Explanations of Attachment: Learning Theory

Explanations of Attachment: Learning Theory

This proposes that attachments are formed when an infant receives food - they learn to ‘love’ the person who feeds them- this is the ‘cupboard love’ idea.

Classical conditioning: Involves learning through associating a stimulus with a response. In this case, as food naturally gives pleasure, food is an unconditioned stimulus, leading to the unconditioned pleasure response. The caregiver (neutral stimulus) gives the infant food, and the infant learns to associate the caregiver with the food- so the caregiver becomes a conditioned stimulus. The conditioned response is the pleasure of being fed, with is now ‘paired’ with the caregiver.

Operant conditioning: Involves learning through rewards/punishments. By crying, infants produce a response from the caregiver of caring and comforting them, so learns that by crying, the caregiver will care for them. From the caregiver’s perspective, comforting the infant leads to the crying stopping, so this behaviour will be repeated by the caregiver (this is negative reinforcement- continuing a behaviour to avoid a negative outcome).

Secondary drive: Biological compulsions such as the need to satisfy hunger are described as ‘primary drives’. Because the caregiver reduces hunger, the attachment to them becomes the ‘secondary drive’ for the infant.


  • Lorenz and Harlow’s research weakens learning theory. Lorenz’s goslings imprinted on him before he fed them, and Harlow’s monkeys preferred a cloth mother (which didn’t have a milk bottle) over a wire mother (which did). This suggests food is not the primary reason for attachment.
  • Schaffer and Emerson’s research showed that babies did not necessarily become attached to whoever fed them the most, rather, who spent time sensitively responding to them. This weakens the assumption of learning theory.
  • Learning theory only considers food as the driving force behind attachment formation and quality, not considering other factors such as sensitive responding and developing reciprocity. This makes the explanation over-simplistic.

Explanations of Attachment: Learning Theory, figure 1

Bowlby’s Theory

Bowlby suggested that attachment is an innate (unlearned, instinctual) process, which is evolutionarily beneficial - those infants that did become attached would be more likely to be cared for by an adult, therefore more likely to survive and pass on this behaviour genetically.

Monotropy: Bowlby suggested that it is important for infants to have one primary attachment figure whom they have a close bond with. Usually this is the mother, although this is not essential. This is because it allows for continuous, consistent care (law of continuity), and that it keeps separations from the primary caregiver to a minimum (law of accumulated separation).

Social releasers: These are innate infant behaviours and characteristics which encourage an innate nurturing response from an adult (linking to the idea of attachment as reciprocal). Social releasers include ‘cute’ facial features, such as big eyes and a small nose, or crying, which is unpleasant and triggers a drive to stop it in the adult.

Critical period: Bowlby proposed that an infant must form an attachment within the first two years of life- once this passes, an attachment can never be formed (or at least, it will be very difficult). During this time, infants are particularly sensitive to forming attachments.

Internal working model: This is the concept that a child’s attachment to a caregiver provides them with a ‘model’ of what relationships are like and how they work. Therefore, if they form a loving, sensitive attachment then they will bring these qualities to other relationships they have in later life, with friends and romantic partners. The opposite is also true- if the quality of attachment is poor, then they are likely to have poor relationships with others in the future. This also applies to their own skills as a future parent.


  • The idea of monotropy is ‘socially sensitive’ (there are social consequences of the theory). It places a great deal of pressure on the primary attachment figure (usually the mother) to form sensitive, loving, nurturing attachments with their children, otherwise the rest of the child’s life may be negatively affected. Some theorists have criticised this, especially from a feminist perspective.
  • Brazleton et al (1975) found that in an experimental situation, when parents were instructed to ignore social releasers from their babies, the baby responded in a very negative way (lying motionless). This supports that the role of social releasers is very important in the attachment relationship.
  • Bailey et al (2007) found that mothers who reported poor attachments to their own mothers (measured by questionnaire), also had poor quality attachments to their children (measured by observation). This supports the internal working model idea.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

Aim: To observe and classify different attachment types.

Procedure: A controlled observation was used, whereby different ‘scenarios’ were introduced and the effect on behaviour recorded. Behaviours recorded included proximity-seeking (infant staying close to the caregiver); exploration/secure base behaviour (infant feeling comfortable enough with the caregiver to explore their surroundings); stranger anxiety (becoming upset in the presence of a stranger); separation anxiety (becoming upset when the caregiver leaves); reunion behaviour (reaction when the caregiver re-enters the room).

