Basic Concepts in Attachment Theory

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  • Topic: Attachment theory, Attachment in adults, John Bowlby
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Basic Concepts in Attachment Theory
Attachment theory is the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991 ). Drawing on concepts from ethology, cybernetics, information processing, developmental psychology, and psychoanalysts, John Bowlby formulated the basic tenets of the theory. He thereby revolutionized our thinking about a child’s tie to the mother and its disruption through separation, deprivation, and bereavement. Mary Ainsworth’s innovative methodology not only made it possible to test some of Bowlby’s ideas empirically hut also helped expand the theory itself and is responsible for some of the new directions it is now taking. Ainsworth contributed the concept of the attachment figure as a secure base from which an infant can explore the world. In addition, she formulated the concept of maternal sensitivity to infant signals and its role in the development of infant-mother attachment patterns.

The ideas now guiding attachment theory have a long developmental history. Although Bowlby and Ainsworth worked independently of each other during their early careers, both were influenced by Freud and other psychoanalytic thinkers-directly in Bowlby’s case, indirectly in Ainsworth’s. John Bowlby used the term "attachment" to describe the affective bond that develops between an infant and a primary caregiver.

Originating with the work of John Bowlby 1982[pic], attachment theory describes a socioemotional behavioral system that guides how individuals manage their need for emotional security. This system is first evident early in life as children interact with their primary caregiver. When they are physically or psychologically threatened, children turn to their caregiver for comfort, and ideally their caregiver responds with immediate, positive, and consistent support. In reality, of course, caregivers do not always respond in ways that children expect. On the basis of their accumulated experiences with caregivers, children develop mental representations, or internal working models (Bowlby 1988[pic]), that reflect their beliefs about the responsiveness of caregivers and the environment more generally. Seminal work by Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall 1978[pic]) identified behavioral manifestations of internal working models in the form of attachment styles, secure versus insecure attachment being the most broad differentiation. Children with a secure attachment were likely to seek and savor contact with their caregiver, to use that person as a secure base for exploration. Meanwhile, children with an insecure attachment were likely to avoid their caregiver or demonstrate anxiety in contact with him or her. A broad array of research has suggested that a child's initial attachment bond has an impact well beyond their first critical relationship and influences not only subsequent relationships but also a wide range of social and emotional outcomes later in life (Feeney and Noller 1996[pic]; Rothbard and Shaver 1994[pic]). Despite a burgeoning empirical literature on attachment dynamics, significant conceptual issues remain. For example, it is unclear whether attachment patterns represent an aspect of individuals (i.e., attachment as a trait), a facet of specific relationships (e.g., types of attachment differing within an individual's social network), or some combination of the two (Bartholomew and Shaver 1998[pic]). Likewise, there is debate about whether attachments are categorical phenomena or are best thought of as graded entities (Feeney, Noller, and Hanrahan 1994[pic]). Diversity of theory is also apparent in the variety of attachment taxonomies that exist, although a parsimonious nomenclature for attachment patterns is beginning to emerge (see Feeney et al. 1994[pic]; Griffin and Bartholomew 1994[pic]). Another issue is whether a construct originally validated with research on children is relevant to individuals at other ages. Although Bowlby first focused on the attachment...
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