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Explanations of Attachment

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Explanations of Attachment

Attachment is a core aspect of growing up. A baby is naturally attached to their parents, which is beneficial for multiple reasons. Namely, the parent then raises their child and ensures their survival. Psychology investigated the attachment types and analysed the explanations behind these attachments. Their research has revealed that attachment does differ for babies and children.

So, what are these explanations and types of attachment? This article explains attachment that focuses on the learning theory, Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory, and Ainsworth’s Strange Situation. This article will outline and evaluate one or more explanations of attachment and examine how they work.

Explanations of Attachment StudySmarterAttachment, Flaticon

What are the explanations of attachment?

Having previously looked at how attachments develop, we can now examine why they develop. There are three primary explanations for attachment that we will cover: Bowlby’s monotropic theory, the learning theory, and Ainsworth’s Strange Situation.

Learning theory explains attachment between a baby and their primary caregiver in terms of conditioning, which you may have encountered when studying behaviourism. It was dominant in the first half of the 20th century as a more popular explanation.

Bowlby’s monotropic theory takes a different approach, explaining attachment as an innate biological phenomenon, which is genetically programmed.

The strange situation study is an experiment conducted in the early 1970s that aimed to investigate whether or not there were different types of attachment in children when exposed to different scenarios with their caregivers and strangers. Mary Ainsworth originally conducted the study. She was an award-winning American-Canadian psychologist who specialised in attachment psychology.

What does the learning theory of attachment explain?

Learning theory is a behaviourist theory based on classical and operant conditioning, which Ivan Pavlov and BF Skinner developed. Learning theory assumes that infants bond when they associate their mother (or another primary caregiver) with receiving food.

Receiving food is a pleasurable experience for the infant. When the caregiver (the neutral stimulus) is present during the feeding, the infant begins to associate that pleasant feeling with their caregiver. The child then bonds with their parent, which is an example of classical conditioning.

The child will seek out the caregiver to get food and other essentials, such as a diaper change or comfort. They associate the caregiver with the positive feelings they experience when the caregiver meets their needs. The more consistently the caregiver responds to the child, the more they reinforce the attachment, called operant conditioning.

Explanations of Attachment Mother feeding baby StudySmarter

A mother feeding a baby, Pexels

Classical conditioning explanation of attachment

In classical conditioning, first demonstrated in the famous Pavlov’s Dogs experiment, an individual begins to associate a neutral stimulus (something not associated with anything else) with an unconditioned response. There are a few important abbreviations we’ll need to define going forward. These are:

  • UCR – Unconditioned Response: when the response to a stimulus is not a result of conditioning (e.g., expressing pain when you fall).

  • UCS – Unconditioned Stimulus: when the stimulus is not associated with anything. (e.g., a plain piece of paper is unlikely to be associated with any feelings or behaviour).

  • CR – Conditioned Response: when a response is associated with a particular stimulus (e.g., if a dog bites you, you associate dogs with fear).

  • CS – Conditioned Stimulus: when a stimulus is associated with a response (e.g., the dog in the above example).

In classical conditioning, a person simultaneously experiences a stimulus as another stimulus that elicits a response. As a result, the individual associates the unconditioned stimulus with the response of the other stimulus. Below you can see how this can happen in infants when they begin to associate the positive feeling (UCR) they associate with receiving food (UCS) or their mother (CS), resulting in attachment.

Explanations of Attachment Classical conditioning StudySmarter

Attachment by classical conditioning, SS - StudySmarter Originals
  1. Before learning: Food (UCS) → Pleasure (UCR)

  2. During learning: Food (UCS) + Caregiver (CS) → Pleasure (UCR)

  3. After learning: Caregiver (CS) → Pleasure (CR)

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is the idea that some conditioning occurs through reinforcement, which can be positive or negative.

If someone receives a reward after performing a behaviour, they are more likely to repeat that behaviour later, referred to as positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is when the reward for performing the behaviour is the removal of an unpleasant stimulus.

