CYC-Online 62 MARCH 2004
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John Bowlby on human attachment

John H. Hoover

I believe that reading original, influential works is a beneficial activity for youth care practitioners, preservice educators, and administrators. Perusing the classical books fashioning the helping professions foundation provides insights into the development of therapeutic language and habits. More importantly, perhaps, such study attaches us more firmly to the larger family of our discipline. This family exists both horizontally – made up of our brother and sister professionals all over the world, currently working on behalf of troubled youngsters – and vertically, consisting of our metaphorical forbears.

I liken studying foundational material to a challenging, constructive form of time travel, allowing us, in a real, vital way, to experience our past. Via tackling this often difficult literature, practitioners and scholars alike come to see the whole house, not just the small portion of it presently occupied. Such depth of understanding leads to superior practice, in my estimation, as we embrace humane methods that have worked in the past and avoid, paraphrasing Santayana, repeating our field's blunders. Reading is largely an act of the imagination, often leading to healthy identification with those who initiated the struggle to help troubled children.

This issue of Reclaiming Children and Youth is dedicated to helping youngsters experiencing difficulties with relationships. In honor of the topic, we turn to the pioneer in relationship research, John Bowlby. His many contributions include a seminal three-volume set on attachment (Bowlby, 1969; 1982). Despite the fact that Bowlby laid out his arguments profoundly intricately, I believe Bowlby is truly accessible to contemporary readers who are willing to expend the effort. His descriptions of attachment behavior in monkeys and great apes struck me as particularly fascinating.

It is nearly second nature these days for helping professionals to speak of attachment and disorders of attachment. Especially since the film Good Will Hunting, concepts related to attachment have entered the popular vocabulary with a vengeance. A breathtaking number of current issues and questions in youth work, psychology, and social work hearken back to the three-volume set penned by John Bowlby, starting with Attachment in 1969:

Detachment, attachment disorder, and problems managing relationships receive frequent attention from both scholars and practitioners. Youth workers often shake their heads over the difficulty of re-educating and encouraging resilience in youth manifesting a history of toxic relationships with the pivotal adults in their lives. It seems likely that early attachment to one or a few close relatives holds great portent for a person's overall relational abilities. Attachment predicts the ability to relate to many others, to establish trust, to form and retain friendships, and to engage in mutually satisfying emotional and physical relationships. Why is early experience so important?

Successful learning – even of language – requires that meaningful early connections be forged. As is true of many relational categories, the student/teacher dyad may be more or less effective, depending upon the early health of attachment. After reading Bowlby, it will come as no surprise that the most effective elementary teachers tend to be the best human relaters.

Discussions of parenting style and nurturing very young children often reduce to fundamental questions about attachment and its importance. In order to maintain a middle class lifestyle in the current economy, many families require a two-parent income. We are now engaged in a national debate about the implications of the resulting day-care revolution on child adjustment and development. Of necessity, this debate is often couched in terms related to attachment.

This attachment topic entered the political arena as the so-called welfare reform of recent years cuts off benefits to single parents after a period of time and mandates that they enter the workforce. The results for economically at risk children remain unknown. However, if attachment research is to be believed, the longitudinal results of this policy may be grave and heartbreaking.

I vaguely knew that John Bowlby’s 1969 volume Attachment had exerted great influence in child development circles. Having encountered précis of his work in my educational psychology texts, I had never tackled the original. In 1999, Basic Books reissued Bowlby’s three-volume series in an attractive format, with forewords provided by eminent scholars in development and neuroanatomy. Attachment was followed four years later by Separation: Anxiety and Anger (Bowlby, 1973). The third volume in the set is titled Loss: Sadness and Depression. The Basic Books reISSUES (2nd Ed., 1982) are attractive and reasonably priced. Modern students, scholars, and practitioners will find the volumes eminently readable – in a way not shared by many other classical works in psychology, education, or sociology. For this review, I concentrated on the initial volume, simply titled Attachment.

Much of our understanding of attachment comes from this seminal volume. Child development experts detected stereotypical problems accruing to some British citizens, who as children had been placed away from London (and, by extension, their parents) during the German bombing. Bowlby asked whether these difficulties could be traced to interference with early bonds between children and parents. In order to ask the correct questions – much less answer them – Bowlby needed to thoroughly examine the biological and psychological basis for what he discovered was the intense, reciprocal relationship between mothers and infants.

Bowlby’s genius was to recognize, and expand upon, the importance of the ethological principle of imprinting as developed by Lorenz in the 1930s. Ethology is the study of animal behavior (innate behavioral norms; Grzimek, 1977). Imprinting (Pragung, in the original German) is defined as follows:

–a relatively rapid learning process that takes place during a short, sensitive period in early youth. It has a prominent-sensitive phase and a stable, often irreversible effect. Young animals learn their own species... with whom they will mate as adults (Grzimek, 1977, p. 692).

Bowlby noted that imprinting manifested itself as a spectacularly more complex phenomenon in primates, including man, that he labeled attachment.

Reclaiming Children and Youth readers will find Bowlby’s exploration of the biological and learning bases for attachment to be particularly worthwhile. In fact, nearly half of the first volume is dedicated to this exposition. I was impressed with the clarity of Bowlby’s explanation of attachment behavior in primates. I found the information fascinating and became convinced that the described behavior did indeed stem from instinct because of its survival value.

Throughout early childhood, they [primates] are either in direct contact with mother or only a few feet or yards from her. Mother reciprocates and keeps the infant close to her. As the young grow older, the proportion of their day when they are in direct contact with mother diminishes, and the distance of their excursions increases; but they continue to sleep with her at night and to rush to her side at the least alarm (p. 184).

