Attachment - Bowlby

Psychologist John Bowlby is generally thought of as the father of attachment theory. He defined attachment as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." Childhood, he argues, played a critical role in the formation of attachments and early experiences could have an impact on the relationships people form later in life.

The earliest attachments we form are with parents and other caregivers, which is perhaps why Bowlby believed that attachment had a strong evolutionary component. These early attachments with caregivers serve to keep an infant safe and secure and ensures the child's survival.

Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis:

Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis states that if an infant is unable to form a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with its mother or maternal figure, then the child will have difficulty forming relationships with other people and be at risk of developing behavioural and emotional disorders.

Bowlby suggested that children deprived of their mother (their attachment figure) would have problems later in life. The word ‘maternal’ is used because mothers are most commonly the primary care-givers. Bowlby acknowledged that this bond made could be with another figure, other than the mother.
The term monotropy was devised by Bowlby to describe this warm, loving relationship which was shared with only one person, i.e. the attachment is made with one person only.

He claimed that social, emotional and intellectual development would be irreversibly affected causing problems later in life if anything should happen to cause the mother-child bond to break prematurely. This hypothesis is called the maternal deprivation hypothesis.

Consequences of ​maternal deprivation:

Bowlby believed that fear of strangers represents an important survival mechanism, built in by nature. Babies are born with the tendency to display certain innate behaviours (called social releasers) which help ensure proximity and contact with the mother or attachment figure (e.g. crying, smiling, crawling).

According to Bowlby, the long term consequences of maternal deprivation (or a prolonged period of separation from the primary care-giver) might include the following:
  • delinquency,
  • reduced intelligence,
  • increased aggression,
  • depression,
  • affectionless psychopathy
Affectionless psychopathy is an inability to show affection or concern for others. Such individuals act on impulse with little regard for the consequences of their actions. For example, showing no guilt or remorse for antisocial behavior.

Bowlby's "44 Thieves"

The juvenile thieves study (Bowlby, 1944):

Bowlby tested his maternal deprivation hypothesis on a sample of 88 children who had been referred to a child guidance clinic. 44 of the children had been referred because of stealing, and Bowlby identified 16 of the thieves as 'affectionless psychopaths' (a behaviour disorder in which the individual has no sense of shame or guilt and lacks a social conscience). The other 44 children had not committed any crimes and, although they had some emotional difficulties, were not anti-social and none were affectionless psychopaths.

Bowlby interviewed all 88 children and their families, focusing specifically on their early life experiences. The findings were that 86% of the children diagnosed as affectionless psychopaths had experienced prolonged periods of separation from their mothers, only 17% of the other thieves had experienced separations from their mothers, and less than 4% of the non-thieves control group had experienced such separations.

As the chlldren with affectionless psychopathy had experienced most separations, Bowlby concluded that maternal deprivation does in fact lead to emotional and behavioural disorders, and in its most severe form it leads to antisocial behaviours such as theft.

The study does therefore seem to support Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis. However it must be remembered that the findings are correlational and therefore, although affectionless psychopathy and maternal deprivation are linked, maternal deprivation cannot be said to cause affectionless psychopathy. Also the data was collected retrospectively so may not be reliable as, for example, the people Bowlby interviewed may have overestimated or underestimated the frequency and duration of separations.

Consequences and Applications of Bowlby's work....

Bowlby’s work was very influential in a number of areas, not just in changing the way people approached psychology. His theories and hypotheses have had real-life applications... just two of those include;
  • changes in institutional care provided for infants and children (e.g. care homes – in the past, the focus of care homes was to ensure that all the children were well fed, well washed and well clothed, but nobody looked at their interaction with the nursing staff – Bowlby used his theories and observations to show that mental wellbeing was of equal importance, and so now the focus of care homes includes this interaction)
  • hospital changes regarding visiting hours (in the past, it was believed that if children who were in hospitals in the long-term were visited by their parents for long periods of time, they would become upset, and so parents were discouraged from visiting, but in fact Bowlby’s work shows the importance of the attachments and so now parent’s are encouraged to spend as much time as possible with their children in hospital) 
Bowlby, J. (1944). Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home-Life. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 25, 19-53.