The Nature and Nurture of Mother Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America (2014)

The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War

The notion that maternal care and love will determine a child’s emotional well-being and future personality has become ubiquitous. In countless stories and movies we find that the problems of the protagonists—anything from the fear of romantic commitment to serial killing—stem from their troubled relationships with their mothers. How did we come to hold these views about the determinant power of mother love over an individual’s emotional development? And what does this vision of mother love entail for children and mothers?

In The Nature and Nurture of Love, I examine scientific views about children’s emotional needs and mother love from World War II until the 1970s, paying particular attention to John Bowlby’s ethological theory of attachment behavior. I track the development of Bowlby’s work as well as the interdisciplinary research that he used to support his theory, including Konrad Lorenz’s studies of imprinting in geese, Harry Harlow’s experiments with monkeys, and Mary Ainsworth’s observations of children and mothers in Uganda and the United States. Bowlby used animal research to argue that human infants have an innate need for maternal care and love. According to Bowlby, evolution had designed children to require maternal love and had also programmed mothers to provide the care and emotional warmth their children needed. Mothers who had any other interests beside their infant child or any ambivalence about their maternal role put their children’s emotional and psychological development at risk.

I show that important psychoanalysts, psychologists and animal researchers opposed the project of viewing emotions as biological instincts. Bowlby ignored their substantial criticisms, and attachment theory was paramount in turning mother love into a biological need. In doing that, attachment theory introduced a new justification for keeping women at home to raise their children. It also devalued mother love and maternal care.


“More than the story of a controversy in developmental psychology, it is a compelling interrogation of a popular scientific theory, its creators, and its critics.”
― Science

“A fascinating and gripping transdisciplinary story and an absolute pleasure to read.”
— Carla Nappi ― New Books in American Studies

“An engaging exploration of the development of attachment theory within the context of the Cold War years. . . . Through this historical analysis, Vicedo raises important questions concerning the adequacy of the scientific evidence supporting attachment theory. She accomplishes this while maintaining the neutrality of a historian and encouraging readers to strive to understand a theory in its scientific and social context. Recommended.”
— R. B. Stewart Jr., Oakland University ― Choice

“A painstakingly in-depth account of the intellectual and social context within which Bowlby’s ethological theory of attachment came to prominence—and was both challenged and defended—in postwar America. Marga Vicedo’s careful examination illuminates the powerful cross-disciplinary alliances, selective readings of data, and neglect of criticism that helped to produce and sustain the ‘halo of truth’ surrounding attachment theory.”
— Teri Chettiar, Humboldt University ― Journal of the History of Biology

“Vicedo’s work opens up new avenues for exploring relationships between motherhood, biology, culture, and science and provides a much-needed analysis of attachment theory in the twentieth century. In doing so, she has given us a fresh historical perspective and a valuable synthesis of a fascinating subject, one that will no doubt pave the way for future works seeking to unravel these relationships in new ways.”
— Jessica Martucci ― Journal of the History of Medicine

“Through her astute investigation of the history of attachment theory and the modern concept of ‘mother love,’ Marga Vicedo reminds us that scientific pronouncements on the social lessons of biology tend to be freighted with prevailing preconceptions about the proper ordering of society.  She offers an insightful and thought-provoking analysis of how attachment theory developed amidst postwar anxieties about the erosion of traditional gender roles. With its remarkable cast of scientific characters (including John Bowlby, Konrad Lorenz, and Harry Harlow) and its attention to multiple disciplines (ethology, comparative psychology, and psychoanalysis), this book is certain to appeal to a wide range of readers.”
— Richard W. Burkhardt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Angst-ridden parents who fear they may not be adequately meeting their infant’s emotional needs will gain valuable perspective from Marga Vicedo’s The Nature and Nurture of Love, which shows how recent this preoccupation actually is. This thoroughly original and deeply researched study explains how leading postwar psychologists and biologists reduced mother love and infant attachment to biological instincts that stymied healthy emotional development if thwarted or unmet. Revisiting the field’s most influential animal and human studies, Vicedo levels a brilliant and provocative critique of attachment theory—one that will challenge present-day proponents to defend its central claims more rigorously.”
— Rebecca Jo Plant, University of California, San Diego

“At a moment when instinct is considered a self-evident fact of human and nonhuman existence, The Nature and Nurture of Love asks a big question about the role of biology in human affairs. How did science inform the social organization of child rearing in the United States during the early Cold War era? Vicedo’s fascinating book shows that very uncertain findings in ethology, psychoanalysis, and primatology were translated into conservative cultural certainties about human development, motherhood, and the kind of nurture that children needed and deserved. Her wonderfully blunt style and refreshing skepticism illuminate the sciences of love. I can think of few other books that bring history as boldly to bear on debates about human nature, work/family balance, and the urgent question of how we care for children as women pursue lives that stretch far beyond maternity.”
— Ellen Herman, University of Oregon

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