Woman with baby

Redshaw (2009)

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Welcome to our developmental psychology section, this section compliments weeks 8, 9, 10 and 11 of our AS Psychology Student Workbook (Redshaw & Redshaw, 2009). Developmental psychology is the scientific study of the psychological changes that occur in human beings throughout their life span. There are different explanations into why we form attachment as well as different types of attachment, psychologists are also concerned with what happens when attachments are disrupted. In addition it is imprtant to understand attachment in everyday life and how situations like take care can affect development. This section will look at all these areas.


Learning ObjectivesEdit

On completion of this section you should be familiar with the following explanations of attachment:

  1. The evolutionary explanation of attachment, including Bowlby theory.
  2. The Learning Theory of attachment.

The evolutionary explanation of attachment, including Bowlby's theory.Edit


Attachment is said to be a strong emotional bond between infant and caregiver, a bond that is said to be recipricol. According to ethology (the scientific study of animal behaviour) attachment is vital for the survival of young animals; therefore, all animals form an attachment bond during infancy. Some species such as birds and sheep develop attachments very rapidly after birth in what seems to be a pre-programmed survival instinct to follow their mother. Konrad Lorenz (1965) defined this as imprinting after observations on newly hatched geese. Ethologists suggest that attachment in humans, like animals is the result of an imprinting-like process rather than learning through reinforcement.

KEY THEORY: Bowlby's evolutionary theory of attachment.

Like the ethologists Bowlby believed that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with the primary caregiver. He claims that this is a psychological ‘stay-close’ mechanism where the mother is used as a secure base, as this will help the child to survive. He also believed that:

  1. Attachment is an adaptive process, which has evolved because it provides safety and promotes survival.
  2. The imprinting mechanism has to occur within a certain time period, known as a critical period (ends between 1 and 3 years).
  3. Attachments form a hierarchical structure where the primary attachment, a special bond that is different to all others, is at the top and is stronger and more important than any other. He referred to this as Monotropy.
  4. This first relationship creates an Internal Working Model, which acts as a template for all future relationships. The positive or negative effects of the internal working model are irreversible.
  5. Even as they grow in independence and explore their environment, they still have a strong desire to maintain proximity with the primary caregiver and will periodically return to the mother for comfort and reassurance.
  6. Attachment is reciprocal (i.e. two-way) as both are programmed to attach. The infant is programmed to display behaviours such as smiling and crying, he called these the social releasers and the caregiver is programmed to respond to these and so provide care.

Evaluation of Bowlby's Theory


  • Bowlby’s evolutionary theory of attachment has had many positive applications. For example, guidelines suggest that children in care should be placed with foster parents before the end of the critical period to ensure that attachments can be formed.
  • Bowlby’s work has led to extensive research into attachment and so has positively contributed to psychological understanding of child development.
  • Additional research by Hazan and Shaver’s (1987) ‘Love Quiz’ supports the internal working model. They found that there was a strong correlation between positive or negative relationships in childhood and future adult relationships.


  • Further research by Main and Goldwyn (1984) has shown that parent–child relationships and future adult relationships are not always positively correlated and so contradicts the internal working model.
  • If attachment was innate we would expect to see all infants in all cultures, attach to the primary caregiver in the same way. This is not the case as Schaffer and Emerson (1964) have found, some children have multiple attachments of equal strength. Therefore, they are not hierarchical or monotropic.
  • Evolutionary theory is regarded as being post hoc, because it has been inferred afterwards and cannot be verified or falsified. We can only assume that natural selection actually happened.

You should now complete activity 1 & 2 in Week 8

Examiner Tip - The majority of the above research is correlational you need to be able to give at least one strength and one weakness of this research method. This was covered in Week 3.

The Learning theory of attachment.Edit

This theory believes that attachment to the primary caregiver is formed through learning. Attachment is learned either through classical conditioning or through operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning was first proposed by Pavlov (1927). In his research with dogs he noticed that hungry dogs learned to associate the sound of owner’s footsteps with mealtimes. In terms of attachment, the child initially becomes hungry and distressed, so the primary caregiver feeds the child, reducing the hunger and making the child happy. Therefore, the child associates the primary caregiver as the person who looks after them, feeds them when they are hungry and comforts them when they are afraid. The child feels secure because the caregiver is fulfilling its physical and psychological needs.

Operant conditioning proposed by Skinner (1938) in his research on rats, is based on action and consequences. Acording to this principal, behaviour that recieves an award will be repeated this is known as positive reinforcement. Any behaviour that has unpleasant consequences will be avoided and is known as negative reinforcement.

Baby Crying

In terms of attachment, the child becomes hungry and cries, so the primary care giver feeds the child, therefore, rewarding the child for the initial behaviour of crying. The child has learnt that crying will be rewarded, so the next time it is hungry it will cry. This is positive reinforcement.