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Bowlby’s Ethological Behavioral Theory of Attachment


Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory bases its argument on the premise that human individuals, just like animals have a tendency to have a natural inclination to establish and maintain lasting affectionate bonds (attachments) to the familiar and irreplaceable others. Bowlby further asserts that once the attachments are established, the strength, and stability of the links is related the emotional stability and well-being of the individual throughout life. Bowlby proposes that the attachment initially form during infancy and often involve one primary attachment figure (mostly the mother or other primary caregiver).

However, growth from childhood to adulthood results in the development of other secondary and multiple attachments which are organized into hierarchies from the most accessible to the least accessible.

This forms the lifespan development of an individual as attachment needs for comfort and closeness shift from parents to peers as part of a healthy lifespan development. This paper discusses Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory as a theory of lifespan development.

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The paper is organized with an introduction which briefly discusses the concept of ethology and its ancestry from the study on the graylag geese by Konrad Lorenz. It further presents the contributions of Bowlby and the applications of the theory on human beings lifespan development and contemporary practice. The paper logically ends with a conclusion.


Ethology emphasizes that human behavior is tied to evolution and biology, and is therefore characterized by critical periods. According to ethnologists, the critical periods are time frames during which the presence of lack of certain experiences exerts long-lasting influence on human individuals.

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The concept of ethology rose to prominence after a European zoologist (Lorenz) undertook a behavioral study on graylag geese and their behavior of following their mothers immediately after they hatch (Marga, 2011). In his attempt to study on attachment, Lorenz subdivided the eggs laid by one goose into two groups with one being given to the mother for hatching while the other was hatched in an incubator. The goslings hatched by the mother followed the mother immediately after hatching while those hatched in the incubator followed Lorenz sine he was the one they saw immediately after hatching. Even after marking the goslings and placing them in a box, the goslings run to the mother and Lorenz according immediately after the box was opened (van der Horst & van der Veer, 2009).

Lorenz described the process as imprinting. Imprinting refers to the process through which rapid, innate learning takes place and involves the creation of attachment to the first mobile object visible to a newly hatched gosling. John Bowlby took the concept ahead illustrating an application of ethological theory on human behavior and development. In his view, attachment to a caregiver during the first year of a child has significant consequences throughout the individual’s lifespan. In his words, attachment influences human relationships “from the cradle to the grave” (Pitman & Scharfe, 2010, p. 201).

Bowlby argues that if the attachment is both positive and secure, the individual has a high likelihood of developing positively through childhood and into adulthood. On the other side, if the attachment is both negative and insecure, the individual has high chances of not attaining optimal life-span development. It is the concern of human individuals that they reach optimal lifespan development, something that ethological theory partly tries to explain. This paper discusses Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory and its applications in the course of lifespan development. Bowlby’s perspectives on ethological attachment theory.

From the perspective of ethological theory, babies have an innate biological preparation to participate actively towards the establishment of a bond with caregivers. The ethological theory holds that such an attachment promotes the likelihood that the genes of individuals survive (Makulincer & Shaver, 2012). The theory also posits that the behaviors of children are best understood in the context of their adaptive value hence they seek to fully integrate with the entire organism-environment arrangement. This includes physical, social as well as the cultural aspects an individual is exposed to in the course of life-span development. While Bowlby’s ethological theory places its emphasis on genetics and biological aspects of development, learning also plays an integral role in life-span development since it facilitates flexibility and adaptation of human behavior.

One of Bowlby’s concerns had to do with the ability of children raised in other institutions such as orphanages to form lasting relationships. Bowlby’s proposal was that children who grow up in institutions such as orphanages have difficulties when it comes to love because they never had the opportunity to establish attachments to a mother figure in the early stage of their lives. The attachment, in Bowlby’s view, is an emotional bond established between two people and this attachment is vital in the building of healthy relationships (Makulincer, Shaver & Berant, 2013). He argued that the bonding process starts at birth and runs through to later stages in life. Below six months, the infant is attached to the primary caregiver. Between six to eighteen months, the separation of the child from the attachment figure upsets the child causing frequent cries. Another accompanying behavior at this stage is the fear of strangers.

