A Brief History of Attachment Theory

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Lifespan Human Development
Summer 2006

A Brief History of Attachment Theory
The theory of attachment was originally developed by John Bowlby (1907 - 1990), a British psychoanalyst who observed intense and distressful behaviors among orphans in hospitals during and after World War II. Between 1948 and 1952 Bowlby, along with his employee and then colleague, James Robertson, came to realize that infants who had been separated from their parents were not able to form an attachment with a primary caregiver, leading to anxiety or ultimately to insecurity or disassociation. Bowlby’s theory was also influenced by his observations of nonhuman primates. In the helpless young, he saw infant behaviors geared towards fostering contact with the necessary caregiver. He first considered this attachment to be an evolutionary mechanism developed by mammalian offspring for survival of the species. If young mammals, including humans, are separated from their caregivers, they exhibit agitated behaviors and begin to demand attention from their primary caregiver. This distressed experience due to separation from the primary caregiver became known as "separation distress" and comes in three phases: protest, then despair, and finally detachment. Bowlby (1973) defined attachment as “any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or retaining proximity to some other differentiated and preferred individual, usually conceived as stronger and/or wiser” (p. 292). This attachment, when dynamic, enduring, and evolving, leads to a symbiotic relationship between the infant and the caregiver. The infant learns to respond to the caregiver based on signals given by the caregiver, and the caregiver learns the moods and needs of the infant based on the infant’s signals. Because infants and toddlers cannot verbalize or clearly articulate their deep mourning at being separated from their caregiver, Bowlby’s theory was rejected by his peers at first, sometimes with much hostility (Karen 1994). At that time, psychoanalysts thought that these expressions, especially aggression, were manifestations of an immature defense process that was operating to repress emotional pain. In essence, they mistook attachment distress for temperament. Bowlby particularly confronted Anna Freud’s contention that infants cannot feel pain and loss and can find solace in other children and rejected Melanie Klein’s theory of primitive fantasies of loss and persecution and her Object Relations Theory as it applied to infants. Additionally, although Bowlby was not the first to study infants, he was one of the first to explore their world through their experiences, and he stressed that this time of life represents a sensitive phase for attachments. Joining Bowlby and Robertson was Mary Ainsworth, who continued attachment observations in Uganda and then Baltimore. In the 1970s Ainsworth created the Strange Situation, which was the first replicable measurement of observed infant attachment. This assessment explores the dynamics between the primary caregiver, typically the mother, and an infant between twelve and eighteen months of age. The Strange Situation, which lasts about twenty minutes, begins with the mother (for expediency, the primary caregiver is assumed to be the mother) and infant alone in a room. The infant explores and plays with toys without the mother’s participation. A stranger enters the room, talks to the mother, and then interacts with the infant as the mother leaves unobtrusively. After three minutes, the mother returns and comforts the infant as the stranger leaves. Three minutes later, the mother leaves again, saying bye-bye, and the infant is left alone for three minutes or less. The stranger again enters the room and sooths the infant before the mother re-enters the room and picks up her baby. The stranger leaves.

The Strange Situation, in essence, tells the observer whether the infant has...
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