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Attachment theory is a theory, or group of theories, about the psychological tendency to seek closeness to another person, to feel secure when that person is present, and to feel anxious when that person is absent. The origin of attachment theory can be traced to the publication of two 1958 papers, one being John Bowlby's "the Nature of the Child's Tie to his Mother", in which the precursory concepts of "attachment" were introduced, and Harry Harlow's "the Nature of Love", as based on the results of experiments which showed, approximately, that infant rhesus monkeys preferred emotional attachment over food.


Attachment theory, from one perspective, has its origins in the observation of and experiments with young animals. In the 1950s, a famous series of experiments on infant monkeys by Harlow and Zimmerman (1959)[1] demonstrated that attachment is not a simple reaction to internal drives such as hunger. [2] In these experiments, young monkeys were separated from their mother shortly after birth. They were offered two dolls to serve as surrogates to the mother. The first doll had a body of wire mesh with a feeding bottle attached to it. The second doll had a body of terry cloth and foam rubber however did not have a feeding bottle.

The experiment was designed to see if the monkeys would cling to the doll providing the soft contact of cloth or to the doll providing the source of food. It turned out that the monkeys would cling to the soft-clothed doll, irrespective of whether it provided food. The monkeys also explored more when the soft-cloth doll was near. Apparently, the doll provided them with a sense of security. However, the passive doll was not an adequate alternative for a real mother. Infant monkeys which were raised without contact with other monkeys showed abnormal behavior in social situations. They were either very fearful of other monkeys or responded with unprovoked aggression when they encountered other monkeys. They also showed abnormal sexual responses. Female monkeys who were raised in isolation often neglected or abused their infants. This abnormal behaviour is thought to demonstrate that a bond with the mother is necessary for further social development.

Much of the early research on attachment in humans was done by John Bowlby and his associates, such as Mary Ainsworth. [3] [4] [5] [6] These early studies focused on attachment between children and caregivers. Attachment theory was later extended to adult romantic relationships by Cindy Hazen and Phillip Shaver. [7] [8] [9]

Mother and baby

Attachment theory, originating in the work of John Bowlby, is a psychological, evolutionary and ethological theory that provides a descriptive and explanatory framework for understanding interpersonal relationships between human beings. The human infant is considered by attachment theorists to have a need for a secure relationship with adult caregivers, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur. However, different relationship experiences can lead to different developmental outcomes.

Within attachment theory, infant behavior associated with attachment is primarily a process of proximity seeking to an identified attachment figure in stressful situations, for the purpose of survival. Infants become attached to adults who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with the infant, and who remain as consistent caregivers for some months during the period from about six months to two years of age. During the later part of this period, children begin to use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to. Parental responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment which in turn lead to internal working models which will guide the individual's feelings, thoughts, and expectations in later relationships.[10] Separation anxiety or grief following serious loss are normal and natural responses in an attached infant. An extreme deficit in appropriate parenting can lead to a lack of attachment behaviours in a child and may result in the rare disorder known as reactive attachment disorder.

Father and baby

Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, an important figure in the formulation of attachment theory, developed a theory of a number of attachment patterns or "styles" in infants in which distinct characteristics were identified; these were secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment and, later, disorganized attachment. Other theorists later extended attachment theory to adults. Methods exist for measurement of attachment patterns in older infants and adults, although measurement in middle childhood is problematic. In addition to care-seeking by children, other interactions may be construed as including some components of attachment behavior; these include peer relationships of all ages, romantic and sexual attraction, and responses to the care needs of infants or sick or elderly adults.

In order to formulate a comprehensive theory of the nature of early attachments, Bowlby explored a range of fields including evolution by natural selection, object relations theory (psychoanalysis), control systems theory, evolutionary biology and the fields of ethology and cognitive psychology.[11] There were preliminary papers from 1958 onwards but the full theory is published in the trilogy Attachment and Loss, 1969–82. Although in the early days Bowlby was criticised by academic psychologists and ostracised by the psychoanalytic community,[12] attachment theory has become the dominant approach to understanding early social development and given rise to a great surge of empirical research into the formation of children's close relationships.[13] There have been significant modifications as a result of empirical research but attachment concepts have become generally accepted.[12] Criticism of attachment theory has been sporadic, some of it relating to an early precursor hypothesis called "maternal deprivation", published in 1951.[14] Past criticism came particularly from within psychoanalysis, and from ethologists in the 1970s. More recent criticism relates to the complexity of social relationships within family settings,[15] and the limitations of discrete patterns for classifications.[16] A number of treatment approaches, are based on applications of attachment theory, such as Dyadic developmental psychotherapy, among others.

Basic attachment theory

Attachment of children to caregivers

Main article: Attachment in children

Attachment theory has led to a new understanding of child development. Children develop different styles of attachment based on experiences and interactions with their caregivers. Four different attachment styles have been identified in children: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. Attachment theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant and toddler behavior and in the fields of infant mental health, treatment of children, and related fields. Many evidence-based treatment approaches are based on attachment theory (see section below)

Attachment in adult romantic relationships

Main article: Attachment in adults

Attachment theory was extended to adult romantic relationships in the late 1980's. Four attachment styles have been identified in adults: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Investigators have explored the organization and the stability of mental working models that underlie these attachment styles. They have also explored how attachment impacts relationship outcomes and how attachment functions in relationship dynamics (e.g., affect regulation, support, intimacy, jealousy).

