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Attachment Theory

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Attachment theory is meant to describe and explain people's enduring patterns of relationships from birth to death. This domain overlaps considerably with that of
Interpersonal Theory. Because attachment is thought to have an evolutionary basis, attachment theory is also related to Evolutionary Psychology.

Attachment Styles: An Evolving Taxonomy of Evolutionarily Adaptive and Maladaptive Affectional Bonds

The above model (taken from
Bartholomew, 1990) is one representation of attachment styles, or ways of dealing with attachment, separation, and loss in close personal relationships. Attachment was first studied in non-human animals, then in human infants, and later in human adults.

Basic research on animal behavior, if it is to apply to humans, must assume that there is homology between the animal and human processes. Homology means that anatomical or behavioral structures in different species share a common function and common underlying mechanisms due to the fact that the species evolved from a common ancestor. Ethological studies on imprinting might appear relevant to human attachment research, since imprinting appears to be a variety of parent-offspring attachment. But as one author says, "The charming tales of geese and cranes that court their keepers (to whom they were imprinted as hatchlings) have beguiled us all" (Klopfer, 1984, p. 157). While imprinting may appear similar to human parent-offspring bonding, imprinting in geese, cranes, ducks, etc. probably does not meet the homology requirement, since birds and mammals both evolved from lizards, and present-day lizards show no evidence of parent-offspring bonding (Crnic, Reite, & Shucard, 1982).

Research shows that attachment occurs in dogs and monkeys (Crnic et al., 1982; Gacsi, Topal, Miklosi, Doka, & Csanyi, 2001; Topal, Miklosi, Csanyi, & Doka, 1998). A line of animal research that might be relevant to human attachment is Harlow's experiments showing that infant monkeys prefer a soft terry cloth mother surrogate to a wire one, even when only the wire one dispenses milk. Also, severely deprived infant monkeys often come to behave differently from their normally reared peers (Novak & Harlow, 1975).

When a human or non-human primate infant is separated from its parent, the infant goes through a series of three stages of emotional reactions. First is protest, in which the infant cries and refuses to be consoled by others. Second is despair, in which the infant is sad and passive. Third is detachment, in which the infant actively disregards and avoids the parent if the parent returns (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).

The fundamental assumption in attachment research on human infants is that sensitive responding by the parent to the infant's needs results in an infant who demonstrates secure attachment, while lack of such sensitive responding results in insecure attachment (Lamb, Thompson, Gardner, Charnov, & Estes, 1984). Theorists have postulated several varieties of insecure attachment. Ainsworth originally proposed two: avoidant, and resistant (also called ambivalent; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). This triarchic taxonomy of secure, avoidant, and resistant attachment was developed as a way of classifying infant behavior in the "strange situation."

Attachment theory provides not only a framework for understanding emotional reactions in infants, but also a framework for understanding love, loneliness, and grief in adults. Attachment styles in adults are thought to stem directly from the working models (or mental models) of oneself and others that were developed during infancy and childhood. Ainsworth's three-fold taxonomy of attachment styles has been translated into terms of adult romantic relationships as follows (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).
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Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Bartholomew, K. (1990). Avoidance of intimacy: An attachment perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 147-178.

Crnic, L. S., Reite, M. L., & Shucard, D. W. (1982). Animal models of human behavior: Their application to the study of attachment. In R. N. Emde & R. J. Harmon (Eds.), The development of attachment and affiliative systems (pp. 31-42). New York: Plenum.

Gacsi, M., Topal, J., Miklosi, A., Doka, A., & Csanyi, V. (2001). Attachment behavior of adult dogs (Canis familiaris) living at rescue centers: Forming new bonds. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115, 423-431.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

Klopfer, P. H. (1984). Caveats on the use of evolutionary concepts. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7, 156-157.

Lamb, M. E., Thompson, R. A., Gardner, W. P., Charnov, E. L, & Estes, D. (1984). Security of infantile attachment as assessed in the "strange situation": Its study and biological interpretation. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7, 127-171.

Novak, M. A., & Harlow, H. F. (1975). Social recovery of monkeys isolated for the first years of life. Developmental Psychology, 11, 453-465.

Topal, J., Miklosi, A., Csanyi, V., & Doka, A. (1998). Attachment behavior in dogs (Canis familiaris): A new application of Ainsworth's (1969) Strange Situation Test. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 112, 219-229.

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Last modified September 2002

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