Development and Variety of Attachments

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Development and Variety of Attachments

Attachment is the close emotional relationship between two people, which involves a feeling of well-being and a desire to be close. Although attachments occur throughout your life, the attachment made between an infant and caregiver is particularly important.

Infants have an innate ability to seek interactions with other individuals. This is known as sociability and is integral to the phases in the development of attachment (Schaffer, 1996).

The table below summarises the four stages of this process:

Phase of attachment: Age range: Characteristics of phase:
Pre-attachment phase 0-3 months At about 6 weeks, infants begin to treat other humans differently from objects by smiling and gurgle at them.
Indiscriminate attachment phase 3-7 months Infant can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people but is quite happy to be comforted by anyone.
Discriminate attachment phase 7-9 months Infant distinguishes between carers and strangers and exhibits distress or separation anxiety when left alone (they have developed object permanence) and may be fearful of the strangers.
Multiple attachment phase 9+ months Attachments develop with other people (for example, grandparents or brothers and sisters), although the original attachment remains the strongest.

This 'stage' approach is all-well-and-good but it largely ignores individual differences: Infants develop different types of attachments at different rates. It is also specific to Western society, as other cultures were not studied.

The different types of attachment were investigated by placing 12-18 month-old infants in an increasingly stressful environment or 'Strange Situation' (Ainsworth et al., 1978).

This table shows the stressors placed on the infant and the observations made of his or her behaviour:

Stressors: Observations:
Unfamiliar room Reaction to caregiver leaving
Caregiver leaves the room Reaction to caregiver returning
Stranger in the room Reaction to the stranger

The 'Strange Situation' goes like this...

Development and Variety of Attachments

Ainsworth identified three types of attachment in American infants:

Type of attachment: Name of attachment: % Of infants: Characteristics of attachment:
Type A Insecure-avoidant 20% Indifferent to caregiver - unconcerned if present or absent. Signs of distress when left alone but could be comforted by caregiver or stranger.
Type B Securely attached 70% Stay close to caregiver and are distressed by their departure but easily comforted on return. Stranger could give limited comfort.
Type C Insecure-resistant 10% Ambivalent to caregiver - both close and resistant at times. Anxious of environment and resistant to stranger.

A fourth type of attachment (insecure-disorganised or Type D) was identified by Main (1991), in which the infant is fearful of the attachment figure. This infant is in conflict as to whether he or she should seek or resist closeness.

Securely attached infants are thought to have a healthy emotional and social development. This is supported by evidence that they tend to become popular and confident social leaders (Stroufe, 1983).

The above research shows that the attachment types identified by the 'Strange Situation' have validity. Repetition of the procedure later in life produces the same results in infants, so the method also has reliability.

The 'Strange Situation' has been criticised for a number of reasons:

  • Relationships rather than attachments may be under investigation.
  • The scenario is unrealistic and may lack ecological validity.
  • The ethics of inducing anxiety in the caregivers and infants may be questioned.
  • The results cannot be generalised to cultures other than that of USA.

Different cultures have different social norms and accepted ways of doing things. Cross-culturing variations occur in many aspects of behaviour including child rearing. This difference may result in differences in attachments.

One study surveyed the results of the 'Strange Situation' in many countries. Whilst all countries had secure attachments coming out top, there were marked differences between the countries (Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg, 1988).

This graph illustrates these differences:

Development and Variety of Attachments

Infants raised in Japanese homes and in Israeli kibbutzim show high levels of insecure-resistant attachment. These being close environments with the primary caregiver always present and few strangers around could explain this.

German infants appear to be particularly insecure-avoidant in their attachments, although their parents were attentive to their children and sensitive to their needs. However, the parents considered some of the 'secure' behaviour to be too 'clingy' and discouraged it.

These findings suggest that the American criteria used in the 'Strange Situation' are not appropriate for other cultures: It would be wrong to suggest that the cultures with high levels of insecure attachments were raising children wrongly.

The table below summarises these explanations:

Theory: Description: Evaluation:
Learning theory Conditioning and social learning theory explain attachment by infants learning to associate food with the person feeding them. Evidence suggests that interaction is more important than food in the formation of attachments (Harlow, 1959).
Psychodynamic theory Food provides the infant with the pleasure it seeks at the oral stage of its development leading to emotional attachment to the mother. This explanation has the same limitations as learning theory because it assumes food is most important in attachments.
Ethological theory Attachment is an adaptive behaviour, which forms during a sensitive period in development as a result of interactions between infant and caregiver (Bowlby, 1958). Support comes from non-human animal studies on imprinting (Lorenz, 1937) but it may not be possible to generalise these principles to humans.

Bowlby's theory of attachment has been particularly influential and generated much further research. He was influenced by the psychodynamic approach and findings from non-human animal studies. He suggested that there was a critical period for the formation of attachments between infants and caregivers.

Bowlby's notion of monotropy suggests that infants have an innate tendency to become attached to one individual. According to Bowlby, the infant may make a number of attachments but this single attachment has qualitative differences from any others.

Bowlby also thought that these attachments form a template for the development of future relationships. However, the research evidence to support this is rather weak.

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