Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory posited that individuals progress through stages as they age. Within each stage, they face a crisis or choice, and the way in which they resolve it will affect them throughout their lifetime. John Bowlby took particular note of the “trust verses mistrust” conflict of the infant stage, and developed attachment theory. Attachment theory agrees with psychosocial development in the belief that development is affected by experience as well as biology. It specifically considers the way in which a small child interacts with his or her caregiver—and the way in which the caregiver responds to the child--in relation to the wellbeing and subsequent success of the child. Mary Ainsworth developed the “strange situation” study, which allowed researchers to empirically study attachment behaviors in infants. While Bowlby and Ainsworth’s research (as well as Erikson’s first stage) focus primarily on infant-to-caregiver attachment, some contemporary theorists are extending attachment theory to adult relationships as well.
“In the 50 years since Bowlby and Ainsworth’s initial work in attachment theory, its basic premises have become well recognized and largely accepted into mainstream psychology and into popular culture as well” (Berghaus, 2011). While studies such as Ainsworth’s give clear validity to attachment theory in infants, modern researchers disagree on whether it is appropriate to apply the theory to adults. Some theorists—as well as popular culture--do so readily, but Barry J. Berghaus does not. He cites studies showing that the attachment style of a person in infancy does not necessarily predict their attachment style as adults; in fact, the correlation ranges from .20-.50 (Fraley, 2010). Berghaus explains that “attachment theorists simply accept/presume that internal working models exist, and from there assume that internal working models have a causal relationship with behavior” (2011). So, in spite of the popularity of attachment theory, Berghaus maintains that attachment theory—at least in relation to adults--is actually more philosophical than empirically based.
Attachment Theory was named and first written about by John Bowlby (Bretherton, 1992), however both Mary Ainsworth and Harry Harlow made significant contributions to it by doing formal studies which validated parts of the theory (Bretherton, 1992; Harlow, 1958). It is a contemporary theory, with the earliest written works being published in 1958, and research continuing in the present day. Bowlby was unique at the time for suggesting that there was a “possibility of helping children by helping parents” (Bretherton, 1992); in other words, that children who were not developing ideally could show improvement if their parents responded to them more reliably or affectionately. Bowlby believed strongly in the role of nurture in human development, and emphasized social networks as well as the parent-child relationship, and “[called] to society to provide support for parents,” (Bretherton, 1992), but those parts of his theory have often overlooked or ignored by subsequent researchers, who have focused on one-to-one attachments. “Bowlby also took great pains to draw a clear distinction between the old social learning theory concept of dependency and the new concept of attachment, noting that attachment is not indicative of regression, hut rather performs a natural, healthy function even in adult life” (Bretherton, 1992). While some recent theorists argue whether attachment theory can appropriately be applied to adults (Berghaus, 2011), others have found positive correlations between secure attachment in early childhood and increased IQ scores, or secure attachment patterns in adult romantic relationships (Fraley, 2010). The correlations vary in strength, and thus they can be hotly debated.
Though attachment theory seems to apply for small children in cultures around the world (Bretherton, 1992), the percentages of children who develop each type of attachment varies, almost certainly due to cultural norms about parenting (for example whether the children are routinely left with a non-parent caregiver, or how often they are held). Since children in diverse cultures can still become healthy adults, one must question whether one style of attachment is necessarily better than another, or whether the important thing is simply for the parent to be reliably responsive to the child. Attachment theory might have a more universal application if the definitions of types of attachment were broadened.
One area where attachment theory does not seem to work is with autism. The “ideal” form of attachment (secure attachment) is defined in part as a child who experiences separation anxiety when the parent leaves, and seeks comfort from them when they return, but autistic children often refuse physical contact because it overstimulates them, and may prefer to be solitary, even when very young (Grandin, 1996).
Berghaus, B. J. (2011). A new look at attachment theory & adult “attachment” behavior. Behaviorology Today, 14(2), 3-10. Retrieved from
Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/online/inge_origins.pdf
Fraley, R. C. (2010). A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research. Retrieved from http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
Grandin, T. (1996). Thinking in pictures: and other reports from my life with autism. New York: Vintage.
Harlow, H. F. (1958) The nature of love. First published in American Psychologist, 13, 673-685. Retrieved from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Harlow/love.htm