Attachment Theory: What Is It?

Topic: Behaviorism
Words: 1670 Pages: 6


Attachment, a psychological bond between people, is the central concept of the attachment theory in psychology. Psychologists coined the theory in the 1960s concerning the emotional development of children. One of the significant figures in formulating comprehensive attachment theory was Bowlby, who wrote a trilogy on the topic in 1969, 1972, and 1980. Attachment is both nature and nurture, where the person’s everyday surroundings influence the biological need for attachment – notably, upbringing, schooling, work environment, etc. Attachment is a vital behavior for a person’s mental development and well-being that correlates with a person’s overall health.

Definitions of Main Concepts

Definitions of central concepts and an overview of the behavioral system of attachment are necessary to fully understand how individuals form attachments and why they are beneficial. Ainsworth and Bell (1970, cited in Junewicz and Billick, 2018, p. 512) note that “attachment is affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one.” This tie is developed over time and often depends on productive communication between people. Furthermore, attachments, especially those formed at infant age, are continuous and withstand the distance. Infant attachment with a caregiver, also known as ‘primary,’ is essential for healthy development.

Attachment theory first and foremost explores the primary bond with a caregiver. Researchers believe that this bond influences all other attachments developed later in life. Many adult mental issues and deviations can be connected to childhood (Sroufe, 2016). Early bonding and experiences form a person’s worldview and social adaptability. Bowlby (1982, cited in Junewicz and Billick, 2018, p. 512) writes that “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship” with their caregiver. A crucial factor in their bond is the fruitfulness of interactions, most pronounced by mutual enjoyment and the caregiver’s understanding of the child’s signals.

Overview of Behavioral System

There are two significant modes of behavior for children in attachment theory. Keller (2016) describes them as intensive face-to-face exchange and spending time alone with oneself, i.e., developing attachments and emerging independence. Researchers further highlight four stages of attachment: (1) asocial or pre-attachment, (2) indiscriminate attachments, (3) discriminate or specific attachment, and (4) multiple attachments (McLeod, 2017). As the name suggests, pre-attachment is the period from birth to six weeks before a child shows any attachment (McLeod, 2017, para. 5). Then a child starts bonding with his caregivers but without particular preferences. This period lasts from six weeks to seven months, while “infants … can be easily comfortable by a regular caregiver” from three months (McLeod, 2017, para. 5). A child develops an attachment to their primary caregiver after seven months. It may lead to a “stranger fear” and “separation anxiety,” but they resolve eventually, and children bond with multiple caregivers by ten months (McLeod, 2017, para. 5). Although these stages are valid for most cases, there are some factors to consider.

Firstly, if a child does not have a primary caregiver, they might fail to develop strong bonds. Secondly, children are likely to develop a primary attachment with caregivers who understand and respond to their signals most efficiently (Cherry, 2019). Moreover, four possible behavioral patterns or styles relate to developed bonds. These attachment styles are (1) secure, (2) anxious or ambivalent, (3) avoidant, and (4) disorganized attachments (Cherry, 2019; Junewicz and Billick, 2018). The first style is the most beneficial as the primary caregiver is attentive to children’s signals and responds appropriately. The second, third, and fourth styles indicate some negligence, abuse, or conflicting behavior from caregivers (Cherry, 2019). These attachment styles can directly impact attachment styles used in adulthood, namely secure or insecure.

Nature and Nurture in Attachment Theory

As with all critical theories in science, attachment theory is a subject of ongoing research and debate. Recent studies question a genetic factor in developing solid attachments during children’s early years. Junewicz and Billick (2018, p. 517) argue that attachment is “an inherently biological process heavily shaped by environmental and interpersonal factors,” but it does not require genetic relations. Elaborating on the biological basis for attachment, scientists have approached the topic with the help of neurobiology. The research in question shows that infants possess a “unique neural circuity and physiology” that enables quick attachments while also explaining caregivers’ caring impulses by biochemistry (Junewicz and Billick, 2018, pp. 513-514). That proves Bowlby’s initial suggestion that developing attachments is based on an instinct similar to people’s basic instincts.

Experiences and surroundings affect attachment like any other aspect of human life. It is a scientific fact that brain development depends on activities, and beneficial or detrimental experiences induce a change in biochemistry and brain structure (Junewicz and Billick, 2018). That is especially true for children as their brains are in a rapid cerebral growth phase during the early years of life. Stress and trauma can impede a child’s social development and adult’s social competence, leading to various psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, behavioral and emotional disorders, OCD, PTSD.

The attachment styles correspond to nurture external factors, while the urge for attachments, despite possible abuse or neglect, relates to nature. Responsiveness of caregivers and provision of security shape securely attached children (Sroufe, 2016). They wholly depend on their caregivers, feeling safety and joy while around them and being distressed alone (Junewicz and Billick, 2018; Cherry, 2019). Although securely attached children are distressed while alone, they know that their caregiver will eventually return. If a primary bond is not available regularly, children develop ambivalent attachment due to their inability to depend on their caregiver when needed (Cherry, 2019). That causes them fear and anxiety, which can escalate in adulthood. However, statistics show that this style is quite rare. Neglectful or abusive caregivers lead to an avoidant style when children do not have preferences between caregivers and do not rely on them (Cherry, 2019). Such individuals avoid their caregivers, keep to themselves, and often avoid socializing in adulthood. Finally, inconsistent caregiver’s behavior causes disorganized style, often comforting and discomforting consecutively (Cherry, 2019). As a result, children have chaotic behavioral patterns concerning their caregivers.

