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Bowlby’s attachment theory

This essay will describe and evaluate Bowlby’s theory of attachment and maternal deprivation hypothesis. The essay will describe the two theories, weighing up the strengths and the weaknesses. It will include supporting research by Shaffer and Emerson, Ainsworth and Harlow, along with criticisms by Rutter. John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a child psychiatrist. He was psychoanalytically and medically trained. In 1945, after returning from serving in the armed forces medical service, he secured a position as head of the Children’s Department at the Tavistock Clinic, London.

Believing strongly that the quality of a parent-child relationship has a profound effect on developmental and mental health, he promptly renamed it the department for Children and Parents. While witnessing the distress shown by children separated from their parents or primary care-givers, especially if the periods were prolonged, unfamiliar or in the care of strangers, his ideas surrounding attachment theory evolved. To make sense of the extreme upset and distress displayed by the young children, Bowby pieced together a range of extraordinary thoughts and ideas from many different sciences.

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(Howe,D (2011) pg 7-8 )

Influenced by ethological theory, Lorenz (1935) and his study of imprinting showed attachment was innate in young ducklings; this had a huge influence on Bowlby. He believed that attachment behaviours were instinctive and would be activated by any conditions that threatened the child being near his mother or primary care giver and would cause the child insecurity and fear. He also postulated that strangers released an imprinted fear in a child and that survival mechanisms were in built via nature and that babies were born with social releasers.

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These innate behaviours displayed by the child help ensure proximity and contact with their mother figure, for example crying, smiling, crawling, which in turn stimulate care giving. Bowlby believed that an early bond was a framework for later adult relationships, friendships and parenthood. (Holmes 2011 Pg 62) Attachment is a term which refers to the quality of an individual’s attachment; these can be divided into secure and insecure. To feel secure and safe is to feel attached. To feel insecurely attached can manifest itself into a mixture of feelings towards the attachment figure; dependence and intense love, irritability and fear of rejection.

Bowlby suggested that a child forms an initial bond with only one person, this is called monotropy, and that this care giver acts as a secure base for the child, this attachment is a prototype for all future relationships and disruption of this can cause serious negative consequences in later life. The theory behind monotrophy later led onto Bowlbys formulation of his maternal deprivation hypothesis. Believing that the mother was the single most important figure in a Childs first two years, this being a critical period and any disruption could cause irreparable long term consequences (McLeod 2009). The development of the attachment theory was based around four distinguishing characteristics , these were proximity maintenance, whereby between birth and 6 weeks babies were born pre programmed, safe haven, six weeks to eight months secure base and separation distress. (Malim 1998)

Although Bowlby was indeed the integrating force behind attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth, with her grounding in developmental psychology, helped develop and extend Bowlby’s ideas. As founders of the attachment theory they maintained a productive relationship for many years. Mary Ainsworth (1982) carried out a study called “strange Situation” as a result she identified three types of attachment, secure, avoidant and resistant. Based on a similar study she carried out in Uganda where infants were used to being with their mothers and if the mothers left the room the babies would typically cry uncontrollably, in contrast American babies were used to their mothers entering and leaving the room more frequently. Ainsworth wanted to test the secure base and decided to set up a “strange Situation” where she could observe babies reacting to their mother’s absence in a stressful environment. In a room filled with engaging toys she observed the infants as they explored the new surroundings while their mother was in the room, she then introduced a stranger to increase the stress levels. The infant was then left in the room with the stranger and the behaviour at separation and reunion was observed. (Mooney.C (2010)

The results of the study showed that 70% of the infants demonstrated a secure attachment, whereby they trust the mother and were happy playing by the stranger but displayed caution. The child would cry when the mother left the room but was easily pacified on her return. 15% of the children were classed as avoidant, they did not appear to be affected by the stranger and treated the stranger the same as its mother. The remaining 155 were resistant, they did not use the mother as a secure base and became very difficult  comfort, clingy and would not except the stranger. (Malim 1998) Dollard and Miller (1950) suggested that attachment was due to drive reduction. This is described at hunger and cold having a driving force in a child seeking to satisfy its need to be warm and to eat. These discomforts are referred to as primary drives with food and warmth being the primary re-enforcers. The attachment only happens because the child wants the person supplying the food and warmth. This theory is referred to as cupboard love because of the emphasis it has on food and feeding.

However, Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found than fewer than half of the infants they studied had a primary attachment to the person who fed, clothed and bathed them. They carried out a longitudinal study which involved observing 60 babies, at monthly intervals, for the first 18months of their lives. While in their own homes, the children were observed interacting with their carers. If the baby showed separation anxiety after a carer left the room this was evidence for the development of an attachment. They discovered that up to 3 months of age a indiscriminate attachment was formed, this is where the baby is predisposed to attach to any human. After 4 months they form a preference to certain people by learning to distinguish primary and secondary caregivers but except care for anyone. After 7 months they form a special preference for a single attachment figure by looking to certain people for their security, protection and comfort. They show fear of strangers and sadness when separated from that one special person. After 9 months the baby has formed multiple attachments and becomes increasingly independent, forming many attachments. They concluded that the study indicated attachments were formed with the people who responded to the baby’s signals, not the person they spent the majority of their time with. McLeod,S.A. (2009

Harrow and Harlow (1962) also carried out a study that disproved the theory that attachment was based on food. They carried out an experiment on infant monkeys. They placed them in a cage with two wire mesh cylinders. One was bare with just a bottle of milk with a teat, to signify a lactating mother, and the other was wrapped in towelling to supply comfort. If the supply of food was all that was needed to form an attachment then you would think that the monkeys would have spent the majority of the time with the milk. In actual fact the opposite proved to be true. The monkeys used the  cylinder as their secure base for which to explore, a characteristic of attachment behaviour. This experiment proved that food alone was not sufficient in the formation of attachments. (Cardwell et al pg 117) Bowlby’s second theory was that of maternal deprivation. When an attachment is broken either temporarily, through hospitalisation, or permanently, through death, it is referred to as deprivation. Sadly, there have also been cases where children have been so badly treated, maybe kept totally isolated, that they have never formed an attachment at all. This is called privation.

