Attachment Theory: Overview and Implications
Jessica Gutowitz November 12, 2021
- What Is Attachment Theory?
- History of Attachment Theory
- Components of Attachment
- Types of Attachment
- Neurological Effects of Insecure Attachment
- How to Develop Secure Attachment in Adulthood
- Relevance of Theory
Humans form many bonds throughout their lives, beginning with the bonds formed with their caregivers in infancy. These early bonds help to shape an individual’s later sense of social attachment into adulthood. They also affect individuals neurologically and influence how people react to and cope with stressful social and emotional situations.1,2
What Is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory is a psychosocial explanation for human bonding; it is used to inform psychotherapeutic approaches.1 Attachment in this model includes any type of social bond but primarily focuses on emotional engagement.
According to attachment theory, everyone is born with a biological system for attachment, which seeks to maintain proximity to others in times of vulnerability, especially as an infant. This early attachment system affects cognitive formation, informs the foundation of a person’s attachment style, and shapes later models of attachment as people age.2
Attachment styles inform many social relationships, including romantic attachments, family relations, friendships, long-term partnerships, and even interactions with strangers.2 Theorists in this field suggest that attachment styles may be divided into three major categories: anxiety, avoidance, and security.1
The caregiver’s attunement to their child, or their ability to anticipate their child’s needs and interpret their moods, during a stressful situation provides and teaches non-innate self-regulation to the infant.
History of Attachment Theory
In the late 1950s, John Bowlby, a British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst specializing in child development, advanced a theory of attachment to explain separation anxieties in children, similarities between mourning in adults and children, and social behaviors that influence the healthy or unhealthy development of human personality.3
Notably, Bowlby developed attachment theory as an alternative to predominant Western psychological perspectives on caregiver-child bonds. For instance, although Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic approach emphasized the importance of the bond between caregiver and infant, Freud characterized infants as dependent and clingy. According to Freud, infants develop positive associations with caregivers during feeding processes. In contrast, Bowlby suggested that infants are curious and competent and able to engage with their caregivers and with the environment.3
Bowlby’s approach to attachment marked a theoretical shift from a model of dependency to a model of instinctual, biological responses that promote social interaction.3 He based his concepts on evolutionary biology and ethology and suggested that caregiver-infant bonds are necessary, were developed through natural selection, and ultimately emerged from an innate biological need for proximity.3 According to Bowlby, caregivers need to develop “attunement” with their infant to promote healthy attachment. The caregiver’s attunement to their child, or their ability to anticipate their child’s needs and interpret their moods, during a stressful situation provides and teaches non-innate self-regulation to the infant. A well-attuned relationship creates healthy attachment in the infant.3
Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian-American developmental psychologist, also contributed to developing attachment theory during the 1970s and ’80s. In particular, she developed an experiment called the Strange Situation, in which she exposed an infant to a stressful situation, putting them in an unfamiliar environment in the presence of a stranger, which would activate a switch from their exploratory system to their attachment system. To observe the caregiver-infant bond, the experiment allowed the caregiver to swoop in and demonstrate care, interaction, and attunement during this high-stress moment. From this research, she posited that caregivers act as a “secure base” for infants as they learn to explore and develop their attachment skill sets—successful caregivers will provide a safety net for the infant to come back to as they explore.4 Ainsworth’s experiments laid the groundwork for extensive separation and reunion research in later decades.3 In addition, she developed the theory’s major model for understanding different attachment styles and categorized them as anxious, avoidant, or secure.1
Components of Attachment
In this bonding model, several components described below contribute to the overall quality of a child’s attachment to their caregiver.3
This element, also termed affectionate tie, includes observable, affectionate physical gestures between infants and their caregivers, such as giggling and smiling. These gestures reflect pleasure and enjoyment, and, conversely, their absence due to prolonged separation and permanent loss causes stress and grief.3
When an infant acts to secure attachment, the goal is to increase proximity to or contact with the caregiver. Such actions range from signaling behaviors, which tell a caregiver that the infant wants interaction, to aversive behaviors, in which an infant attempts to trigger a caregiver’s instinct to protect. Other examples include active or contact-seeking behaviors, which illustrate an infant’s desire for the secure base, and exploratory behaviors, which promote individuation and engagement with the environment.3
According to this theory, attachment processes play an essential role in the early development of several bodily systems and skills related to cognition, including brain structures, nervous system organization, language development, attainment of intellectual potential, acquisition of a conscience, and mental competence. In addition, proponents posit that a child’s confidence in their caregiver as a physically and psychologically secure entity allows the child to embark upon necessary problem solving and exploration of the world.3
This element of the attachment process refers to skin-to-skin contact between the infant and caregivers, which, according to the model, is necessary. Examples of skin-to-skin contact include gazing, holding, rocking, stroking, and nuzzling. The tactile component plays a central role in attunement; caregivers routinely make subtle adjustments to tend to an infant’s needs.3
Physical Security Component
This component refers to any person, also called a secure base or an attachment figure, who is reliably physically present for the infant over time.3
This component builds on an infant’s felt sense of physical security and trust in a secure-base figure. It includes the “psychological availability” of the caregiver to represent and model positive attachment for the infant. A caregiver must have positive bonds with their own attachment figures in order to represent and model them to an infant.3
Types of Attachment
Ainsworth pioneered the categorization of attachment into three primary styles: anxious/ambivalent, avoidant, and secure. In the mid-1980s, researchers Mary Main and Judith Solomon discovered a fourth category called disorganized/disoriented.5
