Vol.3 Issue 1 Gennaio 1997
Bowlby's Attachment Theory advances a multidisciplinary stance in which psychoanalysis is integrated with ethology and sociobiology, psychobiology, the cybernetic theory of control systems and modern structural approach to cognitive development. In spite of the fact that the integration of these disciplines was first undertaken in order to understand the origin, function and development of the child's early socio-emotional relations, Bowlby's Theory of Attachment is in actual fact deeply embedded in a general theory of behaviour which is an outgrowth of these manifold origins.
The concept of attachment as conceived by Bowlby differs
deeply from other theoretical approaches in a number of important
For instance, attachment behaviour is seen as belonging to a behavioural system (Bowlby (1969-1982): A & L, vol. 1: Attachment) and not in terms of a particular discrete behaviour.
The expression "behavioural system" has been borrowed by Bowlby from the ethologists who use it instead of the term 'instinct', insofar as this term is viewed as nonexplanatory and furthermore leading to simplistic theorization.
The term "behavioural system" stands for the underlying organizational structure mediating a variety of observable discrete behaviours.
Even though this underlying structure is thought to be neuroendocrine in nature, no claim is forwarded as to extant isomorphic mechanisms within the CNS with the proposed behavioural systems.
The hypothesis Bowlby advances is akin to a software programme whereby computerized application performs certain tasks withouth tight references to the kind of circuitry the computer is equipped with.
Behavioural systems are assisted by feedback mechanisms
allowing the individual to correct the ongoing behaviour which
may show certain degrees of discrepancy with the behaviour which
is necessary to attain the desired goal.
The attachment behavioural system in human infants is mediated by discrete observable behaviours: smiling, crying, following, approaching, clinging, etc. Each and every behaviour has the predictable outcome of increasing proximity with the caregiver.
The attachment behavioural systems is also mediated by feelings in concordance with the state of the relationship. The advantage of counting with a behavioural system of this kind lies in that it is unnecessary and redundant to postulate discrete behavioural systems for each category of an attachment relationship, such as loving, rejoicing, mourning, yearning, and so on. (Cf. "newer" approaches by Kevin MacDonald, Phil Shaver, Mary Main, Kim Bartholomew, Inge Bretherton, Joy Osofsky, etc.)
Pride of place is given in Bowlby's Theory of Attachment to
the biological function of behaviour (Bowlby, A & L, vols
1-3). According to contemporary evolutionary thinking, structures
and behavioural systems are now present in the population because
they contributed to the reproductive success of the bearers in
the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (which is the
environment in which the species emerged).
What is then the biological function of attachment, that which gives survival advantage to the individuals genetically biased to seek and keep proximity between infant and caregiver?: protection of the infant from harm.
Under certain ecological conditions, Natural Selection favours individuals who invest heavily on childcare and upbringing. These parents protect (they actually protect their own genes) their offspring from predatory and parasitic animals.
During evolutionary time, strong selection pressures have led individuals to discriminatebetween their own and other young (Bateson, PPG, 1979). Filial imprinting is a phenomenon whereby the young quickly learn to recognize their parents thereby following them everywhere, keeping proximity to them and avoiding contact with any other but close kin.
The young need to discriminate between the parent that cares for them and other member of their species because parents discriminate between their own offspring and other young of the same species and may actually attack young which are not their own.
Both selective pressures, protection from predation and filial imprinting contribute in important ways to the formation and strengthening of attachment bonds, serving the purpose of obtaining and 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) Bowlby proposes that the infant's bond with his mother is
mediated by just such species-characteristic behaviour patterns
and not by the mother's role in feeding or otherwise satisfying
the infant's biological needs. Thus attachment behaviour is held
to be a kind of social behaviour tantamount to that of mating or
parental behaviour and is deemed to have a function specific to
A human infant's attachment behavioural system becomes apparent through discrete observable such as smiling and crying, which are deemed to possess a signalling function that serves to activate maternal behaviour and bring the adult into proximity to the child.
Rooting, grasping, sucking, following, approaching, clinging are behaviours whereby the infant plays an active role in seeking proximity and contact. As from birth these behaviours become coordinated and focused on the mother (or attachment figure) to form the basis of attachment. In any case, the infant becomes attached to the caregiver with whom he has had more interaction, generally his mother. As the infant develops, he becomes increasingly effective in seeking and maintaining proximity to his preferred figure.
When the child achieves locomotion a new behavioural system becomes activated, that of exploratory behaviour. Exploration of the environment is antithetical to attachment. It is of the utmost importance to focus the relationship of the infant to his mother as keeping a balance in the interplay between both systems.
One of the most important functions of the attachment behavioural system is to intervene in the baby's excursions into the environment, in response to a variety of potentially dangerous events, thereby deactivating the exploratory system and activating the attachment system thus seeking proximity to his mother.
Several studies show that children approach their caregivers not only in response to dangerous external stimuli but also they do so to check the availability and attentiveness of the caregiver, in a sort of permanent monitoring activity. After such checking the childwanders off to play again; after a while he returns again, and so on. This kind of of behavioural pattern is referred to in the literature 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 the attachment 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, the psychology and psychopathology of emotion is deemed to be largely the psychology and psychopathology of affectional bonds.
Psychopathology is regarded as due to a person having suffered
or still be suffering the consequences of disturbed patterns of
attachment, leading the person to have followed a deviant pathway
of development. Infancy, chilhood and adolescence are seen as
sensitive periods during which attachment behaviour develops
-normally or deviously- according to the experience the
individual has with his attachment figures.
Finally, loss or threat of loss of the attachment figure is seen as the principal pathogenic agent in the development of psychopathology.
As regards the development of anti-social, aggressive behaviour, it has been found that psychopathy generally, and felony, in particular, are deeply rooted in early histories of deserting,threatening, violent parents. Furthermore, confirmed psychopaths such as criminals, murderers and other systematic social offenders; delinquents, in a word, usually report histories of early adverse parental attitudes and disrupted relationships, particularly mother threats of desertion as a means of discipline. Moreover, a vicious spiral seems to arise from the mixed feeling of anxiety and anger aroused by threats of this kind.
For, while on the one hand a child is made furiously angry by a parent's threat to desert, on the other. he dare not express that anger in case it makes the parent actually do so. This is the main reason why in these cases anger at a parent usually turns repressed and is then redirected to other targets: spouses, siblings, children, friends, profession, institutions, armies, or even more vulnerable targets: feeble schoolmates, feeble couples, feeble friends, parents, relatives, institutions, nations, and so on.
Preventative interventions should be the natural outcome of
research on early mother-infant relationships. It is an
undebatable issue that it proves far more fruitful to prevent a
condition from becoming established than attmpt to erradicate it
once settled in.
For instance, it would be much better to try to prevent mother-child separation at early stages of development -if humanly possible- than trying to cure an adult from the emotional derangement the said separation brings about. .
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