Bowlby Attachment Theory Harlow

Freud (1856-1939) might be one of the most famous psychoanalysts in the world. He put the spot light on a child’s relationship with their mother, pretty much blaming us for our society’s woes. Piaget (1896-1980) highlighted child cognitive development and the importance of play, which changed the way society viewed early childhood education, but it was the psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s (1907-1990) attachment theory that solidified that the first five years of life are the most crucial.

A pioneer in his field Bowlby was influenced by Lorenz’s study of imprinting, which showed that attachment is innate (in young ducklings) and has survival value. Coupled with his own observations, including his 44 Juvenile Thieves study and Harlow’s Rhesus Monkey Experiments, he concluded that strong emotional and physical attachments with a caregiver early on in life has long-term significant effects. 

Harlow, a colleague of Bowlby’s, ran a series of influential experiments with baby rhesus monkeys, who he took from their mothers at birth. One study isolated the babies from each other or anybody else, while eight were placed in cages with access to two surrogate mothers, one made of wire and one covered in soft toweling cloth. Four of the monkeys could get milk from the wire mother and four from the cloth mother. These babies were studied for 165 days. Both groups of monkeys spent more time with the cloth mother (even if she had no milk). It was observed that the infant monkey would only go to the wire mother when hungry and explore more when the cloth mother was present. It would also run to the cloth mother in times of stress. Clinging or hugging was a natural response.

The monkeys that were totally maternally deprived and isolated suffered immensely. Some were kept this way for three months, some for six, some for nine, and some for the first year of their lives. Harlow then put the babies back with other monkeys to see what affect their failure to form attachment had on their behavior. The results were obvious and devastating. The babies were scared of the other monkeys, and then became very aggressive towards them. They were unable to communicate or socialize and in turn were bullied by their peers. They engaged in self-mutilation, tore out their hair, scratched and bit their own arms and legs and clutched their own bodies while rocking compulsively.

Harlow reasoned that early maternal deprivation leads to emotional damage, but that its impact can be reversed if an attachment is made before the end of a critical period. The monkeys isolated for a year never recovered. Harlow concluded that attachment develops as a result of the mother providing “tactile comfort,” suggesting that infants have an innate (biological) need to touch and hug something for emotional comfort.

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory states that the relationship between infants and mothers is innate, and that the formation of this attachment is crucial for the infant’s development into adulthood. He believed that forming a healthy, loving attachment in the first few years is critical for a child’s development. He disclaimed behaviorist theories that attachment was merely the result of the feeding relationship between the child and the caregiver pointing to the importance of comfort and responsiveness. Bowlby established four stages of attachment:

Pre attachment Phase (birth to 6 weeks)

Attachment in Making Phase (6 weeks to 6 – 8 months)

Clear Cut Attachment Phase (6 – 8 months to 18 months – 2 years)

Formation of Reciprocal Relationship (18 months – 2 years and on

He considered the first three years as the most sensitive period for the attachment process and emphasized that mothers who are available and responsive to their infant’s needs create a sense of security among their children, providing a solid foundation of emotional, social, and cognitive growth. 

Later psychologists have argued that mothers are not the only exclusive caregiver and this attachment can be created with a father or network of caregivers. But, it is universally accepted; early childhood attachment has implications from cradle to grave. What happens in the first five years of a child’s life can determine the foundation for the development and success of that individual into adulthood.

Image Credit: Harlow's Rhesus Monkey Case Study

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