Early Attachment and
ROSS A. THOMPSON
Throughout much of human history, philosophers have speculated about how the child foreshadows the adult that is to be. During the past century of psychological theorizing, scientific answers to this classic question have been sought in studies of the long-term sequelae of early differences in intelligence or temperament. At the same time, psychoanalytic theorists have argued that early relational influences also have enduring consequences for psychological growth. This view was crystallized in Freud’s (1940/1963, p. 45) famous dictum that the infant–mother relationship is “unique, without parallel, established unalterably for a whole lifetime as the first and strongest love-object and as the prototype of all later love-relations.” Drawing on this psychoanalytic heritage, Bowlby (1969/1982, 1973) enlisted formulations from evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, and control systems theory to argue that a warm and continuous relationship with a caregiver promotes psychological health and well-being throughout life in a manner that accords with the adaptive requirements of the human species. In collaboration with Ainsworth (1967, 1973), he proposed that differences in the security of infant–mother attachment may have significant long-term implications for later intimate relationships, selfunderstanding, and even psychopathology.
It is unsurprising that with the development and validation of the strange situation procedure for measuring variations in early attachment security, Bowlby’s provocative theoretical formulations would be tested in a series of short-term longitudinal studies. Beginning in the late 1970s, researchers observed infants in the strange situation and in later follow-up assessments to determine whether a secure or insecure attachment foreshadowed later psychological functioning. It is perhaps more surprising to survey the scope and breadth of research on the consequences of early attachment in the two decades that followed. Individual differences in attachment in infancy have been studied in relation to a dizzying variety of later outcomes, including parent–child interaction; relations with peers, friends, and siblings; behavior with unfamiliar adults; competence in preschool and kindergarten; exploration and play; intelligence and language ability; ego resilience and ego control; frustration tolerance; curiosity; self-recognition; social cognition; behavioral problems and other indicators of incipient psychopathology; and many other variables. Longitudinal follow-up studies have spanned periods of several months to decades, and have included observations; self-reports; reports from parents, teachers, and peers; standardized tests; and a variety of other assessments. Guided by a general expectation that a secure attachment predicts better later functioning, researchers have proposed a broad variety of specific formulations to account for hypothesized relations be