Becoming Attached

What experiences in infancy will enable children to thrive emotionally and to come to feel that the world of people is a positive place? Attachment theorists believe they have some answers.
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Bowlby

Seven years her senior, John Bowlby already made a name for himself with the publication of Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves, which noted the high proportion of delinquent boys who had suffered early maternal separations. He was now at work on a report to the World Health Organization on the mental health of homeless children, who were a big problem in the postwar years. Published in 1951, Maternal Care and Mental Health warned against separating children from their mothers even mothers who were untidy and neglectful. It asserted that children suffering maternal deprivation are at increased risk for physical and mental illness, and that even a clean, well meaning, and well run institution unless it somehow provided a true maternal substitute was unlikely to save a small child from being irreversibly damaged by the age of three.

During the late thirties Bowlby was supervised in child treatment by Melanie Klein, a brilliant and original Vienna born analyst and the inventor of psychoanalytic play therapy, who had won a large following in England after arriving there in 1926. One of the first avowed object relations theorists and a giant in the field to this day, Klein is also remembered by some for being eccentric, devious, and nasty.

"I trained with the Kleinians," says Bowiby, eightythree, a soft featured man with bushy white eyebrows, thinning white hair, and a proper, somewhat detached upper class bearing. "But I parted company with them, because I held that real life events the way parents treat a child are of key importance in determining development, and Melanie Klein would have none of it. The object relations that she was talking about were entirely internal relationships" that is, fantasy. "The notion that internal relationships reflect external relationships was totally missing from her thinking."

The very first case in which Klein supervised Bowlby, in the spring of 1938, set the tone. "I was seeing a small hyperactive boy five days a week. He was anxious, in and out of the room, all over the place. His mother used to bring him, and her job was to sit in the waiting room and take him home again. She was an extremely anxious, distressed woman, who was wringing her hands, in a very tense, unhappy state. But I was forbidden by Melanie Klein to talk to this poor woman."

In Bowlby's earlier work at the London Child Guidance Clinic, he says, "we were seeing parents as much as children and dealing, so far as we could, with parents' emotional problems," an approach that has become widespread today. But Klein was a purist and insisted that he see only the child.

"Well, I found this a rather painful situation, really. After three months the news reached me that the mother had been taken to a mental hospital, which didn't surprise me. And when I came to report this to Melanie Klein, her attitude was What a nuisance we shall have to find another case. The fact that this poor woman had a breakdown was of no clinical interest to her whatever; it might have been the man in the moon who was bringing this boy. So this horrified me, to be quite frank. And from that point onwards, my mission in life was to demonstrate that real life experiences have a very important effect on development."

When a goose or a duck is born, it attaches itself to the first moving object it sees. Almost invariably that will be its mother; although if a human scientist elbows his way into view first, the gosling or duckling will become hopelessly attached to him and follow him everywhere. Other instincts can similarly be distorted, or fail to develop at all, depending on what the young animal encounters or fails to encounter in its environment. We know this and many other facts about the bonding behavior of birds and mammals, thanks to the work of ethologists like Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen.

While Ainsworth was in London, Bowlby became, as he puts it, "addicted" to the work of these men. He immediately sensed that human beings, too, must have such bonding behaviors and intergenerational cues, that they, too, must be predisposed toward some sort of relational experience, and that with them, too, nature's intentions could go awry as they obviously had with that hyperactive boy if the environment failed them.

"I mean, talk about eureka," he says. "They were brilliant, first class scientists, brilliant observers, and studying family relationships in other species relationships which were obviously analogous with those of human beings and doing it so frightfully well. We were fumbling around in the dark; they were already in brilliant sunshine."

In addition to suggesting improved strategies of investigation, ethology gave Bowlby an explanation: separations from the mother are disastrous developmentally because they thwart an instinctual need. Bowlby soon declared that clinging, sucking, and following are all part of the child's instinctual repertoire, and that the goal of these behaviors is precisely to keep the mother close by. He saw the child's smile as a "social releaser" that elicits maternal care. And he abandoned the Freudian notion of drives, arising out of hidden forces like libido and aggression, which accumulate within us and crave discharge. Instead, Bowlby saw an array of innate behavior patterns — relationship seeking patterns like smiling, babbling, looking, and listening — that are enriched and developed by the responses they call forth from the environment.