Anxious/ambivalent attachment is characterized by insecurity and fear regarding love, care, and intimacy. According to Ainsworth, people who experienced stress around their caregivers and protested their actions in infancy tend to develop an anxious or ambivalent attachment style. They often consider themselves misunderstood, unconfident, insecure, and underappreciated, and they see others as unreliable.6 These individuals are likely to concentrate on their distress and ruminate on their negative thoughts and emotions. Their emotion-focused coping strategies are more likely to increase their distress than alleviate it because they dwell on the negative emotions rather than processing and working through them. They can easily recall anger, and their painful memories are likely to spread uncontrollably into other, unrelated memories, causing other memories to feel painful as well.7
Avoidant attachment is characterized by ignorance or repression of negative and painful emotions. Those who display an avoidant attachment style likely avoided their caregiver and practiced detachment as infants when stressed, because the caregiver did not come forward to act as a reliable, secure base. They see themselves as aloof and suspicious, and they are generally skeptical of others.6 Those with an avoidant attachment style are likely to distance themselves from the sources of their distress. They are unable to access their own painful experiences and the associated sadness and anxiety. They can burst into anger and hostility unexpectedly, displaying a disconnect between conscious and unconscious responses.7
Secure attachment is characterized by an ability to process pain and anxiety and cope with difficult situations healthily. Infants who are able to use their caregiver as a secure base are most likely to develop secure attachment. They see themselves as friendly, good natured, and likable, and they typically see others as reliable and trustworthy.6 People with a secure attachment style usually perceive stressful events as less threatening than someone with an insecure attachment might, and they generally feel that they can cope with stressors. They tend to be more willing to openly talk about personal things and emotions with those they feel close to and reach out for help when dealing with a stressful situation. They seek to resolve conflict by compromising and empathizing and can express anger with control and without hostility.7
This style is also sometimes referred to as “unresolved” attachment.2 Because this category of attachment is newer than the original three, clinicians and researchers have often classified people as having a secure attachment style because they didn’t fit into either the anxious/ambivalent or avoidant style, rather than classifying them as disorganized/disoriented. The disorganized/disoriented style develops as a result of an infant-caregiver bond in which the infant fears their caregiver. It is a predictor of clinical disorders in adulthood. People with this attachment style are more vulnerable to stress than those with secure attachments, have difficulty regulating their emotions, especially negative emotions, and often display aggression or hostility.5
Neurological Effects of Insecure Attachment
A person’s approach to attachment may affect their neurological functioning. Several behavioral experiments have sought to demonstrate the effects of attachment styles on human behavior and cognition. According to these studies, areas affected by insecure attachment styles—meaning any non-secure attachment style (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized)—include emotion processing, selective attention, and memory.2
Insecure attachment can affect the ease with which someone processes their emotions or the emotions of others. For instance, in a study published in 2002, researchers recruited 108 individuals who had differing attachment styles to participate in an experiment that sought to determine the effects of one’s attachment style on their processing of emotional stimuli. Participants were presented with a video clip, controlled by a slider tool, that depicted actors whose expressions shifted from neutral to happy, sad, or angry. Participants were asked to watch the video clip and identify the various expressions. Researchers found that people with insecure attachment styles—avoidant or anxious—reported changes in emotional expression more quickly than those with secure attachment.2,8
Researchers at the University of Turin in Torino, Italy, conducted an experiment in 2008 in which they asked participants to rate their pleasantness and arousal as they watched videos intended to induce happiness, fear, and sadness. The researchers found that those with anxious attachment rated fear and sadness as more arousing, and those with avoidant attachment rated positive emotions as less arousing, compared to those who had secure attachment.2,9
These findings are consistent with those of other studies. For example, researchers in a 2012 study asked 54 female participants to rate positive and negative emotional video scenes for arousal and pleasantness, which represent internal stimuli. They also measured the participants’ control over their emotional response based on their responses to researchers’ questions such as “How did you feel when seeing the last image?”10 According to their findings, anxious attachment was associated with increased arousal and decreased control when presented with a negative scene, and avoidant attachment was associated with reduced pleasantness when presented with a positive scene.2,10 Both study findings support the hypothesis that anxiously attached people tend to have an exaggerated response to negative social interactions, whereas avoidantly attached people tend to dismiss positive social interactions.2
Other studies have found that highly anxious or avoidant people show fear when presented with negative attachment-related information such as a negative relationship scenario.2 Additionally, people with anxious attachment tend to display “selective hyper-vigilance” in certain circumstances; they experience enhanced recognition of attachment signals, such as the name of attachment figures, when they are involved in distressing situations. An anxious attachment style generally leads to increased processing of attachment-related information, while an avoidant attachment style leads to suppressed processing of attachment-related information, particularly in negative contexts.2
Studies of attachment and cognition have also focused on processes related to memory. One study conducted in 1996 by Stephen Kirsch of SUNY Geneseo found that people with an avoidant attachment style are more likely to remember depictions of anger than those with secure or anxious attachment styles. A 2003 study conducted in the Netherlands by researchers from the University of Amsterdam and Leiden University found that people who have a secure attachment style tend to recall threatening words better than those with insecure attachment styles. In addition, avoidant attachment has been associated with deficits in working memory for both positive and negative attachment-related stimuli. Researchers suggest this may occur because those with an avoidant attachment style may actively inhibit the processing of potentially distressing information as a coping mechanism.2
By fostering safety and security in their relationships, people encourage connection and create environments where insecure defense mechanisms are not as necessary.
