Attachment Theory – A Social Neuroscientist’s Perspective

Attachment Theory – A Social Neuroscientist’s Perspective

According to attachment theory (developed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby about 70 years ago), every child is born with an innate attachment behavioural system. This system’s biological function is to enhance the chances of survival through proximity seeking, particularly in times of distress and need. Although (almost) all children become attached to one or several significant others – mostly their caregiver(s) -, the quality of attachment can vary considerably. Such interindividual differences are thought to emerge through interactions between children and their caregiver(s) primarily depending on: i) children’s success (or failure) in eliciting proximity and care, as well as ii) the availability and responsiveness of their caregiver(s). Additional factors, such as genetic predispositions / temperament are also being discussed.

In the sections below, a general introduction to attachment theory is provided, followed by a social neuroscientist’s perspective on the possible underlying neurobiological foundations of human attachment as well as related concepts and theories available in the literature.

Please be aware that many of the concepts used by attachment researchers take terms from ordinary language but ascribe them technical meanings. This has resulted in extensive confusion, hindering the advance of attachment science by obstructing discussions between researchers, and hindering the potential for mutual benefit in dialogue between researchers and practitioners. The Society for Emotion and Attachment Studies (SEAS) has thus provided an excellent guide comprising many extremely useful explanations of attachment theoretical concepts that is strongly recommend as further reading.

Secure Attachment

If children’s proximity seeking attempts are successful – i.e., they are met by available and responsive caregiver(s) -, children learn that others can be relied upon and that they can offer additional resources for stress and emotion regulation in times of need. Children also learn that they themselves have the capacity to successfully reach out for help when needed. Such reciprocal patterns of help seeking and being helped promote the development of a secure attachment orientation.

Insecure and Disorganised Attachment

If children’s proximity seeking attempts under stress do not succeed, they may develop an insecure attachment orientation. The latter can be avoidant (dismissive) in the case of consistently unavailable / unresponsive attachment figures (also referred to as de-activating secondary attachment strategy), or anxious (ambivalent / resistant) in case of unpredictable / unreliable attachment figures (also associated with a hyper-activating secondary attachment strategy). All above attachment orientations / classifications are summarised as organised (because they show a coherent underlying pattern of interaction with others).

In case of more severe neglect or abuse, a fourth attachment orientation called disorganised has furthermore been proposed, the latter being mainly characterised by a breakdown of organised strategies. 

Internal Working Models (IWMs) of Attachment & Stability

Attachment theory postulates that such attachment patterns in early infancy and childhood become increasingly cognitively encoded during later development (by means of so-called internal working models, or IWMs, of attachment). Attachment theory also suggests that these attachment patterns remain rather stable across the life span, and therefore influence many social emotional behaviours in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (see also here). Furthermore, the plot thickens that attachment is transmitted from one generation to the next, and that it not only influences directly attachment-related processes, but (almost) all social interactions between people across the life span.

Recent Challenges

Recently, however, some of the core assumptions of attachment theory regarding its emergence during development, stability, mechanism of intergenerational transmission, and cross-cultural validity have been challenged (e.g., see here). This ongoing discussion accords with the notion that in the past, there have been claims reflecting both an under- as well as over-estimation of the role of attachment across the life span – calling for a “demystification of attachment“.

One possibility to address this discussion in the near future may be to provide more empirical data using social neuroscience methods, ideally applying longitudinal research designs within large(r) participant samples. Please refer to his blog post by Dr Vrticka on “21st Century Attachment Theory and Research: Embracing a Social Neuroscience Approach” and the NAMA & NAMDA page for further reading on how 1st and 2nd person social neuroscience research and the thereby generated functional neuro-anatomnical models of organised and disorganised human attachment could contribute to better understanding attachment behaviours.

Two Different Traditions

It should be noted here that there are (at least) two different traditions of assessing attachment. The first tradition relies upon behavioural observation (a prominent example is the Strange Situation) and semi-structured interviews (such as the Adult Attachment Interview). The second tradition uses self-report questionnaires to assess attachment style, a personality dimension that describes attitudes about relationships, predominantly with romantic partners. An example here is the Experiences in Close Relationships (revised) questionnaire (ECR-R). For a more complete list of available attachment measures, see here.