Attachment is a reciprocal system of behaviors between an infant and a caregiver – generally the mother. The term reciprocal is apt because not only does attachment affect the child's behavior (for example, moving closer to the mother when stressed), but also affects the responses of the mother, who emits care-giving responses in the presence of signals from the infant.

The strong relationship between mother and infant appears to be regulated via homeostasis; that is, when the two are within a certain social distance, the system is balanced (i.e., has attained homeostasis). When one or the other moves further away than is appropriate developmentally or when a stranger comes too close, the balance is reduced; when this occurs, the child and/or the mother move to reestablish the “comfort feelings" represented by the attachment dynamic in equilibrium. In the foreword to the 2000 edition, Allan Schorr argues that Bowlby’s hypotheses about such mother-child regulatory synchronicity have been supported by modern neuroanatomical studies. Regulation – of autonomic responses to social stimuli – (p. xii) appears to be situated in the orbito-frontal cortex.

According to Bowlby, early successful attachment becomes organized into an array of complex social behaviors and, by extension, the capacity for successful relationships of all sorts. In short, via successful early attachment to one person, an individual learns to tune her behavior to the subtle social cues of many others. This tuning, in turn, transforms via development and experience into the ability to engage in social relationships, to make friends, and, to eventually attain physical intimacy.

The appropriately attached relationship between the mother and the toddler serves as a safe platform from which the infant explores her environment. Because regulation of the system requires feelings of discomfort when social distance becomes too great, it is reasonable to assume that detached toddlers will find themselves perpetually anxious. Since this state inhibits learning, successful attachment also probably predicts efficient learning during the earliest stages of life. Bowlby, in fact, traces changes in the sophistication of behavior designed to attain proximity to the primary caregiver:

When an older child or adult maintains an attachment to another person, he does so by diversifying his behavior so that it includes not only the basic elements of attachment behaviour present at the first birthday, but, in addition, an increasingly varied array of more sophisticated elements. Compare, for example, the degree of behavioural organisation underlying the actions of a schoolboy when he seeks to find his mother in a neighbor’s house, or pleads with her to include him on a visit she intends to pay on relatives... with that of the same individual when as an infant he first attempted to follow his mother out of a room. (p. 350)

But what is the importance of reciprocal attachment between caregiver and child? Simply, the part of the brain that regulates social behavior, including but not limited to relationship-building and sexuality, does not develop to its full potential in the absence of these bonds. Starting with Harlow’s groundbreaking work with rhesus monkeys in the 1950s and 1960s, it has been shown that in primates, play, other social behaviors, and mating responses do not mature in the absence of critical-period attachment bonds.

The failure of human infants to bond with a primary care-giver is no less damaging – though perhaps manifested more subtly – given human behavioral flexibility. Bowlby even argues that early successful attachment lies at the core of such later manifestations of reciprocity as perspective taking (i.e., empathy). He may have carried the point a bit far in his favorable analysis of later discredited theories about autism by such psychoanalytic-oriented writers as Bettleheim. Early on, writers “blamed" autism on failures of attachment – notably emotionally cold and cognitively unpredictable mothers. We understand now that the autistic spectrum disorders are organically caused.

Yet, the importance of successful attachments in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships is hard to gainsay. The evidence, both that was organized by Bowlby and other information generated since his writing, established very well the genesis of the types of disorders portrayed in Good Will Hunting. Rather than relying on the stability of social relationships, detached and abused children either disdain human contact, or worse, come to loathe and fear these connections. Such problems are explored more deeply in the second (Separation: Anxiety and Anger) and third (Loss: Sadness and Depression) volumes of the Attachment series. However, at the close of Volume 1, Bowlby lays out a clear perspective on the importance of attachment in personality development:

A young child's experience of an encouraging, supportive, and co-operative mother, and a little later, father, gives him a sense of worth, a belief in the helpfulness of others, and a favorable model on which to build future relationships – by enabling him to explore his environment with confidence and to deal with it effectively, such experiences also promote his sense of competence. (p. 378)

Attachment will not be a particularly difficult read for college students and graduates, though having handy an encyclopedia or dictionary of biological or evolutionary terms may be useful. Bowlby’s American publisher elected to retain the British spellings, though I did not find this particularly distracting. Bowlby presents his arguments meticulously, with infinite patience and care. At times, I would have been satisfied with fewer examples. However, moments of boredom were rare – and would generally be followed by passages of great interest. For example, the pictures of primate mothers caring for their infants were tremendously compelling. These admirably set the stage for later discussions of mother-infant behavior in humans.

The first fifth of the book contains material of significant historical interest. I found it interesting that Bowlby felt the need so strongly to establish the grounds for his respectful disagreements with psychoanalytic child development views. Evidently, Freud still cast a long shadow in 1969. Bowlby’s Attachment is one classic that youth workers and educators will find readable and which the historically minded will wish to add to their collection.


Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1: Attachment (2nd Ed.). New York: Basic Books (new printing, 1999, with a foreword by Allan N. Schore; originally published in 1969).

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss. Vol 2: Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books (reissued in 1999).

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss. Vol 3: Loss: Sadness and depression. New York: Basic Books (reissued, 1999).

Grzimek, B. (Ed.) (1977). Grzimek’s encyclopedia of ethologv. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

This feature: Hoover, John. John Bowley on Human Attachment. Reclaiming Children and Youth . Vol.11. No.1 pp. 58-60

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