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3. Examine attachment in childhood and its role in the subsequent formation of relationships

Attachment in childhood

Attachment theory was suggested by Bowlby (1951) and it has become one of the most influential theories in understanding children’s emotional and social development as well as adult love relationships.

  • Attachment can be defined as the emotional bond between an individual and an attachment figure (caregiver who is responsive and sensitive to the child’s needs).
  • Parental sensitivity is important in the development of attachment. Attachment can be observed from around the age of seven months. From this age, the baby shows separation distress when the primary attachment figure (often the mother) leaves the child. “The strange situation” (Ainsworth et al., 1978) can test if attachment has formed.

Attachment and internal working model

Bowlby (1973) claims that there is a continuity between childhood and adult relationships, i.e. early attachment patterns formed with parents continue in later relationships because they create an internal working model. The internal working model is a mental representation of the self, about the attachment figure, and how others will react (social life).

  • Internal working model: The child’s experiences with attachment figures during infancy, childhood, and adolescence result in expectations (mental representations or schemas) that persist relatively unchanged throughout the rest of life. If the child is confident that the attachment figure is available when needed, the child will feel loved, secure and worthy of love and attention. According to Bowlby, the internal working model tends to be reproduced in later relationships (parenting, romantic love).
  • Attachment history: The internal working model reflects the various experiences concerning accessibility and responsiveness of the attachment figures that an individual has experienced. Differences in experience with attachment figures may explain different attachment patterns as well as attachment disorders. The Strange Situation Paradigm was developed by Ainsworth et al. (1978) to test if attachment has formed.

Mary Ainsworth and her Strange Situation

Ainsworth (1969) carried out the Ganda Project which was an observational study of 28 mothers interacting with their child performed in Uganda over nine months (longitudinal). The observations were naturalistic (in the family living room). Ainsworth interviewed the mothers and measured maternal sensitivity to the infant’s signals and needs as these were considered to be important factors in the development of attachment. Ainsworth replicated the study in the USA in 1971 with 26 families.

 Ainsworth et al (1978) suggested a classification system with three attachment patterns based on “The Strange Situation paradigm”, a procedure with several sequences performed in a laboratory to test a child’s attachment pattern to the mother. Key features of the procedure are:

  1. the child’s reaction to the mother’s departure
  2. how the child reacts to her when she returns
  3. how the child reacts to a stranger.

Different patterns of responses to the Strange Situation are assumed to show three particular attachment patterns:

  • Secure attachment (type B): This pattern is displayed by 70% of American infants. The infant shows distress when the mother leaves the room and quickly seeks contact with her when she returns. The infant is easily soothed by the mother.
  • Ambivalent attachment (type C): This pattern is displayed by 10% of American infants. The infant shows distress when the mother leaves the room. The baby seeks contact on her return but at the same time rejects it.
  • Avoidant attachment (type A): This pattern is displayed by 20% of American infants. The infant does not show distress when the mother leaves the room and avoids contact when she returns. The baby is not afraid of a stranger. Mothers to avoidant children tend to be unresponsive and uninterested in the child’s signals.

Campos et al performed a review of American studies on infant attachment patterns and found the following distribution: secure (62%), ambivalent (15%), and avoidant (15%).

Now lets examine if that attachment we work so hard forming when we are younger, effects our future relationships……

  • Hazan and Shaver (1987) suggested that romantic love is an attachment process which is experienced differently by different people because of variations in their attachment histories.
  • People have formed “inner working models” of themselves and social interaction with partners based on their attachment history. These inner working models are an important source of continuity between early and later feelings and behavior.

Hazan and Shaver (1988)

The research consisted of two different studies.

Aim To investigate:


  1. whether the same distribution of childhood attachment patterns was manifested in a study on adult love relationships


  1. whether the difference in attachment patterns could be linked to different attachment histories
  1. whether respondents’ descriptions of their love relationships could be classified as secure, avoidant, or ambivalent.



  • The first was a “love quiz” (survey with forced choices) in a local newspaper. The researchers used 620 participants (205 males, 415 females, mean age 36, 91% were heterosexual).
  • The questionnaire included statements characterizing the most important love relationship and childhood relationship with parents (attachment history).
  • Ainsworth et al.’s (1978) attachment categories were translated into terms appropriate to adult love. It was assumed that beliefs about romantic love could be measured as an “inner working model”.




  • Around 56% of the respondents classified themselves as secure, 25% as avoidant, and 19% as ambivalent.
  • Secure lovers described their most important love relationships as trusting, happy, and friendly. Avoidant lovers were characterized by fear of intimacy, emotional highs and lows, and well as jealousy. Ambivalent lovers believed that romantic love is characterized by obsession, emotional highs and lows, extreme sexual attraction, and jealousy.
  • The best predictors of adult attachment type were respondents’ perception of the quality of their relationship with each parent as well as parental relationships. The results showed that loving and affectionate parenting correlated positively with secure attachment. Participants classified as avoidant reported cold and rejecting mothers.



  • The results supported that three different attachment styles could be found in adult love. The study confirmed Bowlby’s theory about continuity of attachment (inner working model).
  • The study had a biased self-selected sample so results could not be generalized. More females than males responded (gender bias). This could affect the estimates of prevalence of each attachment type. Use of questionnaires with forced choices may limit the validity of the findings.
  • Hazan and Shaver (1988) was a seminal study, which conceptualized adult romantic relationships as an attachment process. The study provided a bridge between infant attachment theory and theories of romantic love. The findings have been replicated and researchers have linked adult attachment to existing theories of love.