How to Develop Secure Attachment in Adulthood
Although research about attachment theory and styles is plentiful, the scientific literature is still unclear on whether someone with an insecure attachment style can alter it and claim secure attachment. That said, it is possible to foster more secure attachment in one’s life.
One method of developing security is psychotherapy. In long-term psychotherapy, the client can project some of their insecure attachment strategies onto the therapist, who serves as a “security-providing attachment figure.” This can help the client develop greater security in their attachment, as the therapist is available and able to help the client.11
Another approach for changing attachment style is security priming.11 This psychological method activates attachment through memories to gain insight into someone’s attachment-related cognitive processes.12 In a laboratory setting, this can include methods such as:11
- exposing clients to security-related words, like hug or affection, or the names of the client’s attachment figures;
- exposing clients to images that depict attachment security; and
- asking clients to recall memories of or imagine situations where they felt supported and cared for by an attachment figure.
The secure stimuli that these actions produce are meant to initiate a brain process in which secure stimuli enter and spread within the client’s neural network to induce the sense of security one would get from attachment figures.11
Though research supporting the efficacy of these measures has yet to determine whether attachment style can be changed, researchers and therapists find that they have helped mitigate the symptoms of insecure attachment. Creating physically and emotionally secure environments in which clients felt safe and supported allowed clients to lower their insecure defense mechanisms and act from a place of heightened security. For example, in people with an avoidant attachment style, these processes have reduced their tendency to ignore hurt feelings or react aggressively, and in people with an anxious attachment style, they have reduced their exaggeration of hurt feelings.11
Although altering insecure attachment styles may be difficult, people can become more aware of and educated about their bonding tendencies. Such awareness provides a foundation on which people may build healthier and more fulfilling social and romantic relationships. By fostering safety and security in their relationships, people encourage connection and create environments where insecure defense mechanisms are not as necessary.13 In addition, helping people cultivate an understanding of their defense mechanisms can help them assess whether their response to a given emotional stimulus is warranted—or whether it stems from insecure attachment.
Relevance of Theory
An understanding of attachment styles may affect people’s relationships and/or responses to trauma. For instance, a person’s attachment style can affect their coping with traumatic life events, which has become particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic and required social isolation have been associated with higher stress, anxiety, and depression.14 In one study conducted in 2021, researchers enlisted 838 Italian children aged 3 to 18 years and their parents to assess the relationship between attachment style and the parents’ negative emotions related to COVID-19. The researchers found that adults’ attention, reactions, and emotions during this time affected their ability to perceive their children’s emotional states. Parents with anxious attachment styles displayed higher negative emotions and perceived their children to feel the same, whereas parents with an avoidant attachment style were more dismissive and perceived their children to have fewer negative emotions. The study found that parents with insecure attachment styles and their families display a higher risk for psychological maladjustment during the COVID-19 pandemic.14
In addition, attachment theory research has been applied in various other fields and contexts, including research and work with orphaned, institutionalized, and foster children as well as therapeutic work regarding bereavement, suicide prevention, substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, terrorism, and parenting. Researchers suggest that, particularly in the social work field, a therapist’s attunement to the insecure attachment of a child who has not had a stable caregiver can help to foster secure attachment despite a past of unstable environments.3
Some psychologists remain skeptical of attachment theory, and as such, the field has garnered critique. Some, like Michael Fitzgerald, a professor in the department of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, claim a lack of clarity regarding the terminology of “attachment” and the different styles.15 He says that Bowlby’s vague descriptions, like “partial deprivation” of affection, have made way for the overexpansion of his ideas. In 1962, Audry, of the World Health Organization, criticized the notion that attachment patterns are predicated on a singular factor, caregiver deprivation, and believed it to be overly generalized, as many who grow up without traditional caregivers still manage to develop in age-appropriate ways. Bowlby ruled out genetic factors, basing his theory on this solely evolutionary need for attachment, which also garnered the criticism of researchers who have found personality to be heritable.15