For example, if a child loses recess time as a punishment for not doing their homework, they are likely to do their homework next time to avoid the unpleasant consequences.

Also, attachment occurs when children cry out for their caregiver when they need something.

For example, when a child cries and the caregiver feeds them, the unpleasant feeling of hunger goes away, which reinforces the behaviour of crying when hungry.

Dollard & Miller (1950) took this idea further and suggested that drive reduction causes attachment. Innate needs such as food and comfort are thus ‘drives’. When a child’s needs are met, we talk about drive reduction, a reward for the child. Dollard and Miller describe two types of reinforcers: primary (the object of the drive, e.g., food) and secondary (the provider of the drive, e.g., the mother who feeds the child).

What are the limitations of the learning theory?

The learning theory of attachment has its limitations, and we will outline and evaluate them in the following sections.

Lack of validity

This theory is a behaviourist theory. Behaviourist theories usually lack validity because they represent an oversimplified version of human behaviour and rely heavily on the idea that attachment behaviour involves innate predispositions.

Overemphasis on food

Learning theory places great emphasis on the role of food in attachment. Some studies have suggested that this may not be the case, for example:

  • Harlow (1958) found that baby rhesus monkeys were much more likely to cling to a rag ‘mother’ doll (which offered no food) than to a wire doll that provided food. Harlow thus suggests that it may be the comfort rather than food that drives attachment.

  • Similarly, Lorenz (1935) found that baby greylag geese clung to the first moving subject they saw after hatching. Before the first feeding, it was an almost instantaneous attachment, suggesting that food was not the driving force for attachment.

What is Bowlby’s explanation of attachment?

Another attachment theory is John Bowlby’s monotropic theory which he created between 1969 and 1988. Influenced by psychodynamics and evolutionary psychology, the theory suggests attachment is evolutionary and essential for survival. Bowlby explains that attachment behaviours of both infants and caregivers have evolved through natural selection and serve the evolutionary purpose of ensuring infant survival.

Critical period

Through his research, Bowlby defined a critical period during which babies must bond with a caregiver. Otherwise, there is a risk that they will not bond at all later in life. According to Bowlby, this carries detrimental consequences.

This critical period is between birth and 2.5/3 years. In later revisions, Bowlby added that there might be a sensitive period, between 0 and 5 years after the critical period, where the attachment can form. However, it takes longer and requires more effort.

Explanations of Attachments Mother and daughter bonding StudySmarter

A mother and daughter bonding, Pexels

Monotropy

According to Bowlby, monotropy is a child’s innate biological need to bond with one primary caregiver. This relationship is considered the most important in the child’s life, survival, and psychological well-being. While other attachments can be made, this primary attachment is the most significant.

This attachment forms through social releasers innate behaviours such as crying, eye contact, clinging and smiling. These behaviours are biologically programmed to encourage the parent to bond with the child and respond to their needs. The child’s ability to perform these behaviours and the parent’s ability to pick up on them are both considered evolutionary advantages and therefore have become innate through natural selection.

Internal working model

We can see the internal working model as a ‘blueprint’ that a child learns for navigating social relationships. It also represents what the relationships they form throughout life might look like. The child learns this from the first, monotropic attachment with their primary caregiver, influencing their future platonic and romantic relationships.

The model involves three main features:

  • A model for the trustworthiness of others – if their primary caregiver has been consistently responsive to their needs, the child is more likely to perceive others as trustworthy.

  • A model of the self as valuable – if the child is treated with respect, and if their needs are met, they will see themselves as valuable.

  • A model of the self as effective in interacting with others – if the child’s social releasers are adequately responded to, the child will see themselves as effective in interacting with others.

What are the limitations of Bowlby’s explanation of attachment?

Lorenz’s study of greylag geese mentioned earlier supports Bowlby’s explanation of attachment (monotropic theory), as it suggests attachment is an innate, biological function. However, since this is an animal study, it is hard to generalise the findings to humans.