The following ‘situations’ were used in the study. Each lasted three minutes:

  1. Infant encouraged to explore (testing secure base)
  2. Stranger enters, tries to interact with infant (testing stranger anxiety)
  3. Caregiver leaves the infant and stranger together (testing separation and stranger anxiety)
  4. Caregiver returns and the stranger leaves (testing reunion behaviour)
  5. Caregiver leaves the room (testing separation anxiety)
  6. Stranger returns (testing stranger anxiety)
  7. Caregiver returns to the room (testing reunion behaviour)

Findings: There were three distinct ‘patterns’ of behaviour shown by the infants, which Ainsworth classified as follows:

  • Secure attachment (‘Type B’): the majority of infants- 60-75%- in the (British) sample showed these behaviours. They were happy to explore and use the caregiver as a secure base, although they often went back to them during exploration. There was moderate stranger anxiety and separation anxiety. They sought and accepted comfort from the caregiver when reunited with them.
  • Insecure-avoidant attachment (‘Type A’): around 20-25% of infants demonstrated this behaviour. They happily explored, but did not return to the caregiver whilst doing so. Separation and stranger anxiety was low, and they did not seek comfort from the caregiver upon reunion.
  • Insecure-resistant attachment (‘Type C’): around 3% of infants showed this behaviour. They explored less, and showed high stranger and separation anxiety. Upon reunion, they sought comfort but then rejected it (e.g. trying to push the caregiver away).

Conclusion: Attachment can be classified as one of three distinct types, as described above. The vast majority of children can be classified as having one of these three attachment types.

Explanations of Attachment: Learning Theory, figure 1


  • Babies classified as ‘secure’ are more likely to have successful relationships later in life, supporting the validity of the explanation.
  • Inter-rater reliability (where two or more observers record the same things and compare the degree of agreement) was high, suggesting that the controlled nature of the study and the behavioural categories were appropriate and reliable.
  • The procedure of the study was culture-biased, as it was affected by Western methods of child-rearing. Infants from other cultures may be raised differently (e.g. being more or less separated from the caregiver, having more or less interaction with strangers) so they may act differently in these situations. This weakens the generalisability of the results.

Cultural Variations in Attachment

Culture refers to the specific norms, values, standards of behaviour, and (potentially) shared history that exist in groups of people.

Van IJzendoorn & Kroonenberg(1988)Study

Aim: To investigate the proportion of different attachment types in different countries.

Procedure: The results of 32 studies across 8 countries were analysed, containing the results for 1,990 children (this research counts as a meta-analysis- looking at the results of many other studies to detect trends and patterns)

Findings: In all countries, secure attachment was most common. Insecure-resistant was the least common type overall, apart from in Japan and Israel, where insecure-avoidant was the least common. Variations between cultures were actually less than variations within cultures.

Explanations of Attachment: Learning Theory, figure 1

Other Studies

Simonella et al (2014): Found 50% of 12 month-olds in Italy were securely attached, 36% insecure-avoidant, so lower rates of secure attachment than shown in older studies.

Jin_ et al_ (2012): 87 Korean infants were studied, and very similar results were found to the Japanese infants in the van IJzendoorn study, perhaps reflecting the cultural similarities between the countries.

Conclusion: Secure attachment is the primary attachment type for infants from all cultures, although there were differences in the levels of it, and the other attachment types, suggesting that culture does affect attachment. Differences within cultures are more significant than between cultures.


  • These studies often use large sample sizes, increasing the internal validity of the results (as the impact of ‘outliers’ or anomalous results is lessened).
  • The Strange Situation may not be appropriate to measure attachment in different cultures- this is a problem of the ‘imposed etic’ (designing research in one culture and inappropriately using it with another), therefore the results may lack validity.
  • The samples used in the studies often came from one background, meaning that the culture as a whole was not properly represented- this reduces the validity of the results.
Describe what research has shown about cultural variations in attachment. (6 marks- around 3 paragraphs)
Your answer should include: Secure / Insecure-avoidant / IJzendoorn / Simonella