Bowlby proceeded to define a series of developmental stages based on the maternal bond. During the first year the child is gradually able to display a complete range of "attachment behaviors," protesting his mother's departure, greeting her return, clinging when frightened, following when able. Such actions are instinctual and rooted in the biological fact that proximity to one's mother is satisfying, because it is essential to survival. The establishment, maintenance, and renewal of that proximity begets feelings of love, security, and joy. A lasting or untimely disruption brings on anxiety, grief, and depression.

Both Melanie Klein and Anna Freud, the rival doyennes of British psychoanalysis, found the analytic ethological concoction Bowlby was brewing distasteful, and they let their followers know it. Analytic critics charged him with, among other things, gross simplification of psychological theory; assuming that all pathology results from disturbances of the infant mother bond (when it was well known that early medical and environmental traumas could equally be at fault); and overlooking the infant's ability to develop a negative concept of his mother on wholly irrational grounds such as a failure to relieve his suffering despite her best efforts, or the arrival of a new sibling, which can bring forth intolerable feelings of abandonment, rage, and guilt. The debate was bitter, even though the participants were largely in the same camp, all of them psychoanalysts who accepted basic analytic principles. Even Ren&eeacute; Spitz, whose work on institutionalized children Bowlby respectfully cited, joined the public scolding.

Bowlby did find some fellow analysts at least cordial to his views. Most closely kindred was D. W Winnicott, a pediatrician turned psychoanalyst who had attained great stature as a theorist and was also the British equivalent of Dr. Spock. Winnicott, too, had taken strong positions, some of them pre dating Bowlby's, on both the centrality of the infant mother bond and the critical importance of the quality of mothering. His ideological proximity, although expressed in different language, gave Bowlby some comfort during this time.

But regardless of whether Bowlby's radical restructuring of psychoanalytic concepts was correct, he had plainly found a hole in analytic theory. For however closely attuned psychoanalysts had become in their practices to the impact of real life events and the ways in which parenting styles affect personality, their theories did not reflect it. In their writings psychoanalysts still focused mainly on the individual psyche and the workings of the unconscious in the average expectable environment. That was a big gap, and Bowlby was determined to fill it. He chose to do so by studying separations in and disruptions of the parent child relationship in the first five years of life, "because I thought that was researchable." Such investigations became the focus of his little unit at the Tavistock Clinic.

Ainsworth's responsibility in Bowlby's unit was to analyze and make sense of an enormous quantity of data that his people had collected, and to determine the direction for future research. One of those whose material she reviewed was James Robertson, a social worker who died recently, at the age of seventy seven. Robertson had been making detailed observations of young children who were being sent to the hospital, where, in the early 1950s, parents were allowed only very limited visits. Robertson's skillful observations captured the inconsolable agony and despair these separations created. When psychiatric experts insisted that no such trauma could have occurred, Robertson was infuriated. He decided to buy a camera and film the thing. His harrowing documentary, A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital, about little Laura's eight day separation from her parents, was influential in changing hospital practice to allow parents to make routine visits and to stay the night with their hospitalized children.

"It was Jimmy's work I most admired," says Ainsworth, who spent many hours wrestling Robertson's raw data into theory. "In studying separation he got acquainted with the families before the child was separated; he did observations of their behavior during the separation, and followed them when they came home. And I made up my mind that whenever I went elsewhere and could start a project, it would be a study of this sort direct observation in the natural environmentand that is what I did in Uganda."

Ainsworth's Home Studies

In 1954, Ainsworth followed her husband to Uganda, where she launched one of the pioneering studies in modern infant research. With no lab, with meager institutional support, with no help in collecting or analyzing the data, accompanied only by her interpreter, she rounded up twenty eight unweaned babies from several villages near Kampala and began observing them in their homes, using the careful, naturalistic techniques that Lorenz and Tinbergen had applied to goslings and stickleback fish. It was a happy time for her. She loved doing research, and she loved the contact with babies, which her own marriage had failed to produce.

