Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory

General Considerations

According to attachment theory (developed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby), every child is born with an innate attachment behavioural system. The biological function of this system is to enhance the chances of survival through proximity seeking, particularly in times of distress and/or need. Although (almost) all children become attached to one or several significant others – mostly their caregiver(s) -, the quality of attachment can differ considerably between individuals. Such interindividual differences are thought to emerge through interactions between children and their caregiver(s) 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).

If children’s proximity seeking attempts are successful and met by available and responsive caregiver(s), children learn that others are reliable and helpful resources for stress and emotion regulation in times of need. Children also learn that they have the capacity to successfully reach out for help when needed. Such patterns of seeking for help and being helped support the development of a secure attachment orientation.

If proximity seeking attempts under stress do not succeed, children may develop an insecure attachment orientation. The latter can either 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 an 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 characterised by a breakdown of organised strategies. 

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), remain rather stable across the life span, and influence many social emotional behaviours in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (see also here). The plot thickens that attachment can even be 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.

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 accords with the notion that in the past, there have been many claims reflecting both an under- as well as over-estimation of the role of attachment across the life span. In Dr Vrticka’s opinion, it will therefore be important to provide more empirical data using social neuroscience methods in the future, ideally applying longitudinal research designs within large(r) participant samples. Please refer to his blog post on “21st Century Attachment Theory and Research: Embracing a Social Neuroscience Approach” and the NAMA page for further reading.

Finally, 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., and thus highlight the tight interplay between attachment, caregiving, and relationship quality more broadly.

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

One of these is Social Defense Theory, which not only emphasises the meaningfulness of both secure and insecure attachment strategies, but also the interplay and interdependence of different individuals with various attachment orientations.

Another theory is Social Baseline Theory, stating that the human brain considers its own and social energetic resources interchangeably. In other words, 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.

A similar proposition is made by the Theory of Social Thermoregulation, which suggests 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 related 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) emphasise the importance of others in providing allostasis support and the associated prediction of others to be (un)available to do so as central 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.

All above considerations have in common 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 thereby 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, and that we adjust our behaviour accordingly – by either employing de- or hyperactivating secondary strategies. In attachment theory, these strategies are related to the specific constructs of security, avoidance, and anxiety. From a social neuroscience perspective more broadly, they 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), associated with the fundamental principles of homeostasis maintenance through allostasis and the predicted availability of personal and social resources to do so.

Additional Considerations

Attachment as a Meaningful Adaptation to the Environment

Please note that interindividual differences in attachment represent specific 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), 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 (up to 50%) 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 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 issues 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).