While infants develop a primary attachment to a single caregiver, researchers also argue that other significant attachments also develop. Such attachments include those with siblings, fathers, and other close figures who interact with the child. Mary Ainsworth, an American scholar to study the area of attachment describes the attachments as secondary attachments (Marga, 2011). She further describes secondary attachments as important bonds in the life-span development of an individual. These attachments are vital since the child has to live in world beyond the mother/primary caregiver. Secondary attachments help in the transformation of the child from the comfortable symbiotic relationship that he/she initially forms with the primary caregiver to include others in the society (Makulincer & Shaver, 2012).

It is from this development that the child is able to develop age-appropriate independence and autonomy in the course of life-span development. Children imitate their models and the positive interactions with the caregiver promote a sense of identity and attachment. Children also develop multiple attachments as witnessed in Ainsworth’s secondary attachments (Marga, 2011). A father who is warm and affectionate towards the child becomes emotionally involved with the child and establishes attachment. Researchers also find that when sons feel understood by their fathers, they develop attachments towards, their fathers. On the other side, when sons feel misunderstood by their fathers, they did not only feel afraid of them but also did not want to be like the male parent in the future. The lesson here is that paternal affection and understanding are key components that help in the promotion of positive relationships and attachments between a male parent and the child.

According to Sable (2008), Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory is recognized as a lifespan developmental theory. The author further argues that it is relevant in the understanding of how early affection experiences exert influence on emotional and physical well being of an individual both in childhood and adulthood. The author specifically singles the importance of Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory in clinical practice as it helps in understanding clients’ distress and the carrying out of psychotherapy. Contemporary research on neurobiology of attachment extends the basis of Bowlby’s conception of an attachment behavior system and suggests that its functions are executed in the brain’s right hemisphere, specifically the right cortex (Sable, 2008). Just like Bowlby asserts that attachment system evolves on the need for protection from environmental dangers such as predation, the brain is also an evolving organ largely influenced by “natural selection” (Sable, 2008, p. 22) and later shaped by environmental experiences.

It is from this realization that knowledge of attachment theories becomes invaluable in psychotherapy. Application of Bowlby’s ethological attachment in lifespan development According to Pitman & Scharfe (2010), the principles of attachment theory are distinctively visible in moments of distress or sickness when the individual feels that their survival is under threat. However, there are many other instances when attachment behaviors are manifest such as children’s first experiences in schools and day care centers. Pitman & Scharfe (2010) observe that during the first day in day care centers, children experience increases in cortisol levels and heart rates. In the course of an individual’s developmental lifespan, other incidences include airport separations when couples display attachment behaviors as well as distress irrespective of their attachment security. Knowledge of attachment is useful in psychotherapy.

According to Pitman & Scharfe (2010), individuals with high attachment anxiety and avoidance experience greater physical symptoms in comparison with individuals who have low attachment anxiety and avoidance. The researchers also report on the existence of an association between attachment anxiety and avoidance on one hand and depression on the other across varying age groups. These range from samples of children and adolescents, emerging adults, married couples, community samples in transition to parenthood, university samples, as well as clinical samples. The results indicate an association between higher attachment anxiety and avoidance with depression (Sable, 2008). The establishment of attachment with the therapists determines the effectiveness of a therapist in giving assistance to a client. Bowlby believes that the development of a new attachment with a therapist enables the therapist to assist the client in revising the story of the client’s life into a more consistent narrative.

According to Sable (2010), the role of the therapist is to provide a springboard for change and this is possible through joint exploration of the painful feelings and the unhappy events that contribute the current emotional problems of the client. In order to win this trust, the therapist ought to become a relatively secure base where the client experiences safety and support. The therapist has to cultivate for this attachment through calming and soothing interactions although it may take some time before the therapist is accepted and felt as emotionally familiar and affectively accustomed to the client. One of the applications of Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory by clinicians is in the assessment of the client’s attachment style so that the clinician can regulate the therapeutic approach (Sable, 2010).