Attachment and evolutionary psychology

Main article: attachment and evolutionary theory

Attachment measures

Main article: Attachment measures

Researchers have developed various ways of assessing attachment in children, including the Strange Situation and story-based approaches such as Attachment Story Completion Test. These methods allow children to be classified into four attachment styles: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. Attachment in adults is commonly measured using the Adult Attachment Interview and self-report questionnaires. Self-report questionnaires have identified two dimensions of attachment, one dealing with anxiety about the relationship, and the other dealing with avoidance in the relationship. These dimensions define four styles of adult attachment: secure, preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.

Attachment theory in clinical practice

Attachment disorder

Main article: Attachment disorder

Attachment disorder refers to the failure to form normal attachments with caregivers during childhood. This can have adverse effects throughout the lifespan. Clinicians have identified several signs of attachment problems. Attachment problems can be resolved at older ages through appropriate therapeutic interventions. Reputable interventions include Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.

Reactive attachment disorder

Main article: Reactive attachment disorder

Reactive attachment disorder, sometimes called "RAD", is a psychiatric diagnosis (DSM-IV 313.89, ICD-10 F94.1/2). The essential feature of Reactive attachment disorder is markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness in most contexts that begins before age 5 years and is associated with gross pathological care.

Dyadic developmental psychotherapy

Main article: Dyadic developmental psychotherapy

Dyadic developmental psychotherapy is an evidence-based[17] treatment approach for the treatment of attachment disorder and reactive attachment disorder. Children who have experienced pervasive and extensive trauma, neglect, loss, and/or other dysregulating experiences can benefit from this treatment. Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy is based on principles derived from attachment theory.


Main article: Theraplay

Theraplay is a play therapy which has the intention of helping parents and children build better attachment relationships through attachment-based play. It was developed in 1967 by the Psychological Services staff of a Head Start program in Chicago. Theraplay is based on model of healthy parent-infant attachment and interactions.

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts

  1. Affectional responses in the infant monkeys. Science 1959, 120, 421-23 by Harry. F. Harlow and R. R. Zimmerman from Wisconsin Primate Laboratory.
  2. Harlow, H. F. & Harlow, M. K. (1969) "Effects of various mother-infant relationships on rhesus monkey behaviors". In B. M. Foss (Ed.) Determinants of infant behavior (Vol. 4). London: Methuen.
  3. Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment , Vol. 1 of Attachment and loss. London: Hogarth Press. New York: Basic Books; Harmondsworth: Penguin (1971).
  4. Bowlby, J. (1973) , Separation: Anxiety & Anger. Vol. 2 of Attachment and loss London: Hogarth Press; New York: Basic Books; Harmondsworth: Penguin (1975).
  5. Bowlby, J. (1980) Loss: Sadness & Depression, in Vol. 3 of Attachment and loss, London: Hogarth Press. New York: Basic Books; Harmondsworth: Penguin (1981).
  6. Bretherton, I. (1992). The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28, 759-775.
  7. Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachmenpt rocess. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
  8. Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1990). Love and work: An attachment theoretical perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 270-280.
  9. Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1994). Attachment as an organizational framework for research on close relationships. Psychological Inquiry, 5, 1-22.
  10. Bretherton I, Munholland KA (1999). "Internal Working Models in Attachment Relationships: A Construct Revisited". Handbook of Attachment:Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. Ed. Cassidy J, Shaver PR. Guilford press. 89–114. ISBN 1-57230-087-6. 
  11. Template:Cite encyclopaedia
  12. 12.0 12.1 Template:Citejournal
  13. Schaffer R (2007). Introducing Child Psychology, Blackwell.
  14. Bowlby J (1951). Maternal Care and Mental Health, World Health Organisation. No. 14.
  15. Lamb ME (1997). "The development of father-infant relationships". The Role of the Father in Child Development. Ed. Lamb ME. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. 104-120. ISBN 0471231614. 
  16. Template:Citejournal
  17. Becker-Weidman, A., Hughes, D., (2008)"Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy: an evidence-based treatment for children with complex trauma and disorders of attachment." Child and Family Social Work 13 (3) pp329-337.

Additional material


  • Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E. and Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Ainsworth, M. and Bowlby, J. (1965). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.
  • Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P., (Eds). (1999) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. Guilford Press, NY.
  • Greenberg, M.T., Cicchetti, D., & Cummings, E.M., (Eds) (1990) Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research and Intervention University of Chicago, Chicago.
  • Greenspan, S. (1993) Infancy and Early Childhood. Madison, CT: International Universities Press. ISBN 0-8236-2633-4.
  • Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. London: Brunner-Routledge. ISBN 1-58391-152-9.
  • Karen, R. (1998) Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-511501-5.
  • Kirkpatrick, L. A. (2004). Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1593850883
  • Parkes, CM, Stevenson-Hinde, J., Marris, P., (Eds.) (1991) Attachment Across The Life Cycle Routledge. NY. ISBN 0-415-05651-9
  • Siegler R., DeLoache, J. & Eisenberg, N. (2003) How Children develop. New York: Worth. ISBN 1-57259-249-4.
  • Sturt, SM (Ed) (2006). New Developments in Child Abuse Research Nove, NY. ISBN 1-59454-980-X


  • Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1979) Attachment as related to mother-infant interaction, Advances in the Study of Behaviour, 9: 2-52.

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