Ainsworth immediately felt that Bowlby had been right. A baby is not a passive recipient creature who becomes attached to his mother because she satisfies his needs. "These were very active babies. They went after what they wanted. I began to see certain behaviors that indicated that the baby was becoming attached, and I was able to list them in chronological order of appearance. There was, for instance, the differential stopping of crying. The mother picked up the baby, the baby would stop crying, but if somebody else tried to pick him up at that point, he would continue to cry. Differential smiling. Differential vocalizations. I began to see different situations where attachment to the mother could be spotted; and you could differentiate an attachment figure from some other person, even a familiar person."

Ainsworth classified the twenty eight Ganda babies she saw as secure, insecure, or nonattached (a category she would later discard), and created some crude scales to rate the degree of sensitivity and responsiveness in the mother. These classifications and ratings would become much more refined in her next project.

For a third time Ainsworth changed countries to follow her husband this time to Baltimore, where, within a few weeks, a teaching and clinical job was patched together for her at Johns Hopkins University. Seven years passed before she managed to start her next longitudinal study, during which time she divorced her husband and began her own analysis. The connection with Bowlby had grown thin, but when he visited her in 1960, just as her marriage was dissolving, she presented him with the findings that she eventually published as Infancy in Uganda. This was the only major study done outside his own unit offering empirical support for his theory. In terms of their relationship, Ainsworth says, "that made all the difference." Once his most capable adherent, she had become an equal colleague. In a few years she would be a partner.

"What I hoped to do in the Baltimore study was to replicate the Uganda research and make it more systematic. But now that I'd done one study, there were specific things I was curious to observe; I wasn't just letting the moving finger write on the blank slate anymore."

Backed by a solid research grant, Ainsworth got together a team of four observers to make 18 four hour home visits to each of twenty six families. Other researchers had observed infant mother interaction in the lab even, in one case, a lab that was fitted out to look just like a home. But to Ainsworth, a home in a lab was not the same as a real home.

"Just take feeding. In the home environment I could see how a mother responded to infant signals when she had a lot of other demands on her time, with the telephone and housekeeping and other kids. I saw one mother who was working very hard to put her six week old baby on three meals a day and she was breast feeding at that! She would say, 'I don't know why the baby's crying. He was fed at seven o'clock this morning' it now being after twelve. She would pick it up and play with it very nicely for a while and then put it down, and it would cry again. She would dangle a rattle, she would do this, do that, she even gave it a bath one day to fill up the time till one o'clock, with the baby off and on screaming. You would never observe that type of thing in the lab."

Ainsworth and her colleagues acted like friends, not furniture talking, helping, holding the babies, becoming part of the family in order to encourage the mothers to act naturally. "To have somebody there for an extended period of time just watching and taking notes could be very tension producing. Besides, I wanted to see whether the baby would smile at us, whether he would cuddle when we picked him up, and how the baby would behave with us in comparison with the mother." She was excited to find that the behaviors she'd identified as attachment behaviors in the Kampala infants were also abundantly evident in Baltimore, suggesting that babies everywhere speak the same attachment language.

If Ainsworth had stopped there, she would have produced another valuable pioneering study. But she had a problem in making a certain critical comparison between Ugandan and middle class American babies. "I all along had this idea about a secure base. It was so conspicuous with the Ganda babies. If the mother was there, the kid would roam all around the room and explore things, looking back at her and maybe giving her a smile, but focusing most of his attention on the environment. And just as soon as the mother got up to leave the room, the chances were the baby would shriek and absolutely stop any kind of exploratory behavior.

"Now, the Ganda babies are used to having their mother with them all the time. Whereas the Baltimore babies were used to having their mothers come and go, come and go, and they were much less likely to cry when their mother left the room. So when they were happily exploring, it wasn't clear if it was because the mother was there or not."

For Ainsworth, these questions brought to mind a paper she had read in 1943 called "Young Children in an Insecure Situation," by Jean Arsenian, who had put babies into a playroom, some with their mothers and others by themselves. "Arsenian didn't talk about exploratory behavior, but she made it quite clear that the ones brought in with their mothers could take a constructive interest in the environment, while the others spent most of their time crying. I always remembered that.

