Searching for an essay?

Browse the database of more than 4500 essays donated by our community members!

Define Attachment and Criticise Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation

  1.  What is attachment; why is it important; how is it demonstrated and classified?
  2. Using appropriate research studies, criticize Bowlby’s theory of Maternal Deprivation.

The initial part of this essay will explain attachment, say why it is important and show the various ways it is demonstrated. The second will critically examine Bowlby’s theory of Maternal Deprivation using theories and hypotheses that both support and oppose him. Kagan et al. (1978) defined attachment as ‘an intense emotional relationship specific to two people, that endures over time, and in which prolonged separation from the partner is accompanied by stress and sorrow.’

This applies to attachments formed at any time in life and is accepted by psychologists as crucial for normal, healthy development. Our first attachment is the prototype for all the attachments that follow. If initial experiences are negative, it could affect further attachments and relationships. (Bowlby 1953) Klaus and Kennel believe ‘bonding may be immediate’ This agrees with John Bowlby’s hypothesis that attachment is innate (nature)

Writing service




[Rated 96/100]

Prices start at $12
Min. deadline 6 hours
Writers: ESL
Refund: Yes

Payment methods: VISA, MasterCard, American Express


[Rated 94/100]

Prices start at $11
Min. deadline 3 hours
Writers: ESL, ENL
Refund: Yes

Payment methods: VISA, MasterCard, American Express, Discover


[Rated 91/100]

Prices start at $12
Min. deadline 3 hours
Writers: ESL, ENL
Refund: Yes

Payment methods: VISA, MasterCard, JCB, Discover

Others, like Rutter, feel that ‘bonding may be gradual.’ This leans towards the hypotheses of Freud (1926) and Behaviourists who believe that attachment is a learnt process (nurture). The first and most intense attachment is normally that between mother and child. Because of this, most research is focused on this particular attachment. So what are the reasons for attachment? John Bowlby (1953) did much research on this subject and argued that newborns, being helpless at birth, are genetically hardwired to behave toward their mother in ways that ensure their survival.

His initial hypothesis stated that infants displayed a strong innate tendency to attach to ‘mother.’ Still, he later changed this to ‘primary caregiver’ Another purpose of attachment are to provide oneself with a carer and role model from that we can learn various things from, like social skills and how to communicate. We also provide ourselves with someone that wants to interact with us. These interactions have great personal rewards and are of huge importance to future learning. According to Maccoby (1980), there are key behaviours that show attachment has taken place.

Seeking proximity to the primary caregiver, particularly at times of stress. Distress on separation. Pleasure upon being reunited and general orientation of behaviour towards its primary caregiver. The formation of an attachment offers a safe base for an infant during times of stress. Still, psychologists wanted to determine the different attachments made between an infant and its primary caregiver. Schaffer and Emerson (1998) found that some infants became more strongly attached to their caregiver, and the extent of their distress can show this upon separation from them.

See also  "I Am Sam" Essay

Ainsworth and Bell (1970) devised a laboratory set observation to classify the different kinds of attachment. It was called ‘The Strange Situation.’ The infants’ behaviour was observed during seven, three-minute episodes. Firstly there was the thirty-second parent/caregiver (normally mother) and infant to the room. Then mother and child are left alone while the child familiarises itself with the surroundings. Next, a stranger enters the room and plays with the baby while the mother leaves and then returns, soon leaving again along with the stranger. Finally, the stranger returns to comfort the baby, and then the mother returns to take over while the stranger quietly leaves.

‘Stranger Situation’ identified three types of attachment in the infants that were observed. Anxious avoidant (15%) where baby ignores mother, is unaffected by her lack of presence. Few/no signs of distress when mother departs. Ignores mother on her return. The infant was distressed at being left alone rather than being left by the mother. Securely attached (70%) baby plays happily in mothers’ presence, stranger present or not. Mother largely ignored as she is trusted. Infant distressed at mothers’ departure. Infant seeks immediate comfort from mother on her return; stranger can provide some comfort—anxious resistant (15%) fussy and wary in mother’s presence. Cries more explore less than A or B. Has difficulty using the mother as a safe base. She seeks contact on her return but shows anger and ambivalence toward her. Resists stranger.

These differences were seen to represent the different relationships the mother and infant had. Mothers sensitive and responsive to their baby’s needs understandably had securely attached infants. Inconsistent mothers had resistant infants and suffocating, or by contrast, uninterested mothers had infants that displayed anxious-avoidant attachment. John Bowlby was born to an upper-middle-class family in 1907. The family nanny primarily raised him. She left when he was four years old. He later described this as being as tragic as the loss of a mother. In his adult life, Bowlby’s research was mainly focused on the long-term effects that early maternal separation could have on an infant.

