Sample Sociology Coursework Paper on Overview of Attachment Theory

Overview of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory describes how children develop emotional bond towards their parents or caregivers, the nature of this emotional bond and its impact on the child’s future relationships. John Bowlby (1907-1990) is considered the father of attachment theory, an idea he coined and developed during his studies of child development at Tavistock Clinic, London in the 1940s (Mercer, 2006, p. 38). Bowlby defined attachment as a specific emotional bond formed through the exchange of care, comfort and pleasure between a mother (caregiver) and child. Bowlby used ideas from early psychology research such as s Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas about the impact of early childhood experiences on personality and behavior development to develop the theory of attachment.

Bowlby described attachment as a biological human trait required for survival characterized by proximity maintenance, safe haven, secure base and separation distress (Mercer, 2006, p. 38). Proximity maintenance is the need to be close to the people one is attached to for comfort and pleasure. For example, most children love to be close to their mother or caregiver and cry or become distressed when the caregiver leaves. Safe haven is the tendency to turn to the people one is attached to for protection, comfort and safety when threatened with fear or distress. An example is a baby seeking to be held by the caregiver when a stranger appears. A secure base enables the child to explore the surrounding without fear because the child feels safe with the caregiver within reach. Bowlby described separation distress as the anxiety resulting from separation from an attachment figure (Gelso, Palma & Bhatia, 2013, p. 1164).

Attachment styles differ according to parenting style; they include secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, avoidance attachment and disorganized attachment. According to Bowlby, children who are securely attached can separate from the caregiver and seek the caregiver’s company during distress or threat (Summers & Barber, 2009, p. 124). In addition, securely attached children experience positive emotions when the caregiver returns. Such children prefer the caregiver to strangers in most cases. Secure attachment in early childhood affects behavior during adulthood. Bowlby believed that securely attached adults are able to establish and maintain close relationships based on trust. In addition, securely attached individuals tend to share their feelings with others and thus are able to form intimate relationships. Furthermore, such individuals have high self-esteem and do not hesitate to seek social support when in need. Secure attachment is formed though prompt, appropriate and consistent response to the child’s needs, meaning that caregivers play the most important role in determining the attachment style of their children (Gelso, Palma & Bhatia, 2013, p. 1164).

Children with ambivalent attachment are scared by strangers, do not easily separate from their parents and remain distressed longer even when the caregiver returns. As adults, such individuals may hesitate to form close relationships with others (Summers & Barber, 2009, p. 124). In marriage or romantic relationships, ambivalently attached individuals do not trust their partners and are devastated by breakups. The caregiver contributes to the development of ambivalent attachment by not responding adequately to the child’s needs, and by encouraging independence. Avoidant attachment is characterized by avoidance of attachment figures, resisting contact, and treating strangers and caregivers the same way (Gelso, Palma & Bhatia, 2013, p. 1164). As adults, avoidant persons do not share their feelings with others and resist emotional involvement. As a result, they find it difficult to establish romantic relationships. Children with disorganized attachment are usually resistant and avoidant to their caregivers. They also become confused and act like caregivers at a young age. Caregiver behaviors likely to cause disorganized attachment include child abuse, intrusiveness, frightening behavior and withdrawal.

Lessons from Harlow and Ainsworth Experiments

Harlow’s experiments reveal some degree of truth in attachment theory. In one experiment, Harlow made two objects to act as attachment figures designed to meet different needs of a rhesus monkey. One object made of wire provided food while the other made of comfortable cloth provided warmth. Harlow noted that the baby monkey spent most of its time with the comforting attachment figure and only visited the wire mother for food. This implies that comfort and contact might be the most important ingredient for the development of secure attachment rather than feeding. To demonstrate this phenomenon further, Harlow introduced a scary object to a baby monkey placed in a relaxed environment. Scared, the monkey sought refuge in the clothe mother instead of the wire mother. This almost spontaneous behavior indicated that the monkey was securely attached to the warm mother despite its inability to provide food. The monkey’s reaction also demonstrated the main characteristics of attachment including safe haven, proximity, and secure base. The monkey demonstrated proximity by spending over 20 hours daily near or in contact with the warm attachment figure. Similarly, the monkey demonstrated safe haven by running and clinging to the warm mother when the scary object appeared. By just clinging to the warm attachment figure, the monkey felt safe and secure to the extent that it could confront the scary object. Even before the scary object was introduced, the monkey was relaxed and busy playing around with nearby objects, which further demonstrates the aspect of the attachment figure acting as a secure base.

Similarly, Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiment is quite useful in testing attachment theory. Unlike Harlow who used a monkey in a controlled laboratory setting, Ainsworth used human participants in a natural setting. In one experiment, Ainsworth demonstrated how a securely attached baby behaves (O’Gorman, 2012, p. 3). Many of Ainsworth’s observations are consistent with attachment theory. For example, the securely attached child played with toys and the mother comfortably with the mother acting as a secure base. When a stranger entered the room, the child sought contact with the mother (preference of mother to a stranger). When the mother left and then returned, the baby reached out for the mother and resisted consolation by the stranger. However, the baby resisted separation from the mother by crying whenever the mother left. In another experiment, Ainsworth demonstrated insecure attachment using another baby who seemed to be highly independent and unmoved by the exit or the return of the mother.

Overall, Harlow and Ainsworth experiments demonstrate that attachment is a significant aspect of human development. However, they fail to draw clear lines to distinguish between ambivalent, avoidance and disorganized attachment types. I suggest that secure attachment and insecure attachment should be considered the only practical categories of attachment. Another limitation of attachment experiments is the inability to capture all the variables affecting the development of emotional bond such as cultural differences, environmental variables and heritability. For instance, experiments utilizing animal subjects in laboratories have limited generalizability. Furthermore, attachment research has focused more on the predictive value of childhood attachment relationships rather than how to help insecurely attached individuals to develop healthy attachment relationships.


Ainsworth Strange Situation. Retrieved February 12, 2014 from

Gelso, C. J., Palma, B., & Bhatia, A. (2013). Attachment Theory as a Guide to Understanding and Working With Transference and the Real Relationship in Psychotherapy. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 69(11), 1160-1171. doi:10.1002/jclp.22043

Harlow’s rhesus monkey experiments and the attachment theory. Retrieved February 12, 2014

Harlow’s studies on dependency in monkeys. Retrieved February 12, 2014 from

Mercer, J. (2006). Understanding attachment: Parenting, child care, and emotional development. Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers.

O’Gorman, S. (2012). Attachment Theory, Family System Theory, and the Child Presenting with Significant Behavioral Concerns. Journal Of Systemic Therapies, 31(3), 1-16. doi:10.1521/jsyt.2012.31.3.1

Summers, R. F. & Barber, J. P. (2009). Psychodynamic theory: A guide to evidence-based practice. Guilford Press.

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