Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Rise of Attachment Theory

On the rare occasions that I make it back from work before her bedtime, my two year old daughter leaps up from whatever she is doing to rush to the door, open it for me and throw herself into my arms. There is no doubt that young children form very strong emotional attachments to their parents, as their parents do to them. Deprived of these attachments, children become miserable but as they grow up they become better able to cope with parental absence. I see mine every few weeks, my wife sees hers, who live in Australia, about once a year.
Observing the difference between a happy child in a stable family with strong bonds to its parents and one without such supports, it is easy to conclude that these early attachments have a lasting impact on the way that we develop. Shortly after the Second World War, John Bowlby, a psychologist, first published his theories about the importance of bring up children in a loving environment where they can form solid relationships with their parents. He developed his work over the years and more recently it has been carried on by Mary Ainsworth, among others.

Attachment theory quickly became the core idea behind child development. It made logical sense and it could be empirically proven. Numerous studies showed that children brought up in loving homes where they could form stable attachments developed into well-adjusted adults. On the other hand, children from broken homes who had been neglected, or were brought up in foster care, had much less successful outcomes. The statistics did not lie and attachment theory was enthroned as a scientific success.

There were a couple of flies in the ointment. Autism was one. In the 1950s, an attachment theorist called Bruno Bettelheim suggested that autism was caused by cold or withdrawn mothers who did not allow their children to form emotional bonds with them. As a result, he claimed that the children withdrew into themselves and became autistic. A generation of mothers was condemned as the reason that their children were handicapped, just adding to their anguish. But eventually it was realised that if one of a mother’s children was autistic but the rest were not, there was little justification for blaming her. Attachment theory, of course, need not be disproved by a single failure, and a veil was drawn over the autism debacle.

By the 1980s, attachment theorists had to deal with another more formidable fly – feminism. Feminists hated the idea that they were supposed to stay at home bringing up baby rather than getting on with their lives. Battle lines were drawn between breasts and bottles, and between stay-at-home mothers and career girls. Political conservatives discovered attachment theory was an excellent argument for traditional lifestyles. But after some hard fighting, this was a battle the feminists won and it is, in general, no longer acceptable to cast aspersions on a woman who places her baby in a nursery at six months so that she can go back to work. But there is no reason why women’s lifestyle choices should cast doubt on attachment theory as a scientific success. Today it remains the first thing that anyone studying child development covers; it is the foundation of the social services system in the UK; and it supports an entire industry of psychologists and councillors. It has only one drawback – it is almost complete rubbish. Next time I’ll explain why.

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Anonymous said...

James: I definitely appreciate you taking the time to post on this topic. Certainly looking forward to the next post. :-D

Just a few quick points.

As I pointed out with the Pinker article, autism can't be used for what you or Pinker are trying to use it for.

The fact is that they simply do not yet know what causes autism. They know there is 'some' hereditary predisposition (which has yet to be truly identified), but at least to my knowledge its not been suggested that it's inherited in the strict sense of the word.

Until the true cause is known, neither 'side' can use it to much real effect.

In addition, I get the impression that you think the argument is that AT dismisses the genetic influence on development.

At least in any forum I've learned or discussed it, I've never seen that suggestion.

Attachment and bonding are thought to be one very crucial element in the overall picture, but it's not the blank slate argument by any stretch of the imagination.

Anonymous said...

I am currently off reading some of the criticisms of AT to see if I can get a feel for what's 'in store.'(currently I am reading some of the critique done by J.R. Harris), and felt it worthwhile to bring up another point that I initially intended to set aside, but now realize is pertinent.

I noticed something in your previous post, and I am seeing again in the criticisms. And it is a rather fatal misunderstanding of what AT is, and at least Harris' criticism serves to prove rather than disprove AT.

The misunderstanding seems to be that AT only involves parental bonds/ties to the child. This is not so. AT posits that the child can become attached to any individual/group to whom they are pursuing attachment, or more correctly which is trying to 'win' their attachment.

So in the critique I am seeing stuf like this...

"If a child is brought up in a crime-ridden area, they will be susceptible to committing these same kinds of crimes. This is because of the high rate of peer pressure and the want to fit in to the group. Even if the parents try to bring up their children the best way possible, chances are that if they associate with delinquents, they will become one.** But if you take a child headed down the wrong path and move him to new environment such as a small suburban town, chances are he will get himself on the right track, because he is trying to fit in with a new peer group (Harris, 1998)."

But the dynamic primarily at play here is not's still attachment.

In this case, the child has primarily attached to the peer group and is taking it's cues from them (for good or ill).

At bottom, AT posits that whoever has the child's primary attachment (who has 'won their heart') will exert the greatest influence on them.

Showing that peers sometimes 'win out' in the competition for the child's attachment isn't telling us anything new, and far from showing that AT is wrong, it bolsters it.

It shows that an attachment (to peers in this case) can take a child from being a criminal to a good citizen. That's 'nurture' (the influence of the culture/environment/external influence) even if it's not what we'd consider 'nurturing.'

**And hidden in this is the corresponding truth that if the child does NOT associate with delinquents, they WON’T become one.

Again, this holds perfectly with what AT is saying.

If the parents hold the ‘heart’ of the child they can influence them despite the surrounding environment, but if the peers hold the role of primary attachment ‘figure’, it is they who will influence the child most. Either way, the attachment of the child (meaning who the child is attached to) is at least as important as any natural/genetic make up of the child.

I do hope your next post takes AT for what it really is, rather than thinking that AT is speaking about the bonds/attachment of parents alone. AT is saying MUCH more than that.

Niall said...

You could say that autism is genetic, but only in the same way that you could say that homosexuality is genetic. Personally, I know a pair of identical twins of whom has autism while the other has Asperger's.

It would also be pretty strange to talk about AT as something that exists in opposition to biological/genetic accounts given that from the beginning most attachment theorists have emphasised that attachment is an adaptation.

I'm rather looking forward to your next post James, but I'm very skeptical that anybody could dismiss AT outright. There's just far too much evidence out there to support it. Of course, certain claims made by certain theorists can be dismissed, but all AT...

James said...

Next post tomorrow, I hope.

I am not saying autism is purely genetic, merely that the AT explanation back in the 60s was wrong. FWIW, I think it may have a link to pathogens (although not MMR of course), like many cancers do. So there probably is an enviromental factor or two, just not any nurturing ones.

But that hardly means nurturing doesn't effect anything else either.