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Bowlby's Attachment Theory


Explanations > Psychoanalysis > Articles > Bowlby's Attachment Theory

Programmed to attach | The child-carer relationship | Mental models | So what?


John Bowlby (1907 - 1990) was a psychotherapist who found great significance in the attachment of a child to a carer. He developed a theory of how this impacted the growing child and consequently the life of the adult.

Programmed to attach

Through examination of biological evidence, such as Lorenz’s (1935) study of imprinting, Bowlby concluded that infants have a pre-programmed desire to attach themselves to their carer.

This tendency to attach ourselves to others continues through our adult lives and friendships and marriage are all related to those early days of child-carer attachment.


Not only does the child seek attachment, they attach to just one carer, usually the mother. This one-to-one attachment is called 'monotropy'.

Matching this, mothers also have an instinct to attach themselves to the baby. If the mother is not available, the father or other relatives may step in, in which case they may have a less natural motivation in providing appropriate attachment for the child.

Tension and comfort

The operation of instincts around attachment is that the child feels an inner tension which propels them towards actions that reduce their tension. When they achieve their goal, they feel a sense of comfort. In this way, comfort and comforting plays a significant part in the pattern of attachment.

In adult life, close attachment provides comfort and distressed people will often seek physical contact. Hugging and cuddling are common rituals that provide comfort through attachment.

Triggered by fear

Attachment is also triggered by fear, for example when a child is scared, it will increase the attachment with its carer and move towards them, seeking comfort.

From an evolutionary perspective, fear is a response to danger and the drive to attachment leads the child to move towards its carer.

The child-carer relationship

According to Bowlby, early attachment between the infant and carer is essential.

Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis

If the attachment either fails to establish or breaks down in some way, there are serious negative consequences for the child's state of mind well into the future. This is called the Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis.

The key period

The attachment should begin immediately after birth, and is irreparably damaged if it is not taken up in the first year.

It is also important that the caring relationship is sustained for two to three years, with no damage or breaks in the caring during this period. There is also a continued period of risk of damage up to the age of five.

Further studies have shown that infants form more distinct attachments around the age of eight months. Other work has expanded the concern about attachment to other significant people.


Longer term consequences of maternal deprivation include:

  • Increased aggression
  • Increased delinquency
  • Greater probability of depression
  • Reduced intelligence
  • Affectionless psychopathy

In his '44 Thieves' study, Bowlby studied 44 adolescent delinquent thieves. He found that more than half of these had been separated from their mothers for longer than six months during their first five years.

Mental models

There are three mental models that the child builds which are affected by the success of attachment.


If the child is securely attached, then they will believe others are generally trustworthy.

If attachment fails, then the child will learn that people are largely untrustworthy and will lead a suspicious life.


If the child is securely attached, then they will have a healthy sense of self-worth, knowing their importance and rights in the world.

If attachment fails, they will consider themselves unworthy and will hence tend to put themselves below other people, considering themselves as inferior.


A securely attached child will find it easier to relate to others. Confident in their first relationship, they will more easily connect with others.

If the attachment fails, then this experience will make it difficult for the child to form other attachments and relationships will consequently be insecure and difficult.

So what?

If you are a parent, do make sure your child is securely attached. If you are working with other people, note how they behave around trust and relating and perhaps conclude possible attachment issues.

Attachment is important into adulthood and many people can have elements of attachment issue remaining from their childhood. Bowlby gives a rather binary view of being securely or not securely attached. There are likely many stages in between these extremes.

See also

Attachment Theory, Psychoanalysis and mourning, Attachment Style


Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal Care and Mental Health. World Health Organization Monograph.

Bowlby, J. (1953). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Loss: Sadness & Depression. London: Hogarth Press.

Lorenz, K. (1935). Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels. Der Artgenosse als auslösendes Moment sozialer Verhaltensweisen. Journal für Ornithologie 83, 137–215, 289–413.


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