History and Critical Analysis of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is one of the most successful theories of child psychology developed in the twentieth century. The distinctive feature of this theory is its appeal to biology for justification. In the 1960s, the founders of attachment theory, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, argued that children have an instinctual need for maternal love, and evolution also designed maternal instincts to respond to that need. These instincts anchor the attachment between mothers and infants.  Bowlby postulated that the attachment system is an adaptation developed in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). Today, attachment theorists still appeal to evolutionary biology to defend the existence of the mother-infant bond and its significance, though they often also defend the existence of attachments to other “mother figures,” including fathers, siblings, and other family members.

My work in this area examines the development of attachment theory in its historical context. I have focused on exploring how attachment theorists have extrapolated ideas from biology to psychology, especially the notions of instinct, imprinting, and adaptation. I argue that those extrapolations are unwarranted. 

  • “Putting Attachment in its Place: Disciplinary and Cultural Contexts,” European Journal of Developmental Psychology 14 (6): 684-699, 2017. Reprinted in Willem Koops & Frank Kessel, eds. Historical Developmental Psychology. Taylor and Francis, 2018.

This paper examines the reception of John Bowlby’s and Mary Ainsworth’s ethological theory of attachment among anthropologists and cultural psychologists. First, it shows that many of them challenged the main tenets of attachment theory but attachment theorists ignored those challenges. Second, it argues that we need to understand the different disciplinary goals of psychology and anthropology after WWII in order to illuminate the lack of attention to children’s cultural context in attachment research. The privileging within psychology of laboratory data over field observations supported the rise of attachment research focused on the strange situation experimental procedure and contributed to the neglect of ethnographic data about children in their socio-cultural milieu. Recognizing the importance of studying children in context, however, recent studies by anthropologists and developmental psychologists have deepened the challenge to attachment theory.

  • “The Strange Situation of the Ethological Theory of Attachment: A Historical Perspective.” Heidi Keller and Kim A. Bard, eds. 2017. The Cultural Nature of Attachment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 13-52. 

My chapter in this book examines two fundamental tenets of attachment theory: the universality of attachment patterns and the biological foundations of the attachment system. It shows that several scholars have challenged those tenets over the years and argues that attachment researchers have not addressed those challenges successfully, even in their most recent models about social relations in the Pleistocene.

I conclude that there is no biological research that supports the validity of John Bowlby’s and Mary Ainsworth’s ethological theory of attachment behavior.

  • “On the History, Present, and Future of Attachment Theory,” European Journal of Developmental Psychology 14 (6): 684-699, 2017.