There are some differences between the two traditions when it comes to the exact terminology of attachment orientations / classifications / styles used, and there is ongoing discussion about the compatibility of behavioural / interview versus self-report / questionnaire measures (e.g., see here). Whereas self-report questionnaires are easy to administer and usually do not involve any additional costs, behavioural observations and interviews are rather time-consuming and expensive (as they require trained individuals to both administer them and code the obtained data, with training usually taking several weeks to months to reach reliability and involving quite high fees). Studies employing behavioural observations / interviews therefore usually have a smaller sample size as they require more extensive funding.

Related Concepts to Attachment

Besides being specifically focused on describing interindividual differences in attachment according to a distinction between organised secure versus insecure (avoidant & anxious) and disorganised attachment, there are many related concepts in the literature. These concepts concern associated measures in the context of romantic relationships as well as caregiving and parent-child interaction, for example, parental sensitivity, reflective functioning, behavioural reciprocity, etc. These associated concepts highlight the tight interplay between attachment, caregiving, and relationship quality more broadly.

Other Theories with Similar Assumptions

Other theories are building upon attachment theory or have been derived from different trains of thought, but in their core assumptions are close to attachment theory.

One of these theories is Social Defense Theory, which not only emphasises the meaningfulness and adaptive value of both secure and insecure attachment strategies. It also highlights the interdependence of different individuals with various attachment orientations and therefore the implication of attachment on the level of social groups.

Another theory is Social Baseline Theory, which states that the human brain considers its own and social energetic resources interchangeably. In other words, this theory suggests that by incorporating relational partners into neural representations of the self, the default or baseline state of the human brain and body is to have social resources readily available. If we can count on other people to support us in times of need, our own resources can either be preserved or dedicated to other issues, as if they were literally increased.

A similar proposition is made by the Theory of Social Thermoregulation, which suggests that the regulation of body temperature is one of the most pressing concerns for many animals, including humans, with attachment playing a vital role – especially early in life.

Finally, a series of more recent considerations relates to homeostasis (i.e., a stable, relatively constant physiological and mental state) and allostasis (i.e., the process of maintaining homeostasis through adaptive changes to meet perceived and anticipated demands). These considerations emphasise the importance of others in providing allostasis support. A central assumption here is that the predicted (un)availability of others to provide allostasis support and the associated estimated amount of energy needed to obtain such support are fundamental building blocks of human social behaviour and the underlying neurobiology. These considerations comprise An Evolutionary Theory of Loneliness, a Mechanistic Model of Predictive Social Allostasis, and Neural Mechanisms of Social Homeostasis. Allostasis (co)regulation / support has also been linked to brain development (i.e., “growing a social brain”) and embedded within an Evolutionary Theory of Social Affiliation.

Bio-Behavioural Synchrony

Attachment is an interpersonal process by definition and from the very beginning. The description of the neurobiological basis of human attachment as an interpersonal process has been pioneered by Ruth Feldman, who emphasises bio-behavioural synchrony as a critical component of human relationships (for a recent review, see here).

Bio-behavioural synchrony describes the temporal coordination of (at least) four systems during and shortly after social interaction. These systems include behaviour (e.g., eye gaze, vocalisations, touch), physiology (e.g., heart rate), endocrinology (e.g., the secretion of hormones such as cortisol or oxytocin), and brain activity. Bio-behavioural synchrony is likely to be strongest in close and intimate relationships, such as the parent-child bond, and to weaken as relationship closeness and intimacy decrease (i.e., from romantic partners to friends to acquaintances to strangers).

Attachment and bio-behavioural synchrony are thought to be intrinsically linked, as synchronous interactions experienced during early sensitive periods are likely to expressed in later attachments throughout life. Consequently, patterns of bio-behavioural synchrony should not only differ across the distinct relationship categories mentioned above, but also within these categories as a function if individual differences in relationship quality, attachment, and caregiving.

