachment to the mother is just more important in predicting later behaviour

– It also could simply mean that attachment to the primary attachment figure is just stronger than other attachments, not necessarily that it is different in quality.

– Therefore, there is mixed evidence towards monotropy, which means that the theory is questionable