Theories of Attachment


What is attachment?

Attachment is a 'close emotional relationship between two persons, characterised by mutual affection and a desire to maintain closeness'.

Shaffer (1993)

What are the key characteristics of attachment?

Infant seeks closeness to primary caregiver.

Infant experiences distress on separation.

Infant experiences pleasure when reunited.

Infant is aware of caregiver at all times and frequently makes contact for reassurance.

Maccoby (1980)

How does attachment occur?

6 weeks - 3months - develop attraction to other humans by nestling, gurgling and smiling.

3 - 7 months - discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar people. Smiles more at familiar faces. Allows strangers to handle or look after them only if strangers give adequate care.

How does attachment occur?

7- 9 months - begin to develop specific attachments. Actively trying to stay close to certain people (particularly the mother) and becoming distressed when separated from them. Also avoids closeness with strangers.

9 months - onwards - strong additional ties are form with other major caregivers including father, grandparents and siblings. Strongest attachment is with mother.

Why do infants seek attachment?

Immediate benefits


Need food

Need protection

What are the benefits of attachment?
Provides base for emotional relationship.

It is a template for all future relationships (Hazan & Shaver 1987).

Enjoy close friendship later in childhood
(Grossman and Grossman 1991).

Develop good styles of parenting (Quinton et al 1984).

What are the explanation for attachment

According to the learning theory, infants form attachment through classical conditioning. Infants associate their caregivers with food and security which rewards them with gratification and satisfaction.

They learn that caregivers can satisfy their needs.

What is Freud 's theory of attachment?

According to Freud psychoanalytic account, infants become attached to their caregivers (usually the mother) because the caregiver satisfies all the infant's instinctual needs during feeding time (food, security, oral sexual gratification).


Theories suggest that the infant bonds with the mother as she essentially satisfies the child's physiological needs (food). This concept is known as the 'cupboard love' theory.

Challenging the 'cupboard love' theories

The concepts of attachment being learnt or seen as an instinctual drive has been challenged by Harlow (1959).

Harlow (1959) study on rhesus monkeys demonstrates that the infant monkey have an unlearned need for comfort, which is as basic as the need for food.

Further challenges

Later research by Harlow & Suomid (1970) showed that the attachment was even stronger when the cloth 'mother' had other qualities, such as rocking, being warm and feeding.

More challenges

Lorenz (1935) study showed that Goslings formed strong bonds with the first moving object they encounter.

Lorenz was followed by gosling which had imprinted on him soon after hatching. (Imprinting recognising caregiver and staying close to them)

Imprinting occurs simply through perceiving the caregiver without any feeding taking place.


Harlow's (1959) study

Harlow & Suomi (1970) study

Lorenz study

Schaffer & Emerson's (1964) study of Scottish infants

Schaffer & Emerson's (1964) study

Researcher measured infants behaviour in different situations such as left alone in a room with baby sitter and put to bed at night by father

Findings: infants attached to people who did not perform caretaking activities (notably the father).

In 39% of the cases, the person who usually fed, bathed and changed the infant (typically the mother) was not the infants primary attachment figure.


Schaffer & Emerson's (1964) study of Scottish infants

Conclusion - features which predict attachment are:

Person's responsiveness to the infant's behaviour

Person providing total amount of stimulation such as talking , touching and playing.

Imprinting occurs simply through perceiving the caregiver without any feeding taking place.

Check how much you have learned

Check how much you have learned

What is attachment?

How does attachment develop?

Why does attachment occur? Explain using the 'cupboard love' theories.

Provide arguments for and against the 'cupboard love' theories. Support your arguments with evidence from research conducted by Harlow (1959/1970), Lorenz (1935), Schafer and Emerson (1964).


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Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. New York: Basic Books. Bowlby, J (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge.

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Freud, S. (1920) ?Infantile Sexuality? in On Metapsychology : The Penguin Freud Library Vol 7 London : Penguin Books 1977

Freud, S. (1923) ?The Ego and the Id? in On Sexuality : The Penguin Freud Library Vol 11 London : Penguin Books 1984 pp339-408

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Hodges, J., & Tizard, B. (1989). Social and family relationships of ex-instutional adolescents. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 30, 77-97 Harlow, H.F. (1959). Love in infant monkeys. Scientific American, 200, 68-74

Harlow, H. F. (1961). The development of affectional patterns in infant monkeys. In B. M. Foss (Ed,), Determinants of infant behaviour (pp. 75-97). London: Methuen.

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Lamb, M. E. (1978). Qualitative aspects of mother-infant and father-infant attachments in the second year of life. Infant Behavior and Development, 1, 265-275.

Lorenz, K. Z. (1935). Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels (The companion in the bird?s world). Journal fur Ornithologie, 83, 137-213. (Abbreviated English translation published 1937 in Auk, 54, 245-273.)

Robertson, J. (1953a). A two-year-old goes to hospital (Film). Tavistock Child Development Research Unit, London (available through the Penn State Audiovisual Services, University Park, PA).

Robertson, J. (1953b). Some responses of young children to loss of maternal care. Nursing Care, 49, 382- 386.

Robertson, J. & Bowlby, J. (1952), Responses of young children to separation from their mothers. Courrier of the International Children?s Centre, Paris, II, 131-140.

Robertson, j., & Robertson , J. (1971). Young chuildren in brief separation. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 26, 264-315

Rutter, M. (1981) Maternal Deprivation Reassessed (Second edition) Harmondsworth : Penguin Books Schaffer, H, R., & Emerson, P. F. (1964). The development of social attachments in infancy. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 29 (Serial No. 94).

Tronick, E.Z., Morelli, G.A. and Ivey, P.K., 1992. The Efe forager infant and toddler's pattern of social relationships: Multiple and simultaneous. Developmental Psychology, 28(4), p.568-577

Tronick, E.Z., 1992. Introduction: Cross-cultural studies of development. Developmental Psychology, 28(4), p.566.

Additional reading:

Goldfarb, W. (1943). The effects of early institutional care on adolescent personality. Journal of Experimental Education, 14, 441-447.

Goldfarb, W. (1945). Psychological privation in infancy and subsequent adjustment. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 15, 247-255.

Greenberg, M. T., & Marvin, R. 5. (1979). Attachment patterns in profoundly deaf preschool children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 25, 265-279

Greenberg, M. T., & Speltz, M. L. (1988). Attachment and the ontogeny of conduct problems. In 3. Belsky & T. Nezworski (Eds.), Clinical implications of attachment (pp. 177-218).

Grossmann, K. F., & Grossmann, K. (1990). The wider concept of attachment in cross-cultural research. Human Development, 13, 31 -47.

Kaplan, N. (1984). Internal representations of separation experiences in six-year-olds: Related to actual experiences of separation. Unpublished master?s thesis, University of California, Berkeley.

Klagsbrun, M., & Bowlby, J. (1976). Responses to separation from parents: A clinical test for young children.

Spitz, R. A. (1960). Discussion of Dr. John Bowlby?s paper. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 15, 85-208.

Freud, S. (1959). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. In 3. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 20, pp. 77-175). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1926).

Freud, S. (1961). The ego and the id, In 3. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 3- 66). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1923).