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Study notes

Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Bowlby’s theory is sometimes referred to as an evolutionary theory. Evolutionary psychology suggests that human behaviour and phenomena can be explained through the process of natural selection. Traits which offered our ancestors a survival or reproductive advantage in our environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA) would be passed on to offspring and as a result continue to exist and proliferate.

Bowlby (1969) suggests that attachment is a vital adaptive quality that has evolved to increase the chance of survival through proximity-seeking behaviour.

As babies are born in an early stage of development, they are highly dependent on the parent as they require constant care, which means that the infant would benefit from a biological mechanism that could keep the parent close to them. Attachment is mutually innate in both infants & adults, with infants using social releasers to promote interaction (eg. smiling/ eye contact encourage caregiver reactions). It is suggested that these need to be innate to ensure that infants can maintain close contact with their parents. Equally, parents need to be receptive to these innate cues that the infant displays in order for this to offer an adaptive advantage.

According to Bowlby, infants require a qualitatively unique relationship to develop an internal working model & emotional maturity – this special bond is known as a monotropic bond. This special bond helps to maintain proximity between the parent and infant and also offers the infant the opportunity to develop skills and an understanding of how to attach and bond to others.

Bowlby suggests that attachment takes place during a critical period. It is suggested that if a child does not form an attachment before the critical period (2.5 years) attachment will not occur. (Bowlby later proposed a sensitive period of up to 5 years.)

The Internal Working Model

(IWM) provides a template for future attachments. It allows individuals to predict, control & manipulate their environment. As a result, it plays a role in later development – this is known as the continuity hypothesis.

Evaluation of Bowlby


The need for monotropy appears to be universal

Ainsworth (1967) observed the Ganda tribe of Uganda. Infants form one primary attachment even when reared by multiple carers.

Fox (1977) research into Israeli communal farms has revealed child-rearing practices that are quite distinct from conventional Western ones. Fox reported that children spend a majority of the day with nurses called metapelets rather than their biological parents; in fact infants tend to spend approximately 3 hours a day with their biological mother. Observed infants appeared to still form a (special) monotropic bond with their mothers despite not seeing them for extended periods of time, which supports Bowlby, as he claimed that monotropy was a necessity that was innately programmed in infants. So it would seem that despite the cultural variations in child-rearing practises, the process of attachment appears to be universal.


The importance of monotropy is overemphasised

Thomas (1998) questions the benefits of monotropy & suggests it may be more beneficial having a network of attachments to support infants & their social/ emotional needs.

Parke (1981) found that qualitatively different attachments provide different benefits.

Similarly, Van Ijzendoorn, & Tavecchio (1987) argue that a stable network of adults can provide adequate or better care than a mother who has to meet all a child’s needs.

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