His Maternal Deprivation hypothesis stated that the attachment between an infant and its mother (or permanent mother figure) needs to be continuous; therefore can not be broken in the early stages of life without serious/permanent harm being done to the infants’ emotional, social and intellectual development. This would seem to be supported by research carried out by Harlow (1962) on Rhesus monkeys. The newborn monkeys were separated from their mother and each other. They were later reintroduced to their peers; they were antisocial, aggressive and near impossible to breed.

See also  Comparison "The Passionate Shepherd to his love," and "Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"

The ones that were successfully artificially inseminated went on to reject their young, confirming the importance of a prototype attachment in the early stages of development. Bowlby always maintained a critical period in which a primary attachment needs to be made (in humans, before the age of 21/2) to form normal future attachments, and these monkeys had not formed any peer attachment during this period. Rutter argued that there was no such critical period. Hodges and Tizards’ theory supported Rutter and offered that there was a sensitive period, perhaps rather than a critical period.

Although this investigation had parallels, obviously, it could not be extrapolated to human research. In contrast to Bowlby, Hodges and Tizard (1978) put forward that even in severe cases of deprivation, careful therapy could improve a child’s chances of successful future relationships. They did a longitudinal study on children who had spent at least their first two years in care with no chance to form any close, continuous relationships. On leaving care, they either returned to their families or were adopted. By the age of eight, Hodges and Tizard reassessed them and found that most children had formed close attachments with parents/adoptive parents even though they had been deprived of early attachment. Though this did depend on the family concerned and how they nurtured the attachment.

It also showed that these children did suffer difficulties in their social relationships. This proved that although Bowlby was right that separation did have some affect, it was not always as disastrous as he had predicted. This could be seen in the case of the Koluchov� twins (1976), whose mother died giving birth; as a result, they have continuously moved around and could not form a stable primary attachment. They were eventually placed in good care and grew up to be well-adjusted adults, but this could be because they had each other to attach to, so a primary attachment was still made.

Bowlby (1951) also believed that early deprivation could lead to affectionless psychopathy, which he proved in his 44 Juvenile Thieves experiment. 16 of these thieves were identified as affectionless psychopaths, meaning they had no sense of shame or guilt. In addition, 86% of these had experienced early. Prolonged separation from their mother, which suggested a link between early separation and emotional maladjustment, but Rutter felt that Bowlbys’ methods of data collection were unreliable as the parents of the thieves could only give a retrospect answer for the duration of the separation, and this could lead to falsification of the results. In addition, it was a very small-scale research.

Michael Rutter also believed maternal privation was more likely to be the key here. Even though deprivation/separation and affectionless psychopathy were linked, one didn’t necessarily cause the other. He also felt that other factors were not being considered, for example, family discord and adverse living conditions. He interviewed over 2000 boys and their families and discovered that delinquency was most common where the boys had suffered separation because of family discord. Bowlby was also a great believer in monotropy; this is to say that there should be one permanent figure that provides permanent care to ensure normal development.

See also  Discuss the Role that Celebrities Play in Contemporary Societies

This has come under great amounts of criticism. Rutter believed that several attachments could be made other than to the mother. Schaffer and Emerson also dispute Bowlby’s monotropy theory and say that multiple attachments are not the exception; they are the rule. Bowlby agreed with this but felt the mother/infant bond was unique in that it was the first and the strongest. This would obviously make it the most important and influential. Most of Bowlbys’ early research was carried out in the 1930s, and 40’s on children in large institutions and residential orphanages. Rutter (1981) felt this was giving a minimal view. It didn’t consider other factors, for example, the understimulating nature of these environments, and in affect, other things could also be as contributory to the results observed as Maternal Deprivation.

Although the Maternal Deprivation theory has become dated and undergone much criticism over the years, it can not be disputed that John Bowlbys’ research has hugely impacted how hospitals treat children during their stay. Parents are now actively encouraged to stay with their children, whereas before, they weren’t, and newborns are no longer separated from their mothers unless it would be detrimental to their health or wellbeing. Thanks to John Bowlby, it is now recognized that separation from a primary caregiver does have long-lasting, detrimental affects and should, if at all possible, be avoided.


  • Cardwell, Clarke, Psychology Collins 2005 Meldrum
  • Richard Gross & Developmental Hodder & 1997
  • Rob Mcilveen Psychology Stoughton
  • Nicky Hayes Foundations of Routledge 1994


  • Kathy Silva & Child development Blackwell 1994
  • Ingrid Lunt
  • Class handouts 16/10/2006

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
Define Attachment and Criticise Bowlby's Theory of Maternal Deprivation. (2021, Sep 15). Retrieved August 14, 2022, from