However, Bowlby failed to differentiate between the two in his maternal deprivation hypothesis. Further studies have suggested that deprivation and privation are quite distinct and that the long term effects of privation are for more severe than the long term consequences of deprivation. Also, that children are far more resilient to early separation than Bowlby originally suggested and he later changed his views. Believing that the relationship between an infant and his mother was crucial to socialisation, especially in the first five years of the child’s life, and that any disruption could lead to emotional difficulties and anti-social behaviour he studies 44 adolescent juvenile delinquents in a child guidance clinic. The aim of the study was to see if the long-term effects of maternal deprivation caused delinquency in the children. He interviewed the 44 boys who had been sent to the clinic for stealing; he then selected another 44 children who had been sent to the clinic for emotional problems and not for committing any crimes. He also interviewed the parents of the children to try and discover if a separation had occurred during the critical period and for how long. He discovered that more than half had been separated from their mothers for longer than six months in the first five years. In the second group only two had been separated.

He also discovered that 32% of the thieves showed affectionless psychopathy, meaning they were unable to feel or show affection for others. This was not apparent at all in the second group. Bowlby concluded that the anti social behaviours and emotional problems displayed by the thieves were due to maternal deprivation. However, as the evidence that Bowlby based his findings from were in the form of clinical interviews and the parents were being asked questions retrospectively the evidence may not have been totally accurate. As he also designed and carried out the study himself it could also have been bias, especially as he was responsible for the diagnosis  affectionless psychopathy (.McLeod. S) Goldfarb (1947) carried out a study of a Romanian orphanage; the research involved two groups of children. Group one spend the first few months in the orphanage before they were then fostered. Group two were at the orphanage for three years prior to being fostered; therefore they had little opportunity of forming attachments in early life. Both groups were tested at the age of 12 and the children who had spend the longest at the orphanage were the least social, more likely to be aggressive and performed less well on the IQ tests.

This study highlighted that early deprivation can be overcome and they are not so reversible and permanent as Bowlby had assumed. Michael Rutter (1972) suggested that Bowlby over simplified the concept of maternal deprivation. He used the term to refer to a separation from an attached figure, loss of an attachment and failure to develop an attachment. Rutter argued that they each had a different effect, particularly in the case of privation and deprivation. Rutter believed that if a child did not develop an attachment that this was privation, whereas deprivation refers to the attachment being lost or damaged. In the case of Bowlbys 44 thieves, Rutter proposed that privation had occurred as they had suffered a series of different carers thus preventing the development of one particular attachment. He suggested that private children did not show distress when separated for a particular figure, showing a lack of attachment.

Following his own research of privation, Rutter proposed that it is likely to lead to clingy dependant behaviour, inability to follow rules, to form lasting relationships or to feel guilt. He also found evidence of anti social behaviour, affectionless psychopathy. (McLeod 2008) Genie (reported by Curtiss 1977) was found when she was 13 years old. She had been kept in total isolation all of her life, had suffered severe neglect and had been physically restrained. At the hands of her father she was tied to a child potty in a bare room and punished if she made a sound. When discovered she had the appearance of a child aged 6 to 7, was unsocialised, primitive and barely human. She was unable to walk or talk. Despite intervention and being taken off her parents and placed in foster care, Genie never achieved good social adjustment or language.

However, the Czech Twins study – Koluchova (1976) lost their mother shortly after they were born and were cared for by a social agency for a year being fostered by a maternal aunt for a further six months. Their development was normal. Their father remarried but his new wife was excessively cruel to the twins, making them live in the cellar for the next five and a half years and beating them. Once removed from their parents the twins attended a school for children with severe learning difficulties and were later adopted. They went from a state of profound disability to being with peers their own age and later went on to achieve emotional and intellectual normality.( McLeod 2008)

To conclude, in the case of Genie, the affects of her isolation proved not to be reversible, however, this could have been down to the fact that she was discovered at the age of 13. The earlier children are discovered, as in the case of the Czech twins, with good support and emotional care, it is possible. One could argue that the twins had each other and were able to form an early attachment. Rutter believed that the affects could be reversed with early adoptions. Whether the affects of privation are long lasting or not is uncertain from the studies and most of the research is around privation. Research on deprivation showed that if care and emotional support was offered, that a reasonable level of recovery could be expected.


  1. Cardwell, Clark and Meldrum (2008) Psychology AS for AQAA. 4th Ed. London; Harper Collins Publishers Ltd Holmes (1993)
  2. John Bowlby and attachment theory, pg 62, East Sussex; Routedge) Howe,D (2011)
  3. Attachment across the life course, Hampshire; Palgrave Macmillian) (accessed 24th April 2014) Malim,T and Birch, A (1998) Introductory Psychology, Hampshire; Macmillam Press McLeod,S.A. (2009)
  4. Attachment Theory (Accessed 24th April 2014) Mooney,C (2010)
  5. An Introduction to Bowlby,Ainsworth,Gerber,Brazelton,Kennel & Klaus. St.Paul; Red leaf Press

Cite this page

Bowlby’s attachment theory. (2016, Mar 14). Retrieved from

Bowlby’s attachment theory

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