13 January 2013

Theories of Attachment (AQA, Psychology "A" AS, Unit 1: Chapter 3)

I hope many of you are breathing easier since last week.  I know of a few of you still have exams this week so I thought I would discuss a topic that could double as revision material and a new topic.  This also represents a new direction for the blog.  The original concept of The Tutor King blog was to discuss what you can do with a psychology degree in the future.  This will still be talked about but I listened to feedback and I’m excited that many of you would rather discuss theory as a revision resource more often.  I think this is a great idea and I’m happy to comply!

Attachment is an emotional binding between one person or animal and another that brings them together in space and lasts over time (Ainsworth, 1973).  Usually, the attachment is to a person who an infant observes as being better able to deal with the world around him or her (Bowlby, 1982).  Attachment is studied in infants by observing particular interactions with their caregivers. 

Consider this a brief and condensed summary of Chapter 3, with extra theories to compliment the material.  Remember, all theories are acceptable answers in exams!  Even if it is not in the book, if you can answer and defend with it, you will still get marks!  So if you don’t like a theory from the book, look up the theory online or ask university psychologists (your private tutor, perhaps) for something else that is easier to learn.  Therefore, because AQA provides great coverage of the work of Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, I’m going to discuss three theories that get less attention in the presented material.




The subject of attachment was first described by Sigmund Freud as part of the psychosexual stages of development.  Freud thought that if the id’s oral needs were met, then the infant would become attached to that person.  In effect, attachment was simply an incidental consequence of the Oral Stage of Development.  In this way, children who did not receive the required care from their mothers became anxious and were not able to relate to other people, opening up a discussion about attachment disorders.



Following on from Freud, Erik Erikson believed that attachment was formed in infancy as a part of his psychosocial stages of development.  His stage of “Trust versus Mistrust” represents attachment in that trust is the feeling that an individual lives among people who care about him or her, while mistrust results in the belief that other people should be regarded with suspicion.  Attachment therefore is successfully formed when the infant passes through the Trust versus Mistrust stage with a trustful outcome. 

The key difference between Freud and Erikson was that Freud thought food was the necessary component for attachment to occur while Erikson never outlined what functions had to occur for attachment to be present, apart from trusting surroundings.


Harry Harlow was influenced by Freud and Erikson and wanted to better understand the required components that attaches infants to caregivers.  Harlow accepted the behavioural Learning Theory (Dollard & Miller, 1950) and developed a series of experiments on infant rhesus monkeys separated from their biological mothers at birth.  He built two surrogate mothers for the baby monkeys to interact with.  The first mother was made of wire and the second mother was made of terrycloth.  The results of his study showed that the monkeys spent more time with Cloth Mother because they enjoyed cuddling it and the monkeys raised by Wire Mother spent little-to-no time with her because it was uncomfortable.

The conclusion of the experiment by Harlow was that the monkeys preferred Cloth Mother because of the contact comfort she provided.  Moreover, Harlow also concluded that Freud was wrong—that it is not food that is required for infants to attach, but the comfort she provided while feeding took place.

This is when Harlow went a bit Mad Scientist.  Experimental Ethics are very important when conducting experiment, and how you treat your participants, even animals, is important because most psychologists accept that cruel behaviour is not an appropriate method for learning because it is psychologically damaging.  That being said, in the 1950s and 1960s, ethics were not as rigorously defined as they are today.  That being said, the amount of information we learn from unethical studies is valuable to look back on.  It is always a serious thing to consider the trade-off between ethical treatment and what an experiment may reveal.

Having established that baby monkeys will attach to Cloth Mother over and above Wire Mother, Harlow wanted to test just how important feeding was for attachment as well as test the results of abuse on the monkeys.  The conditions and results of these studies are as follows (full journal available here). 

While these experiments were terribly abusive to the baby monkeys, what they did reveal was an answer as to why human children attach and protect their abusive parents.  If abusive parents provide contact comfort and abuse, the attachment created by contact comfort is so strong, children endure the abuse in hopes of receiving contact comfort again later.  This also explains why orphanages and institutions fail.  Even though institutions may feed children, if they do not provide contact comfort, no attachment is formed and the children become psychologically disorganised and mentally ill.


Again, I reiterate, these studies are incredibly powerful.  Harlow provides a dark answer about human behaviour by abusing monkeys which later influenced the later research of John Bowlby (1969), Mary Ainsworth (1978) and Konrad Lorenz (1981).  Animal rights activists and even those who sympathize will find the treatment inappropriate and immoral.

Please, use the comments section below to tell me how you feel about Harlow’s Monster Mother Studies.  Was he ethically right in abusing monkeys to learn about the nature of abuse in human families or should he never have done what he did because of the pain it inflicted on infant monkeys and consequentially we would never know why abused children protect their abusive parents?

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