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Attachment Theories

Psychology (Year 12) - Relational Influences

Jessica Pratt

Socialisation is a term that refers to the process in which we acquire the behaviours thought to be important to function effectively in society. Attachment, in relation to socialisation, is a close emotional bond shared between the parent and the child. An attachment theory attempts to explain the emergence of the bond.


Harry Harlow believed that the maternal-child bond was most important for development. Harlow used eight infant monkeys separated from their mothers at birth, and provided them with wire-mesh or towelling surrogates that had a bottle. All monkeys, regardless of the surrogates they were assigned to, preferred the towelling surrogate as it provided warmth and comfort instead of just familiarity.


John Bowlby emphasised the importance of the maternal-child bond. Strong attachment would lead to the child wanting to survive long enough to have children of their own. Without this bond, the child would be unable to form healthy relationships, and have a higher chance of developing depression and a reduced IQ.

Bowlby introduced the concept of monotropy - the innate attachment to a single primary caregiver - and devised four distinct stages of attachment:

  1. pre-attachment (birth - 6 weeks) - innate signals attract caregiver and the caregiver is close.

  2. attachment in the making (6 weeks - 8 months) - sense of trust that the caregiver will respond to cues, infant responds to a familiar caregiver and does not protest during separation.

  3. clear-cut attachment (8 months - 2 years) - separation anxiety, infant protests when the parent leaves.

  4. reciprocal relationship (18 months - 2 years) - infant has an increased understanding that the parent will return after being separated.

Bowlby’s Internal Working Model

Bowlby had a belief that attachment behaviour can lead to the development of a cognitive framework for understanding, this being comprised of mental representations. Simply, interactions are guided by memories and expectations from gaining attachment. The primary caregiver acts as a prototype for future relationships.


Mary Ainsworth believed that maternal deprivation in the first years of life would lead to permanent consequences. A secure base is the responsive caregiver that provides security for exploration. An appropriate response by the caregiver will lead to the child finding comfort to explore, however an inappropriate response given by the caregiver will lead to a lower chance of the parent being a secure base.

From this, Ainsworth devised the Strange Situation Experiment to determine the infant’s attachment type. The process of the Strange Situation Experiment is as follows:

  1. the infant is settled in their room by their mother.

  2. a stranger enters the room and interacts with both the infant and the mother.

  3. the first separation occurs - the mother leaves and the stranger interacts with the infant.

  4. first reunion - the mother returns and greets the infant whilst the stranger leaves the room.

  5. second separation - the mother leaves the room and the stranger returns to interact with the child.

  6. the second reunion - the mother returns and the stranger quietly leaves.

Ainsworth’s Attachment Types

Three attachment types were described based on the infant’s behaviour in the SSE.

These types are:

  • secure attachment (B) - the infant is distressed when the parent leaves, delighted when they return.

  • insecure anxious-resistant (C) - clingy, cries when they leave, angry when the parent returns.

  • insecure anxious-avoidant (A) - infant does not care on parent’s departure, ignores when they return.

  • disorganised attachment - where the infant has an inconsistent way of dealing with stress.

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