©1997 POL.it
Vol.3 Issue 1 Gennaio 1997


Bowlby's Attachment Theory advances a multidisciplinary stance inwhich psychoanalysis is integrated with ethology and sociobiology,psychobiology, the cybernetic theory of control systems and modernstructural approach to cognitive development. In spite of the factthat the integration of these disciplines was first undertaken inorder to understand the origin, function and development of thechild's early socio-emotional relations, Bowlby's Theory ofAttachment is in actual fact deeply embedded in a general theory ofbehaviour which is an outgrowth of these manifold origins.

The concept of attachment as conceived by Bowlby differs deeply fromother theoretical approaches in a number of important respects.
Forinstance, attachment behaviour is seen as belonging to a behaviouralsystem (Bowlby (1969-1982): A & L, vol. 1: Attachment) and not interms of a particular discrete behaviour.
The expression"behavioural system" has been borrowed by Bowlby from theethologists who use it instead of the term 'instinct', insofar asthis term is viewed as nonexplanatory and furthermore leading tosimplistic theorization.
The term "behavioural system" stands for the underlyingorganizational structure mediating a variety of observable discretebehaviours.
Even though this underlying structure is thought to beneuroendocrine in nature, no claim is forwarded as to extantisomorphic mechanisms within the CNS with the proposed behaviouralsystems.
The hypothesis Bowlby advances is akin to a softwareprogramme whereby computerized application performs certain taskswithouth tight references to the kind of circuitry the computer isequipped with.

Behavioural systems are assisted by feedback mechanisms allowing theindividual to correct the ongoing behaviour which may show certaindegrees of discrepancy with the behaviour which is necessary toattain the desired goal.
The attachment behavioural system in human infants is mediated bydiscrete observable behaviours: smiling, crying, following,approaching, clinging, etc. Each and every behaviour has thepredictable outcome of increasing proximity with the caregiver.
Theattachment behavioural systems is also mediated by feelings inconcordance with the state of the relationship. The advantage ofcounting with a behavioural system of this kind lies in that it isunnecessary and redundant to postulate discrete behavioural systemsfor each category of an attachment relationship, such as loving,rejoicing, mourning, yearning, and so on. (Cf. "newer" approaches byKevin MacDonald, Phil Shaver, Mary Main, Kim Bartholomew, IngeBretherton, Joy Osofsky, etc.)

Pride of place is given in Bowlby's Theory of Attachment to thebiological function of behaviour (Bowlby, A & L, vols 1-3).According to contemporary evolutionary thinking, structures andbehavioural systems are now present in the population because theycontributed to the reproductive success of the bearers in theenvironment of evolutionary adaptedness (which is the environment inwhich the species emerged).
What is then the biological function ofattachment, that which gives survival advantage to the individualsgenetically biased to seek and keep proximity between infant andcaregiver?: protection of the infant from harm.
Under certain ecological conditions, Natural Selection favoursindividuals who invest heavily on childcare and upbringing. Theseparents protect (they actually protect their own genes) theiroffspring from predatory and parasitic animals.
During evolutionary time, strong selection pressures have ledindividuals to discriminatebetween their own and other young(Bateson, PPG, 1979). Filial imprinting is a phenomenon whereby theyoung quickly learn to recognize their parents thereby followingthem everywhere, keeping proximity to them and avoiding contact withany other but close kin.
The young need to discriminate between theparent that cares for them and other member of their species becauseparents discriminate between their own offspring and other young ofthe same species and may actually attack young which are not theirown.
Both selective pressures, protection from predation and filialimprinting contribute in important ways to the formation andstrengthening of attachment bonds, serving the purpose of obtainingand maintaining an optimal proximity between young and parents.