Rutter’s Romanian Orphan Study (1998) discovered that the earlier the children in the study were adopted, the faster they progressed in their development. This finding supports Bowlby’s idea that attachments can affect development later in life and also supports the idea that it is more difficult to form these attachments as a child gets older.

Like the learning theory, this theory is also limited by its overemphasis on purely biological drives such as food. Harlow (1959) points out that comfort is an essential factor in attachment, which Bowlby’s theory does not consider.

Refuting research

Rutter’s (2007) later research of Romanian orphanages found no significant difference in attachment for children under or over six months of age. Age thus may not be such a substantial factor in a child’s ability to attach.

Another study by Schaffer and Emerson (1964) studied 60 Scottish infants in the first 18 months of life. It found that infants were more likely to bond with caregivers who responded accurately and consistently to their signals, supporting Bowlby’s idea of social releasers.

However, they also found that babies can develop multiple strong attachments by ten months of age, challenging Bowlby’s idea that they only have one.

Bowlby’s theory tends to take an ‘all or nothing’ approach to attachment. However, a study by Mary Ainsworth (1970) investigated different attachment qualities and found three different attachment types with other developmental consequences. The study points out the limitations of Bowlby’s theory as it shows there is much more to attachment than he assumed.

What is Ainsworth’s Strange Situation explanation of attachment?

Ainsworth attempted to assess how children would react when exposed to a new situation, precisely, how they would feel and behave when their primary caregiver (in this case, their mother) left them. They were then left in the presence of a stranger.

The study was conducted on 12 to 18-month-old children, and researchers carried out eight different scenarios. Ainsworth defined different behaviours that were measured to determine the children’s attachment types:

  • Proximity seeking how close the infant stays to their caregiver.
  • Secure base behaviour secure base behaviour involves the child feeling safe to explore their environment, but returning to their caregiver often, using them as a safe ‘base’.
  • Separation and stranger anxiety – display anxious behaviours such as crying, protest or seeking their caregiver when separated from them. Display of anxious behaviours such as crying or avoidance when the stranger approaches.
  • Reunion response the child’s response to their caregiver when reunited with them.

The childrens behaviour was recorded using a controlled observation to measure the attachment. This process was comprised of consecutive sections, each lasting approximately 3 minutes. These are as follows;

  1. The parent and child enter an unfamiliar playroom. The child is encouraged to explore and play by their parent.
  2. A stranger enters and attempts to interact with the child.
  3. The parent leaves the room, leaving the stranger and their child.
  4. The parent returns and the stranger leaves.
  5. The parent leaves the child alone in the playroom.
  6. The stranger returns.
  7. The parent returns again.

Conclusion

Mary Ainsworth concluded that children can have three distinct attachment types with their primary caregiver (secure attachment, insecure-resistant attachment, and insecure-avoidant attachment).

15% were insecure-avoidant, 70% were securely attached, and 15% were insecure-resistant.

This challenged the previously accepted idea that attachment was something a child either had or didn’t have, as theorised by Ainsworth’s colleague John Bowlby. Parents play the most significant role in an infant’s life. They teach them all their basic skills, including forming healthy attachments.

Issues exist because the study lacked ecological validity (being conducted in a laboratory setting), and behaviours of both parent and child could reflect this (they may act differently, and the child can pick up on these subtle cues). However, the study is reliable as it did account for different variables.


Explanations of Attachment - Key takeaways

  • There are two main theories of attachment: the learning Theory and Bowlby’s monotropic theory.
  • Learning theory described attachment as the result of classical and operant conditioning.
  • Bowlby’s monotropic theory describes attachment as an innate biological drive, which results from years of natural selection.
  • Bowlby explains that attachment forms through a caregiver’s responses to the baby’s social releases, such as crying or smiling.
  • Ainsworth found three types of attachment: insecure-avoidant, securely attached, and insecure-resistant. Most babies displayed the securely attached style of attachment.

