In the 1960s, following John Bolby’s article The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, many psychoanalytic figures criticised his work. They claimed that attachment theory was “mechanic, nondynamic, and explicated according to thorough misunderstandings of psychoanalytic theory” (Fonagy, 2001, page 1, p2). Critiques felt that Bowlby treated his human subjects like animals, and used too many labels and categories when reporting on experiment results.
When examining the attachment theory today and, in particular, Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation experiment, it does appear that the critiques’ points were valid. The personalities and behaviours of human beings are extremely diverse, and it is arguable that placing every child into one of four categories, as Ainsworth proposed, is limiting and inappropriate.
Within the field of psychoanalysis, the attachment theory and its vocabulary have always been debated. To some psychoanalysts, the conventions of attachment theory appear to fundamentally differ from their view of psychoanalysis, and attachment theory is therefore mainly left out of proper psychoanalysis. In today’s theoretical arena of psychoanalysis, the attachment theory has attracted growing attention, particularly from psychoanalysts involved in experiential research.
Bowlby was critical of psychoanalysis, saying, “psychoanalysis gave weight to the internal workings of the human mind and recognized the special status of intimate human relationships, but its metapsychology, already obsolescent, was a handicap, while its fixation on a single, retrospective research method gave no means of resolving differences of opinion” (Fonagy, 2001, page 5, p2).
Human beings are social animals. They rely greatly on their capacity to form relationships with other humans in order to progress through life. This is a fact that dates back throughout human history and across cultures. Individuals who have difficulties with forming and maintaining healthy relationships frequently have trouble participating in everyday life. They can become unfriendly or aggressive towards others, have difficulties in education and have an increased likelihood of developing mental illness at some point in their lives.
It is no surprise, therefore, that child psychologists are so concerned with the first relationships that are formed between children and their caregivers. These relationships could go on to influence all proceeding relationships in adulthood, including spousal, working and parental ones. While people cannot realistically blame all of their relationship problems on their parents, early relationships are, essentially, a template that a person will use for the rest of their lives.
John Bolby introduced the Attachment theory in the late nineteen fifties. His work on the theory came about after Bowlby spent time working with young offenders. He found evidence to back up his view that “the disruption of the early mother-child relationship should be seen as a key precursor of mental disorder” (Fonagy, 2001, page 10, p2). Many consider the concept to be the joint work of Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. The theory has been taken further by, among others, Mary Main and Peter Fonagy.
Attachment theory deals with the child’s connection to his primary caregivers, and attempts to describe variances in qualities of individual attachments.
Bowlby devoted much research to the model of attachment, defining it as a lifelong psychological linkage between human beings. Bowlby’s view echoed the psychoanalytic one that early childhood experiences have a significant influence on development and behaviour throughout the rest of childhood and into adulthood. His theory was that the infant to caregiver relationship experienced in early childhood shapes an individual’s attachment style. Furthermore, Bowlby argued that attachment had an evolutionary element, in that it assists in human survival.
Bowlby claimed that there are four characteristics of attachment. The first is proximity maintenance, which describes the need to be near the people to whom we are attached. Second is safe haven. This is the act of returning to the attachment figure for comfort when feeling frightened or threatened. The third characteristic if secure base, which describes the attachment figure as a security base from which the infant can investigate the environment surrounding them. The fourth is separation distress, which defines the anxiety that occurs when the attachment figure is absent.
Despite the “bad blood between psychoanalysis and attachment theory” (Fonagy, 2001, page 1, p1), the two have overlapped significantly over the years as Alicia Lieberman explores in Contributions of Attachment Theory to Infant-parent Psychotherapy and Other Interventions with Infants and Young Children. Clinical Psychologist Arietta Slade was another professional who valued the attachment theory, and in turn wrote the paper Traumatized Mother, Traumatized Child: Attachment, Adoption and Reflective.
During the 1970's, psychologist Mary Ainsworth contributed to Bowlby's revolutionary work with her "Strange Situation" study. The study comprised an observation of children from twelve to eighteen months of age, and how they responded when they were momentarily left alone and then reunited with their mother (Fonagy, 2001, page 37, p2).