The outcomes of a therapy process reveal that avoidant outpatients show minimal clinical improvements in comparison to the secure and anxious outpatients after individual therapy (Makulincer, Shaver & Berant, 2013). They also report that in a study carried out in a university program training clinic, avoidant attachment had an inverse relationship to psychotherapy outcome. Researchers agree that problems in the working alliance between clients and therapists partially mediate the avoidance-outcome association. In another sample of clients with eating disorders, avoidant-attachment was linked with dropout of group psychotherapy. Another contemporary application of Bowlby’s ethological theory is in the diagnosis of the reactive attachment disorder. Follan & Minnis (2009) investigate the cases of the forty-four juvenile thieves described as affectionless psychopaths. Out of the sampled ‘juvenile thieves,’ 86 percent had undergone through prolonged separation from primary caregivers in the early stages of their lives apart from being placed under multiple care placements.

Follan & Minnis (2009) find out that in their sample, 60 percent of children with reactive attachment disorder had been separated from their homes either resulting from neglect or other types of maltreatment. According to Bowlby, the experience of separation from primary caregivers was a key etiological factor contributing towards the development of difficulties in children. These findings lend credence to Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory in the diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder (RAD). While Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory receives worldwide support, it also faces some criticisms. One such criticism is its reliance on biology and evolution as the basis of development as well as the use of selective observations in naturalistic situations. Marga (2011) presents contradicting reports of a study involving 162 farm children where there was no relation between infant training on one hand and personality development on the other. As a result, the researcher implores scientists to “quit blaming mom” as a dismissal to Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory. While the criticisms are there, Bowlby’s ethological theory receives widespread support and application as it relates to the lifespan development of an individual.


The behavioral development of a human being begins at birth and occurrences at the formative years determine the personality development of the individual later in adulthood. Many theories such as the behavioral and psychoanalytic theories explain personality development of the human individual. The quality of the entire human life is the accurate measure of effective lifespan development of the individual. Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory argues that human individuals develop attachments to primary caregivers that are affectionate and supportive. As individuals grow, they develop other secondary and multiple attachments with peers in order to get security as they interact with different environments. Bowlby’s perspective has received widespread acceptance although it has also been criticized for placing emphasis on biology and evolution. Nevertheless, the theory receives application in psychotherapy.

Researchers report that clients are open up to therapists after they develop a feeling of security and attachment with the therapist. There is evidence that psychotherapy outcomes also depend on the establishment of attachment between the client and the therapist. There is also a link between avoidant-attachment and dropout of group psychotherapy. The theory specifically helps in understanding the distress of clients in various stages in life and this facilitates positive outcomes during physiotherapy. There is further evidence that Bowlby’s ethological attachment theory also helps in the diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder. As individuals grow from childhood to adulthood, their attachments change due to changes in the environment, making Bowlby’s ethological theory a theory of lifespan development.


  1. Follan, M., & Minnis, H. (2009). Forty-four juvenile thieves revisited: From Bowlby to reactive attachment disorder. Child: care, health and development 36(5): 639-645.
  2. Makulincer, M., & Shaver, P.R. (2012). Adult Attachment Orientations and Relationship Processes. Journal of Family Theory & Review 4: 259-274.
  3. Makulincer, M., Shaver, P.R., & Berant, E. (2013). An attachment perspective on therapeutic processes and outcomes. Journal of Personality 81(6): 606-616.
  4. Marga, V. (2011). The Social Nature of the Mother’s Tie to Her Child: John Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment in Post-war America. British Journal for the History of Science 44(3): 401-426.
  5. Pitman, R., & Scharfe, E. (2010).Testing the function of attachment hierarchies during emerging adulthood. Personal Relationships 17(2): 201-216.
  6. Sable, P. (2008). What is Adult Attachment? Clinical Social Work Journal 36(1): 21-30.
  7. van der Horst, F.C.P., & van der Veer, R. (2009). Separation and divergence: The untold story of James Robertson’s and John Bowlby’s theoretical dispute on mother-child separation. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 45(3): 236-252.

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Bowlby’s Ethological Behavioral Theory of Attachment. (2016, Apr 10). Retrieved from

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