Frequently Asked Questions about Explanations of Attachment

It is somewhat innate, as to ensure survival, attachment needs to occur at a consistent level. 

Many researchers have established various stages of attachment. Schaffer and Emerson in a longitudinal study established the following stages: pre attachment, indiscriminate attachment, discriminate attachment, and multiple attachments.

The main theories are the learning theory of attachment (involving operant and classical conditioning) and Bowlby's monotropic attachment theory. 

Attachment theory is how an individual forms a bond with another. The bond is shared, and research studies this phenomenon by analysing influences on these relationships. 

Research has shown that when an attachment is disrupted for a child, it affects later childhood and adulthood. It can impact self-esteem, self-reliance, and those who suffered as children (from abuse, for instance) can develop disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Final Explanations of Attachment Quiz

Question

What approach is learning theory based on?

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Behaviourism

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What is classical conditioning?

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Where an individual begins to associate a neutral stimulus (something that is not associated with anything else) with an unconditioned response. An example of this could be when you hear a phone ring and automatically check your phone even if it's on silent, because you have been conditioned to associate that sound with your phone ringing.

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What is operant conditioning?


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The idea that some conditioning occurs through reinforcement. This can be either positive or negative. An example of this could be when a child who has a toy taken away for refusing to eat dinner, they are more likely to eat their dinner next time to avoid the unpleasant consequence of losing a toy.

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 What is Extrinsic motivation?


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Motivation that comes from external sources, such as wanting to get a good grade in anticipation of getting a reward.

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What is intrinsic motivation?


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Motivation that comes from ourselves, such as wanting to get a good grade simply because you want to do well.

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Give an example of reinforcement in attachment


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When a baby is hungry, they realise that their mother will feed them and help remove the unpleasant feeling of hunger, which encourages them to seek out their mother.

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Who conducted a meta-analysis on cultural differences in attachment?


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Pavlov & Skinner

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What does behaviorist learning theory suggest?


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Behaviorist learning theory suggests that we learn attachment behaviors in infancy due to reinforcement from our parents, such as food and comfort.

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What does the social constructivist learning theory suggest?

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The social constructivist theory suggests that knowledge is constructed socially, where people learn through reinforcement from peers and other people in their lives to be socially accepted.

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What does cognitive constructivist learning theory suggest?

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Cognitive constructivist theory suggests that children go through different cognitive stages of development that characterize how their attachments develop in the first year of life.

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What kind of process did Vygotsky consider learning to be?


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Social

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How many countries did Van Izjendoorn & Kroonenberg study?


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8

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Which attachment stage identified by Schaffer and Emerson supports Bowlby's idea that one attachment is more important than other attachments in an infant's life?

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Specific attachment

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Which attachment stage identified by Schaffer and Emerson refutes Bowlby's idea that one attachment is more important than other attachments in an infant's life?


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 Multiple attachments

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Who conducted research into cognitive stages of development concerning learning?


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Jean Piaget

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When was Bowlby’s monotropic theory created?

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1969.

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Who does Bowbly suggest is the most important attachment for a child?

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Their primary caregiver, usually the mother.

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What is monotropy?

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The concept infants have an innate capacity and drive to attach to one primary caregiver or attachment figure.

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What kind of process is attachment, according to Bowlby?

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Innate and biological.

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Bowlby describes attachment as an evolutionary process; what does this mean?

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It means attachment is innate, a process that we are naturally able to complete in infancy and one that was beneficial to our ancestors.

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How might attachment have become an innate process?

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In prehistoric times, a secure bond to one caregiver would be vital to a child’s survival as it would ensure they are fed and stay close to those who can protect them. These attached children were more likely to survive until adulthood, and therefore through natural selection, the attachment process would become innate.

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What are social releasers?

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Innate behaviours that the infant performs to maintain proximity with their attachment figure.

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Which of these is not a social releaser?

