The learning theories was put forward by a group of behaviourists. It states that we are blank sheets and that we come into the world not knowing anything. It also says that we learn all types of behaviours, including how to form attachments. Behaviour is learned either through classical or operant conditioning. We learn to form attachment through food. Classical conditioning is learning through association between something in the environment (stimulus) and physical reactions (response). In classical conditioning it proclaims that we learn passively and that the response is normally a reflex because it is automatic. Ivan Pavlov was the first person to describe this type of learning. He used his observation of salivating dogs. However, we can apply this to human attachment. Before learning, or conditioning occurs, the conditioned stimulus (UCS), food produces an innate reflex reaction, known as the unconditioned response (UCR), this being pleasure. The food and pleasure are both unconditioned because no learning has occurred at this stage of the learning process.
The infant’s mother, the neutral stimulus (NS) is present, food (UCS) will follow which will once again lead to an innate reflex reaction pleasure (UCR). After conditioning, the mother is no longer the (NS), she has become the conditioned stimulus (CS) who triggers the behavioural response, pleasure (CR). The mother becomes a way of gaining pleasure and therefore an attachment has been formed. Operant conditioning on the other hand is when we play an active part in our learning with the environment. We learn as a consequence of something we have already done such as nurture rewards and reinforcement strengthening a behaviour which increases our chances of that behaviour being repeated again. An example of operant conditioning is when a child has eaten all its food it is given a reward by its mother for eating all its food by hugging the child and giving them smiles and kisses. This will en courage the child to do it again in the future.
The infant is therefore learning from its past experiences. The other type of reinforcement is negative reinforcements. This is when something pleasant occurs in the result of escaping something unpleasant. Dollard and Miller (1950) did an experiment with infants that when they are hungry they want food to get rid of this discomfort. So the infants cry and their mother will come and feed them. This removes the discomfort. The infant is now comfortable but as a consequence of escaping from an unpleasant state (hunger). This piece of research supports the learning theories core assumptions as it reinforces the attachment between a mother (secondary reinforce) and the infant through the use of food. Harlow (1959) research shows that food is not everything and that comfort is more important than food.
He tested this statement by carrying an experiment using two surrogate mothers and a baby rhesus monkey. He locked him in a cage with the two mothers. One had a bottle of milk (food) and the second monkey didn’t have any milk but was covered in terrycloth. And when the monkey was scared he moved to the mother he felt the safest and this was the mother with terrycloth. We can conclude that that monkeys have an unlearned need for comfort which is as basic as the need for food. This shows that food isn’t everything and that the learning theories place too much emphasis on food. Another piece of evidence is Schaffer and Emerson (1964).
It was conducted using 60 Scottish infants and they had a follow up at four weekly intervals throughout the first year. Their mothers would report their behaviour to seven everyday situations e.g. separations, left alone in a room or with a baby sitter and how they responded when she came back. They found that the infants were still clearly attached to the people that weren’t carrying out any caretaking activities. E.g. feeding father.
Therefore we can draw a conclusion that the attachment figure of the infant was decided on how they respond to the infant’s behaviour and the total amount of stimulation they provided (e.g. talking and touching) not food. However food may not be the main reinforcer therefore this theory is a reductionist as it only focuses on the nurture side of nature vs. nurture debate. But learning theories focuses too much on nature as well and in order for theories to be considered more holistic they need to integrate nature and nurture both to together to provide a more detailed and precise explanation regarding human attachment formation.