Attachment Theory in Modern
JEFFRY A. SIMPSON
It has often been assumed that animals were in the first place rendered social, and that
they feel as a consequence uncomfortable when separated from each other, and
comfortable whilst together; but it is a more probable view that these sensations were
first developed, in order that those animals which would profit by living in society,
should be induced to live together, … for with those animals which were benefited by
living in close association, the individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society
would best escape various dangers; whilst those that cared least for their comrades and
lived solitary would perish in greater numbers.
—DARWIN (1871/1981, Vol. 1, p. 80)
In some respects, as this quotation suggests, Charles Darwin may have been the first attachment theorist. Although he focused on “society” (instead of significant persons in an individual’s life) and “comrades” (instead of attachment figures), Darwin was the first person to appreciate the degree to which human social nature may have been the product of strong, directional selection pressures. John Bowlby, who not only admired Darwin’s theoretical vision but served as one of his principal biographers (see Bowlby, 1991), spent much of his remarkable career treading an intellectual path that Darwin had established. Melding ideas from Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, object relations theory, control systems theory, evolutionary biology, and the fields of ethology and cognitive psychology, Bowlby (1969/1982, 1973, 1980) developed a grand theory of personality development across the lifespan—attachment theory. One reason why attachment theory is so unique, generative, and prominent in contemporary social and behavioral sciences is because of its deep, foundational ties to principles of evolution. Indeed, as we shall see, attachment theory is an evolutionary theory.
Bowlby’s interest in the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral ties that bind humans to one another began with an astute observation. Across all human cultures and even several primate species, young and vulnerable infants tend to display a specific sequence of reactions following separation from their stronger, older, and often wiser caregivers. Immediately after separation, infants often protest vehemently, crying, screaming, and throwing temper tantrums as they search for their caregivers. Bowlby reasoned that strong protest during the early phases of caregiver absence is a good initial strategy to promote survival, particularly in species with developmentally immature and highly dependent infants. Intense protests often bring caregivers back to their infants, who, during evolutionary history, should have been vulnerable to injury or predation if left unattended even for brief periods of time.