A Comparison of Attachment Theory and Individual Psychology: A Review of the Literature

Article excerpt

In a special issue of the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy (Watts, 1997), several modern cognitive, cognitive-behavioral, and constructionist theorists addressed the similarities between their respective theories and the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (Dowd, 1997; Freeman & Urschel, 1997; Jones & Lyddon, 1997; B. H. Shulman &Watts, 1997; Sperry, 1997;Watkins, 1997;Watts & Critelli, 1997). It has been widely acknowledged that many of the underlying postulates that make up present-day cognitive therapies have their origin in Individual Psychology (Dowd, 1997; Freeman & Urschel, 1997; Watkins, 1997; Watts & Critelli, 1997). Although Individual Psychology is credited for its contribution to neo-analytical, humanistic, existential, transactional analysis, and cognitive-behavioral theories by their founders, many other cognitive theorists are unaware of their Adlerian heritage or are unwilling to acknowledge it (Carlson, 1991; Eckstein & Baruth, 1996; May, 1989; Watts & Critelli, 1997). Often, practitioners of these cognitive-based therapeutic approaches borrow from the work of attachment theorists as a theoretical base on which to ground their ideas (Dowd, 1997). However, several authors have begun to develop attachment theory more fully as a system for wider use in therapeutic interventions rather than for use simply as a theoretical anchor point for cognitive psychotherapies (Dowd, 1997; Hughes, 1997; Jones & Lyddon, 1997; B. H. Shulman &Watts, 1997; Watkins, 1997).

Although theorists have begun to examine the similarities between attachment theory and Individual Psychology, there has been no previous systematic blending of the two theories on a large scale (Jones & Lyddon, 1997; Smith, Mullis, Brack, & Kern, 1999; Watts & Critelli, 1997). The major areas of convergence between the two theories are that both include a coherent and stable view of the self and the world and that both acknowledge the importance of social interaction for the expression of these patterns. In this article, the major theoretical tenets of attachment theory and Individual Psychology are outlined. We assert that elements of these two theories are similar to each other. To bolster this argument, we discuss issues related to measuring the core constructs of these theories. Finally, we conclude with additional suggestions for areas in which clinicians and researchers of either theory may collaborate.


Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby in the 1950s and 1960s as an extension of psychoanalytic theory. Attachment behavior, according to Bowlby (1969), has both a protective and instructive function. The protective function serves to keep the child close enough to the mother in times of potential danger so that the infant can be protected. When there is no danger, the instructive function of attachment is indicated, as the mother becomes a secure base from which the child can explore the environment (Bowlby, 1988; Crittenden, 1988; Krause & Haverkamp, 1996). Bowlby proposed that the maintenance of affectional bonds, especially between a mother and her young child, is essential to the survival of the human species (Bowlby, 1988; Crittenden, 1988). Infant attachment relationships can be broadly classified as secure or insecure (Belsky & Nezworski, 1988), and the quality of care an infant experiences can determine the quality of the attachment relationship and mitigate potential developmental difficulties (Sroufe, 1988).

Ainsworth and her associates (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) experimentally defined three subgroupings of attachment relationships--secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-resistant (or ambivalent) attachment styles (Belsky & Nezworski, 1988; Benoit & Parker, 1994). According to Bowlby (1969, 1973) and others (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Sroufe, 1988), a secure attachment is characterized by intense feelings of intimacy, emotional security, and physical safety when the infant is in the presence of an attachment figure. …


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