Understanding Attachment

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The term ‘attachment’ makes reference to an intense and emotional relationship between two people. “It is not just a connection between two people. It is a bond that involves a persons desire for regular contact with that person and the experience of distress during separation from that person” (Ainsworth, M. 1958) Two of the biggest contributors to the understanding of attachment are Harry Harlow (1905 - 1981) and Mary Ainsworth (1913 - 1999). In 1958, psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments to investigate an infants bond with its mother or care provider. Due to the ethics at the time of his studies, it was impossible for Harlow to conduct these experiments using human subjects, so he conducted them using Rhesus monkeys. (Custance, D. 2012) Harlow was initially conducting research into the intelligence of the monkeys, until he observed some behaviours being displayed by the infant monkeys when they were separated from their mothers, due to disease.

What followed these observations is Harlow’s research into attachment.

Harlow carried out a series of studies that placed the infant monkeys in different situations. These independent variables included the introduction of a wire ‘mother’ which was cold and hard but provided a source of food and a soft, warm terry cloth ‘mother’. The studies concluded the infants showed preference to the comfort and security the terry cloth mother gave to the infants, rather than the source of food the wire mother provided. Other independent variables included the ‘Iron Maiden mother’. Harlow built this ‘mother’ to study the impact of abuse on the infants. Harlow also explored the effects of isolation on the infants. both partial and complete, to identify the effects these had on the infants as they grew into adult monkeys, over a period of 20years.

In 1950, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth joined scientist John Bowlby’s research team. Bowlby was the first person to produce a theory to explain why attachment between two people occurs. (Custance, D. 2012) Ainsworth was not convinced on how valid Bowlby’s theories on attachment were and this led to Ainsworth commencing observations on the relationships between mothers and their infants. Bowlby believed that the earliest bonds and relationships children formed with their parents or caregivers have a huge impact that continues through a persons life, thus impacting on a persons future.

Ainsworth commenced observations on several families in Uganda, where she lived at that time. During this time, Ainsworth began observational studies on children aged 1 - 24 months, observing them over a period of nine months. Ainsworth conducted a similar observational study in the US. While both of these studies proved to be invaluable into the research into attachment, they were also extremely time consuming. In order to continue her observational studies but in a more time effective and simpler manner, Ainsworth developed a now famous and widely used method called the ‘Strange Situation’.(Custance, D. 2012) Ainsworth’s ‘Strange Situation’ studies consisted of a series of observations conducted by Ainsworth into a child’s behaviour during the presence and absence of its mother as well as introducing independent variables. It has been said that Ainsworth’s research was built upon Harlow’s initial work. It is thought that Harlow set the foundations for both Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s research into attachment. (Bretherton, I.1992)

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation studies, as well as her initial observations led her to conclude that the more the child’s mother responded to the child, the more independent and confident the child was in terms of exploring their surroundings. In direct contrast, if the child’s mother ignored the child’s signals, the more clingy the child was to its mother and the more reserved the child was in unfamiliar surroundings.

Although Harlow and Ainsworth were both exploring the theory of attachment,...
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