Why have psychologists stressed the importance of attachment behaviours in development?
Many theorists agree that social contact early in a child’s life is important for healthy personality development. This is the most important relationship of the child development period as it is from this that the child drives its confidence in the world. A break from this relationship is experienced as highly distressing and constitutes a considerable trauma (Schaffer 1964). Through frequent social and emotional exchanges with parents the infant not only defines itself, but also acquires a particular style and orientation that some researchers believe is carried over into later life (Sroufe 1978). Therefore, the relationship between an infant and its caregiver and its development is one that has generated much interest to developmental psychologists. John Bowlby (1958, 1968) put forward a comprehensive account of attachment and believed that the infant and mother instinctively trigger each other’s behaviour to form an attachment bond. Attachment can therefore be defined as ‘ the ability to form focused, permanent and emotionally meaningful relationships with specific others’ (Butterworth & Harris 1994). In child psychology, attachment is often restricted to a relationship between particular social figures and to a particular phenomenon thought to reflect unique characteristics of the relationship ( Santrock & Bartlett 1986). This essay will attempt to examine the role and importance of attachment behaviours in development.
In Bowlby’s view, there is a dyadic emotional regulation between the infant and the mother or caregiver. The infant has innate signals to elicit responses from the caregiver. Conversely, infant behaviour such as crying, cooing, smiling etc are elicited by the caregivers specific actions e.g. leaving the room or putting the infant down. Santrock and Bartlett (1986) found that ‘the infant’s behaviour is directed by the primary goal of maintaining the mother’s proximity. The baby processes information about the mother’s location and changes his behaviour based on this fact. Thusinstinct or a fixed pattern is the primary force for developmental change, but is transformed through social experience.’ This reciprocal tie of mother and infant is a state that ensures care and protection during the most vulnerable period of development.
This attachment to the mother has a clear biological survival value, explaining the significance of the mother-infant interaction within the overall framework of attachment behaviour. Sroufe (1991) supports this view, he maintains that attachment refers to a behavioural system, which is ‘selected for its effect on the reproductive success of individuals in the environment in which they evolved.’ Bowlby argued that different attachment behaviours, such as crying, following etc, are functionally related, in that all may lead to the same outcome – the caregiver-infant proximity (Sroufe 1991). Bowlby argues that attachment, is therefore a primary process, which is innate, and is mediated by social interchange. Here the visual channel plays an important role, i.e. through smiling and eye to eye contacts.
Bowlby outlined four phases of the development of attachment as an integrated system of behaviours in infants:
Phase 1:- Birth – 2/3 months
The infant directs his attachment to human figures on an instinctual bias; all are equally likely to elicit smiling or crying because the infant is not discriminating.
Phase 2:- 3-6 months
The infant’s attachment focuses on one figure, typically the primary caregiver.
Phase 3:- 6-9 months
The intensity of attachment to the mother or caregiver increases. Due to this and newly acquired motor skills, the infant now readily seeks the proximity to the caregiver.
Phase 4:- 9-12 months
The elements of attachment listed above become integrated into a mutual system of attachment to which both infant and mother contribute.
Bowlby argued that communication between the infant and the caregiver takes the form of non verbal communication, this can be eye to eye contact, or face to face interaction. He went on to propose that the baby’s smile is the essential catalyst that generates the infant-caregiver interaction. The interaction goes through positive feedback on both sides until it becomes a conversation of visually perceived gestures.
Wright (1991) outlines the progress of this progression of ‘smiling’ in the development of attachment behaviours:
Begins at birth: At first the smile is fleeting and incomplete.
4-5 weeks: The smile is now nearly complete and the trigger for the smile becomes more specific.
5-6 weeks: The smile response is now fully formed.
6-10 weeks: The mother/caregivers face evokes a more immediate and generous smile than any other does.
2-3 months: The smile response to the mothers/ caregivers and other familiars becomes more dominant; with responses to strangers becoming weaker.
8 months onwards: The specificity of response becomes firmly established; strangers are responded to quite differently from familiar faces, and the mother/ caregivers face evokes the strongest response of all.
Experiments confirm that after the fifth week happy visual interactions elicit a smile response from a baby. In weeks 6 to 12 the baby is learning the characteristics of human faces by tracking the face, the hairline etc. The child will also grin when eye contact is finally made. Studies support the view that the eyes are the most important part of the ‘visual gestalt’ that elicits a smile (Wright 1991). Therefore, the mother’s face and the baby’s smile are the central features of the playful interaction that is basic to the attachment process. The baby’s responses become increasingly directed and specific; the mother’s pleasure in and responsiveness to her baby increase as she feels that her baby recognises her. ‘Here is a conversation without words, a smiling between faces, at the heart of human development.’ (Wright 1991)
Findings from animal studies of behaviour influenced Bowlby ideas. Harlow and Zimmerman (1959) conducted an experiment that proved that attachment was not based on the supply of food involving infant monkeys. The infant monkeys were placed in a cage with two, wire mesh, surrogate monkey mothers. One was covered with terrycloth fabric while the other was left as it was. The infant monkeys were fed from the wire mother. The hypothesis was that if the main cause for attachment was food then one would expect that the monkeys would cling to the wire monkey which supplied milk. In actual fact, the monkeys preferred to spend their time between feedings close to or clinging to the cloth mother. They would also jump on this when frightened. Harlow’s studies demonstrate the importance of physical contact for the attachment bond. Other interesting findings from this experiment were that the baby’s raised from birth in the laboratory did not establish healthy social behaviours. They did not engage in typical mating behaviour, and mother monkeys proved to be neglectful and abusive towards their offspring, not cuddling or feeding their young. Harlow attributed this disruptive behaviour to the lack of social contact with other monkeys during development (Brodzinsky,Gormly & Ambron 1979).