Ainsworth grounded her study on the basic human emotion of fear (Fonagy, 2001, page 17, p1). After around six months of age, a child becomes attached to its caregivers. From this point onwards he starts to demonstrate fear in two situations: stranger anxiety and separation protest. Ainsworth incorporated both of these conditions into her test, as follows:
The child is observed playing for twenty minutes while both caregivers and strangers enter and exit the room, echoing the flow of the familiar and unfamiliar people in the majority of children's lives. The situation fluctuates in levels of stress, and the child's responses are observed throughout. Firstly, the parent and child are introduced to the observation room. The parent and child are then left alone, with the parent not participating while the child explores the room and the toys scattered around on the floor. A stranger enters the room, talks with the parent for a few minutes and then moves towards the child, while the parent quietly leaves the room. At this point the first separation episode is being observed. With the mother absent, the stranger attempts to interact with the child. The first reunion period then occurs as the parent returns and the stranger leaves the room. The parent comforts the child and then leaves the room again. The second separation period begins when the child is left alone in the room. The stranger then enters the room and, again, attempts to interact with the child. The parent then enters the room and comforts the child, starting the second reunion episode, and the stranger leaves the room.
Clearly, the strange situation is designed to become more and more strange for the child as it progresses. The infant is in a room that they have never seen before, with different toys and surroundings. Then a stranger enters the room. Following this, the stranger starts trying interact with the child and then their mother is then suddenly not present. Furthermore, the parent does not say goodbye to the child or warn him that she is leaving. At each stage of the test, the stress on the child is increased.
In the Strange Situation study, four aspects of the infant’s behaviour are observed: the amount of investigation the child carries out around the room and toys, the child’s reaction when his mother leaves the room, the level of stranger anxiety displayed by the child, and what happens at the child’s reunion with his mother.
Following the observation of their behaviours, the children were categorized into three groups: secure attachment, anxious-resistant insecure attachment, and anxious- avoidant insecure attachment. Later on, a fourth group, disorganized attachment, was added (Fonagy, 2001, page 37, p2).
Secure attachment describes a child who will explore the room and toys while his mother is present, and will interact with strangers when his mother is present. He will then be clearly distressed when his mother leaves the room, and be happy to see her when she returns. Although the child interacts with the stranger when his mother is in the room, he will not do so is his mother is absent.
A securely attached child is the most comfortable to explore his surroundings when he knows his mother is present as a secure base to which he can return when necessary. When help is given by the mother, this reaffirms the child’s sense of security and also teaches the child how to manage the same dilemma in the future. Ainsworth maintains that a child achieves a secure attachment when the mother is constantly available to meet the needs to the child. Other psychologists argue that there are also other factors that contribute to the child's attachment, and that a parent’s behaviour may also be influenced by the behaviour of the child (Fonagy, 2001, page 38, p1).
A child with an anxious-resistant attachment style is nervous of exploration and of strangers, whether the mother is present or absent. When the mother leaves the room, the child is extremely upset. The child will be undecided when his mother enters the room again. He will choose to be close to his mother but will probably be resentful. When reunited with his mother, the child may also push or hit his mother when she approaches him and he may not cling to her when she picks him up (Fonagy, 2001, page 38, p1).
According to some researchers, this attachment style cultivates from a parenting style which is available but not constant. The style is now more widely known as ambivalent-resistant attachment as the child cannot decide what he wants from his mother. Both ambivalent and avoidant are insecure attachments, and are less advantageous than secure attachments. However, ambivalent attachment seems to indicate maladaptive parenting and predicts a higher probability for future attachment problems (Fonagy, 2001, page 38, p2).
A child with an anxious-avoidant attachment style will ignore his mother and show little reaction when his mother leaves or returns to the room. The child will not conduct much exploration, regardless of who is present at the time. He will react to strangers similarly to how he does to his mother, not truly interacting with either. The range of emotions the child displays throughout the observation is limited.
This attachment style develops from a more absent parenting style. The infant’s needs are often not met and the child deduces that communicating their needs has no impact or results (Fonagy, 2001, page 38, p2).
Disorganized, or disoriented, attachment is the fourth category. It was added by Mary Main, a colleague of Ainsworth’s, and Ainsworth believed in, and backed up, this amendment .