In a paper entitled "The Nature of the Child's Tie to His Mother"(1958, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-73) Bowlbyproposes that the infant's bond with his mother is mediated by justsuch species-characteristic behaviour patterns and not by themother's role in feeding or otherwise satisfying the infant'sbiological needs. Thus attachment behaviour is held to be a kind ofsocial behaviour tantamount to that of mating or parental behaviourand is deemed to have a function specific to itself.
A human infant's attachment behavioural system becomes apparentthrough discrete observable such as smiling and crying, which aredeemed to possess a signalling function that serves to activatematernal behaviour and bring the adult into proximity to the child.
Rooting, grasping, sucking, following, approaching, clinging arebehaviours whereby the infant plays an active role in seekingproximity and contact. As from birth these behaviours becomecoordinated and focused on the mother (or attachment figure) to formthe basis of attachment. In any case, the infant becomes attached tothe caregiver with whom he has had more interaction, generally hismother. As the infant develops, he becomes increasingly effective inseeking and maintaining proximity to his preferred figure.
When the child achieves locomotion a new behavioural system becomesactivated, that of exploratory behaviour. Exploration of theenvironment is antithetical to attachment. It is of the utmostimportance to focus the relationship of the infant to his mother askeeping a balance in the interplay between both systems.
One of the most important functions of the attachment behaviouralsystem is to intervene in the baby's excursions into theenvironment, in response to a variety of potentially dangerousevents, thereby deactivating the exploratory system and activatingthe attachment system thus seeking proximity to his mother.
Several studies show that children approach their caregivers notonly in response to dangerous external stimuli but also they do so tocheck the availability and attentiveness of the caregiver, in a sortof permanent monitoring activity. After such checking thechildwanders off to play again; after a while he returns again, andso on. This kind of of behavioural pattern is referred to in theliterature as the baby using his mother as a Secure Base (Ainsworth,1978, Patterns of Attachment).
Affectional bonds are formed as a result of interactions with theattachment figure, that is to say, between child and parent.Emotional life is seen as dependent on the formation, maintenance,disruption or renewal of attachment relationships. Consequently, thepsychology and psychopathology of emotion is deemed to be largely thepsychology and psychopathology of affectional bonds.

Psychopathology is regarded as due to a person having suffered orstill be suffering the consequences of disturbed patterns ofattachment, leading the person to have followed a deviant pathway ofdevelopment. Infancy, chilhood and adolescence are seen as sensitiveperiods during which attachment behaviour develops -normally ordeviously- according to the experience the individual has with hisattachment figures.
Finally, loss or threat of loss of the attachment figure is seen asthe principal pathogenic agent in the development ofpsychopathology.
As regards the development of anti-social, aggressive behaviour, ithas been found that psychopathy generally, and felony, inparticular, are deeply rooted in early histories ofdeserting,threatening, violent parents. Furthermore, confirmedpsychopaths such as criminals, murderers and other systematic socialoffenders; delinquents, in a word, usually report histories of earlyadverse parental attitudes and disrupted relationships, particularlymother threats of desertion as a means of discipline. Moreover, avicious spiral seems to arise from the mixed feeling of anxiety andanger aroused by threats of this kind.
For, while on the one hand achild is made furiously angry by a parent's threat to desert, on theother. he dare not express that anger in case it makes the parentactually do so. This is the main reason why in these cases anger ata parent usually turns repressed and is then redirected to othertargets: spouses, siblings, children, friends, profession,institutions, armies, or even more vulnerable targets: feebleschoolmates, feeble couples, feeble friends, parents, relatives,institutions, nations, and so on.

Preventative interventions should be the natural outcome of researchon early mother-infant relationships. It is an undebatable issuethat it proves far more fruitful to prevent a condition frombecoming established than attmpt to erradicate it once settled in.
For instance, it would be much better to try to prevent mother-childseparation at early stages of development -if humanly possible- thantrying to cure an adult from the emotional derangement the saidseparation brings about..



vai all'indice della rivista

© 1996
Priory Lodge Education Ltd.

Pages edited in Genoa (Italy) by logo feedbackFrancesco Bollorino

Graphic designers: Stefania Orengo, Stefano Piccardo.
HTML Optimization: Giovanni Sarbia