Schaffer and Emerson (1964) conducted an influential study which looked at sixty children every month for their first twelve months, and showed that reinforcement from feeding was not able to account for attachment of infants to some people. Findings showed that the infants formed multiple attachments with parents, grandparents and siblings, and also those who did actually took little or no care of the infants basic needs. Instead attachments were formed with individuals who were prepared to play, be responsible and interact socially with the child.
Based on such studies, Bowlby’s reasoning was that the biological need for security has resulted in infants possessing a number of attachment behaviours, e.g. crying, following proximity seeking etc, and that these behaviours are used to achieve the goal of a feeling of security, when infants feel insecure they will produce these behaviours. Bowlby greatly influenced the way researchers thought about attachment. There then followed the need for some sort of measurement of attachment behaviour.
Mary Ainsworth (1971) developed Bowlby’s ideas and elaborated on the phases to include other social behaviours, and the use of the attachment figure as a secure base. The ‘strange situation’ was designed to measure the quality of attachment between mothers and their infants. The procedure involved observing the infants reactions to a stranger when in the presence of the mother, when alone with the stranger, then in the third phase, reunited with the mother. Three characteristics patterns were observed:
(i)Group B – Secure Attachment relationships: These children use the mother as a base of security in a strange situation, and while the mother is present are content to explore and also react positively to strangers. However, when the mother leaves the room, they may or may not show distress, also in the occasion of being alone with a stranger. Upon the mothers return, securely attached babies generally make contact with their mothers, either by looking at them or, in the case of those who have experienced distress, by seeking contact and comfort from her. The hallmark of these children is that they use their attachment figures to regain their source of security when stressed. This then allows them to move freely through the world again through exploration and play. Most of the babies tested by Ainsworth displayed this kind of behaviour.
(ii) Group C: Resistant insecurely attached relationships: These children are more likely to seem anxious or distressed and in need of contact even when the mother is in the room. This type of infant has trouble using the mother as a secure base for exploration. Upon reunion with the mother after separation, the infant may, while seeking contact with her may actively resist her efforts to comfort them.
(iii) Group A: Avoidant insecurely attached relationships: The children of this group separate readily to play, and do not particularly seek to be close to their mother when alone with her. They are also not particularly distressed when left alone with a stranger. Most significantly, on reunion with their mother they show no more than a casual greeting and may ignore, or pointedly look away from turn away from, or move away from the caregiver. They do not initiate action and are not responsive to the mothers attempts at interaction (Sroufe 1995).
This situation of being left alone, and then being reunited with the caregiver can be categorised into these three categories. An explanation of this is that with prolonged separation, the emotional upheaval is so great that the infants behavioural structure is disorganised, and cannot be put back together immediately. ‘In clinical terms, one could speak of the infant as at first defending against the possibility of renewed pain and vulnerability by not acknowledging the presence of the caregiver.’ (Sroufe 1995) All in all the different patterns of attachment have complex causes. They are thought to develop as a response to different styles of mothering and as a consequence of the temperamental characteristics of the child. However, the classification may vary from culture to culture and the same baby may show different patterns depending on whether parents or siblings accompany the baby in the test.
The practical importance of attachment research can be seen in the areas of hospitalisation, and re homing orphaned or foster children. The knowledge gained from these tests should help policy makers deal with these issues with sensitivity. Hospitalisation of infants in particular has benefited from this research in that caregivers are now allowed to stay in hospital with their babies or young children. The area of day care facilities have also been benefited by this research, as it suggests that a brief separation does not disrupt the healthy attachment bond as it was previously thought to do. However, if there is already stress in the home environment, the separation and insecure attachment may have adverse consequences. Longer term consequences of disrupted attachment are more difficult to establish; but is thought to be reversible, as children brought up in orphanages become securely attached to their adoptive parents even as late as 8 years old ( Tizard and Hodges 1978 cited in Butterworth & Harris 1994).
In conclusion, Bowlby’s ideas and research provided a comprehensive basis for present day approaches to attachment. Research implies that there are, therefore three main characteristics of attachment behaviours: Firstly, the infant seeks the closeness and proximity of the caregiver. Secondly, that the infant shows distress at separation from the attachment figure and then relief upon reunion, i.e., displays a clear preference even without physical contact by eye contact or attentiveness to the sound of the caregivers voice. Thirdly, that the infant uses the attachment figure as a secure base from which to explore its physical and social environment (Brodzinsky, Gormly and Ambron 1979). The importance of attachment in the development of an infant cannot be underestimated, as it is from this bond that the infant finds comfort security and a base from which to explore his/her environment safely. Attachment behaviours can be seen as the manifestation of this need that the infant has, as research suggests that a break from a meaningful, emotionally charged lasting relationship will produce highly distressing consequences.
Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M.C., Waters,E. and Wall,S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Bowlby, J (1969) Attachment and Loss, Vol1 Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.
Brodzinsky, D.M., Gormly, A.V., Ambron, S.A., (1979) Lifespan Human Development, (3rd Ed.) 123-133, New York:Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Butterworth, G., Harris, M., (1994) Principles of Developmental Psychology, Chap. 6, Hove: LEA.
Cardwell, M., Clark, L., Meldrum, c., (1996) Psychology for A’level, London: HarperCollins.
Santrock, J.W., Bartlett, J.C. (1986) Developmental Psychology: A life-cycle Perspective. 294-299, Iowa: Wm.C.Brown.
Schaffer, H.R.,(1998) Making Decisions about Children, (2nd Ed.) 20-29, Blackwell.
Sroufe, L. Alan, (1995) Emotional Development, The organization of emotional life in the early years. Chap.10, Cambridge:CUP.
Wright, K. (1991) Vision and Separation: Between mother and baby, 8-11, London:FAB.