There are numerous empirical research studies on attachment transfer in children, adolescents, and adults. These studies show how peers influence each other’s attachments and behaviors and how attachment processes differ depending on age. Furthermore, it is evident that individuals are capable of several bonds, but there is an attachment hierarchy with the primary attachment on top. Most children bond with parents, usually mothers, as a primary attachment (Gillath, Karantzas, and Fraley, 2016). Then they transfer “attachment-related functions from parents to peers” as they age, shifting to their love interest or best friend or even back to parents in adulthood (Gillath et al., 2016, p. 39). Primary attachment transfer is understood as a nature-driven nurture-based process, that is, the instinct to bond and mate shaped by social and emotional conditions.

Adult Attachment Theory and Influence of Attachment

Adult attachment theory derives from base attachment theory and revolves around early years foundation for adult attachment patterns. Sroufe (2016) emphasizes six significant issues in human development from infancy to adulthood that influence individuals’ well-being based on their outcomes, either positive or negative. The first issue is the “formation of an effective attachment,” which defines the degree of success in resolving subsequent issues (Sroufe, 2016, p. 945). Psychologists believe that this formation of an attachment, effective or not, corresponds to adult behavioral patterns.

In 1987, Hazan and Shaver observed adults and created adult counterparts in attachment styles. With additions, these styles are as follows: (1) secure, (2) anxious-ambivalent or preoccupied, and (3) avoidant (fearful or dismissing) (Gillath et al., 2016, p. 14). Similar to infants, secure attachments indicate a healthy mentality and, therefore, relationships. Individuals can get close to others without obstacles, are comfortable with mutual dependence, and do not fear abandonment (Gillath et al., 2016). Anxious-ambivalent individuals demonstrate anxiety, being overdependent and often intrusive as they fear losing their partner, while avoidant individuals feel discomfort and distrust toward attachments with clear boundaries (Gillath et al., 2016). Despite obvious restrictions and the somewhat harmful nature of second and third styles, attachments are necessary as humans are social entities.

Bartholomew and Horowitz created a model of adult behavioral patterns which clearly shows how attachment correlates with mental health. Thus, low avoidance and anxiety inherent to secure attachment correspond to the highest social competency and a stable mentality (Gillath et al., 2016). Such individuals tend to be optimistic and have a healthy lifestyle with reliant ways to relieve stress. Low avoidance but high anxiety of preoccupied attachments leads to increased stress levels and sensitivity. Individuals have constant social fear of being insufficient and are overprotective and even obsessive with their bonds (Gillath et al., 2016). Low anxiety but high avoidance indicates an individual with low social competency who tends to isolate himself. While isolation is often comforting for such a person, it may connect to depressive symptoms and a homebound lifestyle. High anxiety and avoidance correspond to the lowest social competency. Individuals are anxious to make attachments and have high-stress levels, leading to loneliness, depression, and an unhealthy or destructive lifestyle. In conclusion, the biological need for attachment correlates with well-being and its importance, but behavioral patterns dictate positive or negative features of bonding.


Attachment is a biological need to make solid psychological bonds between people. Attachment theory and its adult counterpart explore to what degree attachment is nature or nurture and what behavioral styles exist concerning attachment. People can have multiple attachments, but they always have a primary attachment, and it changes during their life corresponding to their surroundings. The initial stages of attachment in children are pre-attachment, indiscriminate, discriminate, and multiple attachments. These stages are biological, while attachment styles are developed over time depending on caregivers’ behavior and efficiency. Infant styles can be secure or insecure, and they are similar for adult individuals because infant attachments influence those made in adolescence and adulthood. The secure pattern leads to well-being and a healthy lifestyle and relationships. However, insecure styles relate to high-stress levels, psychological issues, and unhealthy and isolative lifestyles.

Reference List

Cherry, K. (2019) What is attachment theory? Web.

Gillath, O., Karantzas, G.C. and Fraley, R.C. (2016) Adult attachment: a concise introduction to theory and research. Cambridge: Academic Press.

Junewicz, A. and Billick, S.B. (2018) ‘Nature, nurture, and attachment: implications in light of expanding definitions of parenthood,’ Psychiatric Quarterly, 89(3), pp. 511-519. Web.

Keller, H. (2016) ‘Attachment: a pancultural need but a cultural construct’, Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, pp. 59-63. Web.

McLeod, S. (2017) Attachment theory. Web.

Sroufe, L.A. (2016) ‘The place of attachment in development,’ in Cassidy, J. and Shaver, P. R. (eds.) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications, New York: Guilford Press, pp. 997-1011. Web.

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