Is the attachment bond during infancy crucial to later outcomes?

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Is the attachment bond during infancy crucial to later outcomes?

Developmental psychology continues to assess how early experiences affect later development.  Early experiences are important and influence the relationship of developmental psychology to other areas of psychology during adulthood such as social, personality and clinical psychology (Waters, Hamilton & Weinfield, 2000).  The dominant approach to understanding early socioemotional and personality development has become attachment theory (Thompson, 2000).  Attachment refers to the emotional bond between an infant and their primary caregiver, usually their mother.  Attachment theorists view a secure attachment relationship between an infant and their primary caregiver as crucial for competence in later life, however other psychologists take the view that too much emphasis is placed on the attachment bond during infancy arguing that more attention should be paid to other processes influencing relationships.  This essay focuses specifically on the enduring effects of the attachment bond during infancy and highlights studies both supporting and opposing the stability of attachment over time, seeking to examine whether outcomes in later life are as heavily influenced by the infant attachment bond as some developmentalists suggest.  

Attachment Theory

John Bowlby originally formulated the concept of attachment theory and asserted that attachments to others are instinctive and important throughout the life span (Kagan, 1984).  Security is a key component of attachment theory and the theory claims the anticipated quality of treatment in all close relationships is strongly influenced by an infant’s caregiver.  Attachment theory asserts that insensitive care giving is reflected in infants developing insecure attachments to their caregiver consequently viewing others as unavailable and untrustworthy.  This negatively affects their self-worth and permanently affects their vulnerability in future relationships (Berlin, Cassidy and Belsky, 1995).  While insecure patterns of attachment are likely to lower resilience and produce more vulnerability, a secure pattern of attachment during infancy is regarded as the attachment style producing the best outcome, resulting in more flexible and adaptable coping strategies in a wider range of environments (Parkes, Stevenson-Hinde & Marris, 1991).

Mary Ainsworth helped expand Bowlby’s original theory and translated Bowlby’s concepts into empirical findings (Parkes et al., 1991).  Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation procedure to assess attachment security due to her recognition that security or insecurity in an attachment relationship was crucial to individual differences (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters & Wall, 1978 – as cited in Rutter, 1995).  The Strange Situation procedure involves mothers and their infants in a 20 minute video taped laboratory procedure in which two infant-parent separations and reunions occur.  How the infant responds to the parent during the reunion episodes influences their classification as either secure, insecure-avoidant, or insecure-ambivalent (Berlin et al., 1995).    

The Strange Situation is believed to reflect individual differences in the quality of early parental behaviour and is the most widely used form of measurement in attachment research (Lamb, 1987).  As predicted by attachment theory, much of the research shows a consistent correlation between sensitive and responsive care giving during early infancy and security of attachment exhibited in the Strange Situation later (Ainsworth et al., 1978; DeWolff & van Ijzendoorn, 1997; Posada et al., 1999 – as cited in Waters, Hamilton et al., 2000).  

Stability in attachment patterns

While developmentalists cannot say that early experience is not important, they also cannot say that it “guarantees long-term developmental outcomes or inoculates against subsequent trauma or deprivation” (Sameroff & Chandler, 1975; Sroufe & Jacobvita, 1989 – as cited in Waters, Hamilton et al., 2000).  Much of the attachment research supports Bowlby’s expectation that individual differences in attachment security can be stable across significant portions of the lifespan (Waters, Merrick, Treboux, Crowell & Albersheim, 2000), however other research shows remarkable variation in attachment security over both the short and long-term.  It is not yet clear why some early attachment relationships remain consistent while others change (Thompson, 2000).  

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Waters, Merrick et al., (2000) highlight that attachment theory predicts both stability under ordinary circumstances and change when negative life events alter caregiver behaviour, and defines these negative life events as “loss of a parent, parental divorce, life-threatening illness of parent or child, parental psychiatric disorder, and physical or sexual abuse by a family member”.  This study found that the infant-mother attachment relationship was significantly related to attachment security twenty years later and also found that most often changes from secure to insecure attachment were associated with stressful life events.  However this was not always the case and the relationship ...

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