"So I thought, all right, if you don't see the secure base phenomenon very clearly at home, that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't exist. It could very well be different in a strange environment, such as Arsenian used. If I could bring the children into the university with their mothers, maybe I could see how they used the mother to explore." Thus the Strange Situation was born. New research by Harry Harlow, in which rhesus monkeys were able to explore a frightening new environment only when accompanied by their cloth "mothers," further confirmed her thinking:

"I thought, we'll have the mother and baby together in a strange environment with a lot of toys to invite exploration. Then we'll introduce a stranger when the mother's still there, and see how the baby responds. Then we'll have a separation situation where the mother leaves the baby with the stranger. How does the baby respond to the departure? And when the mother returns, how does the baby respond to the reunion? But since the stranger was in the room during the first departure, maybe we'd better have an episode in which the mother leaves the baby entirely alone. Then we could see whether the return of the stranger lessens whatever distress has occurred. Finally, we'll have another reunion with the mother. We devised this thing in half an hour."

Ainsworth divided the twenty three babies who went through the first Strange Situation into three main groups and eight subgroups, and, to her amazement, these categories have held up for twenty years and through studies of thousands of children.

"The thing that blew my mind was the avoidant response." The avoidant children, who seemed indifferent to their mothers' comings and goings, even to the point of snubbing them on reunion who looked so extraordinarily independent had appeared quite insecure in the home. They had cried and showed more separation distress than the secure babies. And they turned out to have mothers whom the observers had rated as interfering, rejecting, or neglectful.

Ainsworth noticed that in the Strange Situation these avoidant one year olds behaved like the older child who has had a long depriving separation and comes home and ignores his mother. "Here were these kids who had never had a serious separation behaving just that way." The avoidant response suggested that the infant and the older child were using the same coping defense. Further, it implied that Ainsworth had hit upon the thing that Bowlby had only dreamed of a procedure to assess the effects not of drastic separations and loss but of the everyday details of parenting.

"I did not intend this as a way of assessing attachment," she says, "but it certainly wound up as that. We began to realize that it fit in with our impressions after seventy two hours of observation in an amazing way. But instead of seventy two hours of observation we could do a Strange Situation in twenty minutes."

In the history of psychology a great many procedures had been devised for assessing individuals, and new ways of diagnosing, describing, and categorizing them were repeatedly being developed but no one before had come up with a method of assessing relatedness. And no one before had found a way to assess how styles of parenting contributed to individual differences. Through this ingenious project, capping years of research, Ainsworth had begun her revolution.

For the next twenty years Ainsworth would be occupied with the fallout from this work. Because she had made such a painstaking description of each infant mother pair, the statistical analyses took years to work through. Meanwhile, she would be training others to use the Strange Situation technique, supervising new research, writing, teaching, and serving as the leader of a growing attachment community. Of the Baltimore study Ainsworth now says, "It turned out to be everything that I hoped it would be, and it has drawn together all the threads of my professional career. Each piece of data analysis we did, with very few exceptions, had some sort of bang to it. It was always such a pleasure to find things working out, and we had an awful lot of things work out." The constantly appearing evidence, meanwhile, constituted more raw material for Bowlby's grand synthesizing machine. It was fed into the three volumes of his Attachment and Loss, which made their way into publication from 1969 to 1982.

Years passed, however, before the importance of what Ainsworth had done became apparent. The Baltimore study had been conducted from 1963 through 1967, but its findings did not begin to appear in published form until 1969, and Ainsworth's book, Patterns of Attachment, was not completed until 1978. The Strange Situation procedure could not easily be learned from a manual; developmentalists had to go through training to master it. The longitudinal studies that Ainsworth's students conducted, which supported and extended her work, did not start seeing print until the late seventies. And beyond all that, scientists are cautious, new ideas are slow to catch on, and the attachment ideas turned out to be especially problematic for some, offending reigning theorists and threatening others by calling specific parenting styles into question. Even Bowlby took Ainsworth's work in stride at first. As he himself eventually said, "1 hadn't yet seen the payoff."

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