Outline and Evaluate the Learning Theory of Attachment

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According to learning theory, infants learn to form a single attachment to their primary caregiver through classical conditioning and operant conditioning (Dollard and Miller 1950).

Classical conditioning is when the infant learns that the feeder (neutral stimulus, usually the mother) usually comes with being fed (unconditioned stimulus), and therefore associates the mother with the pleasurable feeling of being fed (unconditioned response). When the attachment has been learned, the infant feels pleasure when the mother is present. The mother is now the conditioned stimulus and the pleasure in the presence of the mother is the unconditioned response.

Operant conditioning is when the infant learns that certain behaviours (like crying when hungry) bring desirable responses from the mother that relieve them from the uncomfortable state (like attention, comfort, and feeding). Over time the infant associates the pleasure of relieving the hunger with crying (negative reinforcement) and so the infant has learned to cry to get the mother’s attention and feels pleasure when the mother is present. The mother also learns through operant conditioning that she can relieve the crying sound of the infant by comforting him, this is also negative reinforcement.

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The term secondary drive hypothesis is used to describe the process of learning an attachment through operant and classical conditioning. It explains how primary drives which are essential for survival (eating when hungry), get associated with secondary drives (comfort when the mother is present).

The learning theory provides a plausible logical explanation of how attachments are formed through essential survival needs and attaching to the one person who satisfies those needs, however there is little research that supports it, and lots of evidence that infants are able to form multiple attachments, and attachments with those who don’t feed them.

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