An infant with disorganized insecure attachment may cry during separation but ignore his mother on her return. Alternatively, he may move towards his mother, but then stop still before he reaches her, or fall to the floor. Some children with this type of attachment show other stereotyped behaviours, such as rocking or hitting themselves repeatedly. Main discovered that most of these children had mothers who had suffered losses or other major trauma soon before or after the birth of their child, and had then gone on to become severely depressed (Fonagy, 2001, page 38, p2).
Various studies have backed up Ainsworth’s conclusions and further research has shown that these early attachment styles can be helpful in foretelling behaviours that may be displayed later on in life.
A huge degree of research has gone into calculating what elements cause infants to be attached in such different ways. Much importance has been placed on the way in which the parent treats the child. Secure attachments have been linked to parents being sensitive, encouraging of interaction between themselves and the child, and warm and accepting of their child. The opposites of these qualities are implicated in the insecure attachment styles. Some research has also revealed that the child’s temperament is also a significant factor.
Numerous researchers have claimed that attachment styles have important consequences, both social, emotional and cognitive. Some have asserted that the more positive a child’s early attachments are, the more probable it is that he will effectively separate from the parent later in life. Further advantages of a secure attachment include more self-confidence, more friendships and more functional relationships in adulthood. Conversely, children with insecure attachments are inclined to display more negative emotions, have behavioural problems and bare hostility towards other children.
Critics of the strange situation study have contended that it is simply too strange. They question, for example, why parents would resist interacting with their child and whether children actually notice all of the comings and goings of different people throughout the study.
Furthermore, it has been suggested that the study neglects to show how an infant would react to a different family member, for example their father or grandparent. Challengers of the strange situation argue that it only explores the attachment of the child to its mother. Another reproach is that the test is only one incidence. Opponents maintain that it is feasible that a child could seem to have one type of attachment in one situation and an alternative attachment type in a changed situation. In other words, the child's attachment style may differ with the circumstances regarding family.
Critiques of the strange situation also question the ethics of the experiment as the child is put in a situation of obvious distress. It is arguable that to deliberately upset a child, in order to measure just how upset he becomes, is unfair on the child and should not be carried out knowingly. The strange situation is, in effect, a test to measure the range of emotions displayed by the child in a variety of different circumstances.
It is also worth noting that the Strange Situation test that Ainsworth executed only used middle class American families as participants. Therefore, the soundness of the results do not cover working class families and non-American contexts.
Finally, opponents question the validity of the strange situation because the interactions of mother, child, and stranger are in an artificial environment and actions are scripted. It is debatable that the strange situation does not echo a true to life separation and reunion situation. For example, the parent is aware that they are being observed, and this may make them behave differently than they normally would. Furthermore, the parent may be nervous about the study, which is likely to transfer to the child and make them restless. If this occurs then the child may be classified as having a different attachment style than they would if they were watched in a non-scientific situation involving the same tests.
However, in spite of the various criticisms, the 'strange situation' study has emerged triumphantly, regarding answering the questions that it posed. The test offers a controlled and feasible method of examining the earliest relationships human beings form with their caregivers. As a consequence of its consistent results it is now the globally accepted method for examining attachment.
The psychoanalysts that criticised Bowlby’s attachment theory raise valid points. It is true that there are elements of the attachment theory that are based around classifying subjects and could be accused of ignoring the larger differences between individual human beings. In particular, the results of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation experiment involve child participants being placed in one of four categories. Furthermore, without a thorough knowledge of a child’s home life and relationships, it can be dangerous to cast aspersions on a parent’s method of caring for their child, based on one experiment. For example, if a child in the study is displaying behaviours associated with an insecure attachment type, the parent of that child may be judged as a ‘bad’ parent. However, this judgement could be entirely misguided. It is possible that a child may be feeling unwell on the day of the experiment, or they may have an underlying social problem which would cause them to behave in this way, regardless of the parenting style to which they are subjected.
Each human being is an individual. Both children and adults are products of their environments, intelligence levels and personalities, as well as their upbringing. Regarding the strange situation test, there are many factors that could affect the validity of the study. The experiment has stood the test of time, as it is still in use today. However, it is arguable that in these modern times with increased awareness of the factors that influence a human individual’s course of life, the theory and the hypothesis that the strange situation supports is becoming out of date.
Fonagy, P. (2001). Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books.