a theory that (a) suggests an evolutionarily advantage, especially in primates, for the forming of close emotional bonds with significant others, and (b) characterizes four different types of relationships between human infants and caregivers. The patterns of attachment established in infancy have been shown to affect the individual’s later emotional development, relationships, and emotional stability. See also attachment behavior- insecure attachment- secure attachment. [originally developed by John Bowlby and later expanded by Canadian-born U.S. psychologist Mary D. Salter Ainsworth (1913-1999)]

What is attachment theory in psychology?What causes attachment?What are the different types of attachment in psychology?Examples

What is attachment theory in psychology?


Was there a time in your life as a child when you were away from your parents? If yes, how did it feel? I bet, it felt bad at the very least. All the more when a powerless infant experienced separation from its parents. The anxiety caused by separation for a substantial amount of time between an infant and its primary caregiver has been studied extensively by British psychologist John Bowlby. He described attachment as “the lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”

Why is attachment important then?

Infants are expected to cry, cling, and scream its heart out when they get separated from their parents. Bowlby hypothesized that these behaviors are evolutionary mechanisms of infants to prevent being separated or when they get reconnected with their parents.  Bowlby believed that these behaviors may have developed to improve the infant’s survival and in a way a product of natural selection.

Furthermore, Bowlby thought that infants engaged in these attachment behaviors in the belief that being cared for by their parents increase their chances of survival and the said behavior since birth have been naturally selected and carried on over generations.

Bowlby called the system that guides a person in coming up with behavioral pattern, forming of habits, and maintaining relationships as “attachment behavioral system”.

Aside from the survival aspect, attachment is also vital in our long-term emotional well-being.  Our initial relationship with our parents or caregivers serves as life long temples that serve as molds that shape our behaviors toward future relationships.

Developments in neuroscience featuring brain scans show that empathy, emotional understanding, and feelings are wired deep into our brains thanks to the relationships we have in our early years of life.  Simply put, the kind of relationship we have with our parents and/or caregivers play important role in how our emotional well-being takes form eventually.

What causes attachment?

Why do attachments occur? What causes them?

Attachment in children is believed to stem from either sensitive and responsive caregiving which results to secure attachment or at the other spectrum, the lack of the said caregiving behavior results to insecurity. While there are proofs how parenting affects attachment, another cause of attachment being considered is the genetic factor believed to play a formative role.

What are the different types of attachment in psychology?

What then are the different attachment types?

A little trip down memory lane, it was on 1969 when Psychologist Mary Ainsworth came up with an assessment technique called the Strange Situation Classification (SSC). The primary aim of this procedure was to investigate the differences on attachment  between children and their caregiver. The qualifying criteria applies to children ages nine and thirty months old.

Strange Situation involved observing a child play  go through a series of eight episodes with most of the episodes lasting three minutes.  The episodes involved situations where the caregiver, the child, and a stranger are introduced to each other, then later on separated, and reunited. This is a recreation of familiar and unfamiliar people in a child’s life in general. The table below shows the details of Strange Situation.  twenty one (21) minutes while the caregiver and some strangers get in and later leave the room.

Episode Characters Involved Time Frame Details
1 Caregiver, Child, Observer 30 seconds Observer brings caregiver and child inside the experimental room, then leaves.
2 Caregiver, Child 3 minutes As child explores the room, caregiver remains non-participative. If after 2 minutes of inactivity, play may  be stimulated if needed. 
3 Caregiver, Child, Stranger 3 minutes Stranger enters the room and remains silent in the first minutes. At the second minute, stranger talks with caregiver. At the third minute, the stranger approaches the child. At the end of the third minute, the caregiver leaves conspicuously.
4 Child, Stranger 3 minutes or less This marks the first separation episode and the stranger focuses attention to the child.
5 Caregiver, Child 3 minutes or more Caregiver comes back, first reunion episode. Caregiver greets and provides comfort to the child, then tries to let child play to settle. Caregiver then leaves room and waves goodbye.
6 Child 3 minutes or less This marks the second separation episode.
7 Child, Stranger 3 minutes or less Caregiver still out of the picture. Stranger enters room and behavior is toward the child.
8 Caregiver, Child 3 minutes Caregiver returns to the room greets the child while the stranger leaves conspicuously. This is the second reunion episode.

Four aspects of the child’s behavior are observed throughout the episodes:

· The amount of exploration the child engaged in. 

· The reactions of the child towards the departure of its caregiver.

· The anxiety of the child being alone with the stranger.

· The reaction of the child towards its reunion with its caregiver.

Based on their behaviors, the children were distributed in three categories, with a fourth one added later. Each of the categories represents a unique kind of attachment relationship with the caregiver. The fourth category was introduced by Erik and Main Hesse. 

On the basis of their behaviors, the children were categorized into three groups, with a fourth added later. Each of these groups reflects a different kind of attachment relationship with the caregiver. Main and her husband Erik Hesse introduced the 4th category, disorganized. The procedure played an important role in the development of attachment theory.

The study gave enough information to come up with what we presently know as the Four Attachment Styles:

1. Secure attachment- the child became upset when the caregiver left and was comforted by the caregiver’s return.

2. Anxious attachment- the child became very upset when the caregiver left and the caregiver had difficulty comforting upon return. 

3. Avoidant attachment- the child either barely reacted or did not react at all when the caregiver left or returned. 

4. Disorganized attachment- the child had erratic responses such as self-harm or freezing up to the leaving or returning of the caregiver. 


Examples of the four attachment styles are:

  1. Secure attachment
  • The child may share how they feel: “I was shy at first towards my new playmates.”
  • The child may show empathy for others and extends the effort to comfort another distressed child.
  1. Anxious-insecure attachment
  • The child may be reluctant to explore a new environment.
  • The child may overly cling, cry and even scream when with a new caregiver.
  1. Avoidant-insecure attachment
  • The child may feel comfortable interacting with a stranger and not seek comfort from the caregiver.
  • The child may enjoy exploring the new environment and not return to the caregiver for security. 
  • The child may be greatly self-reliant and would rather figure out tasks by himself. 
  1. Disorganized-insecure attachment
  • When distressed, the child may run to the caregiver for comfort, but at the same time will exhibit difficult behavior when the caregiver provides comfort. 
  • The child may totally ignore the presence of the caregiver.
  • The child may appear confused when the caregiver is present.


ATTACHMENT THEORY: “Attachment theory suggests that the pattern of attachment an infant has with a caregiver will give rise to different relationship behaviors later.”
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