Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications

By Jude Cassidy; Phillip R. Shaver | Go to book overview

1
The Nature of the Child’s Ties

JUDE CASSIDY

John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory can be viewed as starting shortly after his graduation from Cambridge University, with the observations he made when he worked in a home for maladjusted boys. Two boys, both of whom had suffered disruptions in their relationships with their mothers, made important impressions on him. Bowlby’s more systematic retrospective examination, published over a decade later as “Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home Life” (Bowlby, 1944), as well as the observations of others (Bender & Yarnell, 1941; Goldfarb, 1943), convinced him that major disruptions in the mother–child relationship are precursors of later psychopathology. Bowlby’s observations led not only to his belief that the relationship with the mother is important for later functioning, but also to a belief that this relationship is of critical immediate importance to the child. Bowlby, along with his colleague James Robertson, observed that children experienced intense distress when separated from their mothers, even if they were fed and cared for by others. A predictable pattern emerged—one of angry protest followed by despair (Robertson & Bowlby, 1952). Bowlby came to wonder why the mother is so important to the child.

At the time, the two widely accepted theories that offered explanations for the child’s tie to the mother were both secondary-drive theories. Psychoanalytic and social learning theorists alike proposed that the infant’s relationship with the mother emerges because she feeds the infant (e.g., Freud, 1910/1957; Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1959), and that the pleasure experienced upon having hunger drives satisfied comes to be associated with the mother’s presence in positive ways. When Bowlby was first developing attachment theory, he became aware of evidence from animal studies that seriously called this perspective into question. Lorenz (1935) noted that infant geese became attached to parents that did not feed them. Harlow (1958) observed that infant rhesus monkeys, in times of stress, preferred not the wire-mesh “mother” that provided food, but the cloth-covered “mother” that afforded contact comfort. Soon systematic observations of human infants were made, and it became evident that babies too became attached to people who did not feed them (Ainsworth, 1967; Schaffer & Emerson, 1964). Years later, Bowlby recalled that

this [secondary-drive] theory did not seem to me to
fit the facts. For example, were it true, an infant of a
year or two should take readily to whomever feeds
him, and this clearly is not the case. But, if the sec-
ondary drive dependency theory was inadequate,
what was the alternative? (1980b, p. 650)

Because he found himself dissatisfied with traditional theories, Bowlby sought new understanding through discussion with colleagues from such fields as evolutionary biology, ethology, developmental psychology, cognitive science, and control systems theory (Bowlby, 1969/ 1982). He drew upon all of these fields to formulate the innovative proposition that the mechanisms underlying the infant’s tie to the mother originally emerged as a result of evolutionary pressures. For Bowlby, this strikingly strong tie, evident particularly when disrupted, results not from an associational learning process (a sec

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