aqa  Explanations of attachment: learning theory and Bowlby’s monotropic theory. The concepts of a critical period and an internal working model.

Bowlby’s Evolutionary Explanation

John Bowlby was a child psychoanalyst interested in the relationship between child and their caregiver. He was influenced by the evolutionary theory & believed that attachment was an innate response, which evolved and served to promote survival in several ways such as:

  • Safety – Attachment results in the desire to maintain proximity and therefore ensured safety and a secure base for exploration, which is fundamental for the child’s cognitive development.
  • Continuity Hypothesis – Attachment enables the infant to learn how to form and conduct healthy relationships. Bowlby used the concept of the internal working model; a blueprint for all future relationships.
  • Critical Period – The infant must form an attachment to the caregiver during this stage (6-36 months) else they will have lasting problems later in life.
  • Social releasers – Bowlby argued that attachment was innate and reciprocal, and the infant communicated their needs through the role of social releasers, such as crying. These social releasers result in a desire for care giving from the parent.
  • Monotropy – This is the idea that the attachment between infant and caregiver is unique and special.


  • Opposing research for Monotropy: Schaffer & Emerson (1964) ‘Glasgow Babies’ research followed mothers and babies over a period of 18 months. Thy found that babies formed multiple attachments. Specific attachments started at about 8 months and very shortly thereafter the infants became attached to other people. By 18 months very few (13%) were attached to only one person, some had five or more attachments.
  • Supporting research for Critical PeriodHess (1972) placed newly hatched ducklings in front of a moving object, they imprinted on the moving object as early as 1 hour old. If not exposed to the object in the first 24 hours they were not able to imprint at all.
  • Influential Theory: This theory has been extremely influential within developmental psychology, and has paved the way for further research in attachment. Hospital practises have since been changed in light of Bowlby’ theory recognising the importance of avoiding separations from parents.
  • Ethical Issue: Bowlby’s theory places guilt upon the mothers who may want, or need to work.
  • Evolutionary Approach: Bowlby argued that attachment evolved to protect the survival of the young, otherwise they would die. Although the evolutionary approach may seem sensible and valid on the surface, it is post hoc, meaning that it is after the event. It is based on observing behaviour and then proposing a survival function to account for it. The problem with this is that any behaviour can be explained in this way, and it is also difficult to test.

Learning Theory

Classical Conditioning

This theory states that we are all born as ‘blank slates’ (tabula rosa) and that ALL our behaviour is learned rather than it being innate.

Pavlov (1927) Learning occurs through association. By pairing food with the sound of a bell, Pavlov taught the dog to salivate on the sound of the bell.

The noise of the bell is the stimulus

USUnconditioned Stimulus
URUnconditioned Reaction
NSNeutral Stimulus
CSConditioned Stimulus
CRConditioned Reaction

Before Conditioning – US (food)            UR (salivation)
During ConditioningUS (food)            NS (bell sound) – repeated multiple times
After Conditioning – CS (bell sound)              CR (salivation)

So now we have to convert Pavlov’s study too infants. Infants have reflex responses, infants respond to food with feelings of pleasure.

Before Conditioning – US (food)      UR (pleasure)
During Conditioning – US (food) + NS (caregiver) – repeated multiple times
After Conditioning – CS (mother) + CR (pleasure)

The infant doesn’t need the food anymore to receive pleasure just the presence of the mother.

Operant Conditioning

Learning through reinforcement and punishment. Every time we do something with a pleasant consequence, it is reinforced; then it is probable that we will repeat the action.

Skinner (1974) Studied conditioning through trial and error. He developed a box to study rats.

  • Placed rat in the box, which contained a lever it could press
  • Food was delivered via a chute when the tar pressed the lever
  • First time the rat pressed the lever was by accident
  • But the rat learnt to repeat this action
  • He then changed the response, the lever then produced an electric shock
  • The rat learnt to avoid the lever due to the consequence

This study supports the fact that the rat can learn through reinforcement and punishment.

Dollard & Miller (1950) Used operant conditioning to explain why the infant becomes attached to the caregiver, who is the source of reward through positive reinforcement.

  • A hungry infant feels uncomfortable
  • It enters a drive state to reduce the discomfort
  • The infant cries and is fed
  • This results in the infant being satisfied and feeling comfortable again (therefore resulting in drive reduction and the infant learning that food is rewarding).


  • Opposing research for Operant/Classical Conditioning: Harlow (1959) did a study using monkeys, which showed that the feeder is not the main source of attachment.  The monkey was able to go to two un-real monkeys: One was soft the other was hard and made of wire but it had a food source.  This study is a criticism of the learning theory. According to classical conditioning the monkey should have attached to the wire mother whom it associated with the positive reward of food. This also suggests that comfort is a factor in attachment.
  • Opposing Research for Operant Conditioning: Schaffer & Emerson (1964) found that fewer than half of the babies they studied have a primary attachment to the person that fed, bathed and clothed them; which suggests that attachment does not just occur through association or reinforcement.
  • Opposing Research for Learning Theory: Fox (1977) studied the attachment relationships between mothers, babies and metapelets on Israeli Kibbutzim. The metapelets provided full time care for newborn babies allowing mothers to continue to work though some time was spent with parents. In general the children were more attached to their mothers with some appearing to have little or no attachment to the metapelets. Since they did the majority of the feeding this represents a fundamental flaw in the learning theory of attachment.  This suggests attachment is far more complicated and attachment is nothing to do with feeding.
  • Positive: There is evidence to suggest that we do learn through association and reinforcement.
  • Negative: However, when it comes to attachment this learning theory may be due to carer responsiveness rather than food.


Extension Resources

Here are some great