Attachment Theory: Definition & Criticism of Bowlby & Ainsworth's Theories

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

Meaningful bonds are critical for human development, and the most important type of relationship is that between child and parent or caregiver. Explore the definition and foundation of the attachment theories, including Bowlby's theory and the one Ainsworth later elaborated, and learn the importance of the internal working models of attachment on adult relationships. Updated: 08/21/2021

Relationships and Attachment

Relationships occur between humans every day throughout the world. Adults build relationships with friends that may turn into romantic relationships. Peers develop relationships with each other, which may lead to close friendships, and children build relationships with their parents or caregivers. It is this type of relationship between parent and child that this lesson will focus on.

All types of relationships, whether romantic, friendly, or parental, are important for human development. The most critical of these types, however, is that between the parent and child. Many theorists, including Freud and Erikson, emphasized the importance of a stable parent-child relationship in order for normal development to occur.

A British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, developed a theory around these parent-child relationships called attachment theory.

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Coming up next: The Strange Situation Test: Ainsworth's Attachment Theory for Infants

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  • 0:05 Relationships and Attachment
  • 1:05 Attachment Theory Foundations
  • 3:12 Attachment Theory Elaborated
  • 4:00 Internal Working…
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Attachment Theory Foundations

Attachment theory is based primarily on ethological theory, or how animals behave; evolutionary theory, or how humans evolve; and psychoanalytic theory, which is the theory that human behavior is driven by unconscious urges and instinctual biological drives.

According to Bowlby, attachment is defined as a strong emotional tie that bonds one person intimately with another person. Attachment is also a behavior system through which humans regulate emotional distress, such as being threatened. Behaviors which draw humans to security in threatening situations underlie attachment theory. Let us try to understand this through an attachment scenario.

A baby forms an attachment with his or her parent at birth. This attachment develops over time, and by around six to seven months, a strong bond is formed. We know this attachment has occurred because the child tries to maintain proximity to the parent, may follow the parent around, saves the biggest smiles for the parent, becomes upset when the parent is gone, and seeks the parent when he or she feels threatened or scared.

This scenario illustrates how attachment theory draws from ethological theory and research. Biological predispositions and tendencies, such as babies staying close to their mothers in the wild for protection, have contributed to human survival. This form of imprinting, or learning in which a baby animal follows and becomes attached to the first moving object it encounters (usually the mother), is critical during the early part of life and establishes the groundwork for attachment.

Bowlby points out that young children may not become imprinted to their mothers, but they will definitely follow loved ones around. Young children also engage in other behaviors that ensure their caregiver or parent will love them, stay close, and meet their safety needs, such as smiling, cooing, crying, and babbling.

Attachment Theory Elaborated

American developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth elaborated on Bowlby's work through her own experiments, such as the Strange Situation Protocol, in which she explored anxieties and identified types of attachment. This research and the types of parent-child attachment Ainsworth found are discussed in another lesson.

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