Within the field of research on bio-behavioural synchrony, the temporal coordination of brain activity – also referred to as interpersonal neural synchrony – has only recently started to be investigated. Representing a prototypical 2nd person social neuroscience approach, the goal of this approach is to identify when, where, and why brain activity becomes temporally coordinated in interacting dyads – especially romantic partners or parents with their children -, and how interpersonal neural synchrony relates to the dyads’ behaviour, physiology, and endocrinology, as well as individual differences in relationship quality, attachment, and caregiving. The results of a set of three studies we set up to answer such questions (CARE studies) can be accessed here.

SUMMARY – Attachment from a Social Neuroscientist’s Perspective

A social neuroscience perspective of human attachment emphasises that it is our body’s and brain’s default or baseline state to assume the availability and responsiveness of others. We need others to help us deal not only with basic physiological processes to maintain homeostasis, but also with allostasis, i.e., the process of returning back to homeostasis when we face an important challenge.

The general idea here is that through interactions with others, we start predicting how likely it is to have others around to help us keep our homeostasis and to engage in allostasis co-regulation. According to these predictions, we adjust our support-seeking behaviour in times of need. Within the context of attachment theory, these behavioural adaptations are related to the specific constructs of attachment security versus insecurity, and the de-activating or hyperactivating secondary attachment strategies of avoidance or anxiety.

From a social neuroscience perspective more broadly, the behavioural adaptations represent patterns of predictability and trust in both the self (i.e., being able to elicit help when needed) and others (i.e., being available and responsive when needed). These patterns emerge in association with the fundamental principles of homeostasis maintenance through allostasis and the predicted availability of personal and social resources to do so.

21st century research into the neurobiological basis of human attachment aims at providing empirical data on the biological and brain substrates of attachment associated with the maintenance of homeostasis through allostasis co-regulation, and thus the patterns of predictability and trust described above. This not only comprises a 1st person social neuroscience approach with the goal of formulating functional neuro-anatomical models of organised and disorganised human attachment, but also a 2nd person social neuroscience approach focusing on bio-behavioural and interpersonal neural synchrony in association with attachment and caregiving. It is the hope that the thereby obtained insights will inform and advance attachment theory, as well as inspire novel prevention and intervention strategies in the context of attachment and caregiving.

Additional Considerations

Attachment as a Meaningful Adaptation to the Environment

Please note that interindividual differences in attachment represent specific and meaningful adaptations to the environment within which attachment was originally formed. Although it is generally understood that secure attachment is most beneficial for social and emotional development (i.e., socio-emotional competence; for an example, see here), caution is advised in labelling attachment insecurities – and their associated modulations of behavioural, biological, and brain responses – as inferior or detrimental. If so, why would so many of us be insecurely attached? All (organised) attachment styles / classifications represent meaningful and necessary adaptations to the given environment within which they were formed as they (at least partially) ensure closeness to an attachment figure – the primary function of the attachment system.

According to Social Defense Theory (see above), attachment insecurities may even represent specific advantages on the social / group level that could compensate possible disadvantages of single individuals by providing the overall group with crucial information on an emerging threat and on how to escape from the latter.

Nonetheless, organized insecure (as well as disorganized) attachment orientations / classifications constitute risk factors for the emergence of mental and physical health problems if the associated secondary attachment strategies are employed chronically and out of context, and/or if there is a complete lack of strategies altogether.

Cultural Differences in Attachment

It is also important to keep in mind that attachment theory was developed in a western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic – in short WEIRD – cultural context, and that most research is still performed on WEIRD culture participants / with a WEIRD lens. More cross-cultural research therefore is crucially needed to further extend and specify attachment theory and the emerging applied attachment research – including our functional neuro-anatomical model of human attachment (NAMA) -, on many levels. As nicely put by Rothbaum et al. (2000), “an awareness of different conceptions of attachment would clarify that relationships in other cultures are not inferior but instead are adaptations to different circumstances“ (p. 1101).