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Playing with blocks.

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What does the idea of social releasers suggest about attachment?

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The idea of social releasers suggests that attachments form because of care and responsiveness rather than simply food and biological needs.

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What does Bowlby suggest a child will experience if they do not experience monotropic attachment?

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Detrimental developmental effects, such as low language skills and developmental delays.

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What is maternal deprivation?

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Maternal deprivation describes instances where a mother and child are separated for an extended time, which disrupts their attachment.

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What is privation?

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Privation describes instances where a child does not have the chance to form an attachment with a caregiver in infancy/early childhood.

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Who first proposed the idea of privation being different to deprivation?

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Michael Rutter (1981).

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What did Rutter suggest are the consquences of privation?

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The problems that Rutter hypothesises that children who have experienced privation were likely to face include attention-seeking, co-dependent behaviours, antisocial behaviour, and an inability to follow the rules or feel guilt.

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What is one study that supports Bowlby’s theory?

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Lorenz (1935) found that infant greylag geese formed attachments with the very first thing they saw after hatching, suggesting that attachment is an innate process. This finding supports Bowlby’s idea that attachment is an evolutionary, instinctual behaviour.

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What is a limitation of Bowlby’s theory?

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Rutter (1981) argued that the problems children who had suffered privation or deprivation faced were due to the lack of intellectual stimulation and social contact that attachments provide, rather than the lack of attachment itself.

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How can Bowlby's theory be applied?

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This theory could find use in therapeutic settings; by knowing what has caused someone to have some emotional or social deficits, we can help treat them.

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Who conducted the Strange Situation study?

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Mary Ainsworth.

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When was the Strange Situation study conducted?

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In 1969.

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What was the aim of the Strange Situation study?

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The Strange Situation aimed to investigate whether or not there were different types of attachment, rather than simply being something a child had or did not have.

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How many behavioural measures did Ainsworth record?

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Five.

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What is the definition of separation anxiety?

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Display of anxious behaviours such as crying, protest or seeking their caregiver when separated from them.

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What is the definition of stranger anxiety?

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It is a display of anxious behaviours such as crying or avoidance when the stranger approaches.

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What is the definition of proximity seeking?

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It refers to how close the infant stays to its caregiver.

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What is the definition of safe base/secure base behaviour?

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The child feels safe to explore their environment but returns to their caregiver often.

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Who were Ainsworth’s participants?

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The original Strange Situation study included infants and mothers from 100 middle-class American families. The infants in the study were between 12 and 18 months old.

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How many sections were in the original strange situation study?

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Seven.

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How long did each section of the strange situation last?

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Three minutes.

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What were the stages of the strange situation?

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  1. The parent and child enter an unfamiliar playroom with the experimenter.
  2. The child is encouraged to explore and play by their parent; the parent and child are alone.
  3. A stranger enters and attempts to interact with the child.
  4. The parent leaves the room, leaving the stranger and their child.
  5. The parent returns, and the stranger leaves.
  6. The parent leaves the child completely alone in the playroom.
  7. The stranger returns.
  8. The parent returns, and the stranger leaves.

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Which is the definition of a secure attachment?

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These children have healthy bonds with their caregiver, which is close and based on trust. Securely attached children showed moderate stranger and separation anxiety levels but were quickly soothed by their parents upon reunion. These children also showed prominent safe base behaviour and regular proximity seeking.

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Which is the definition of an insecure-resistant attachment?

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These children have an ambivalent relationship with their caregiver, and there is a lack of trust in their relationship. These children tend to show high proximity seeking and explore their environment less. They also show severe stranger and separation anxiety, and they are very difficult to comfort upon reunion, sometimes even rejecting their caregiver.

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Which is the definition of an insecure-avoidant attachment?

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These children have a fragile relationship with their caregivers and are highly independent. They show little to no proximity seeking or safe base behaviour, and strangers and separation rarely distress them. As a result, they tend to show little or no reaction to their caregiver’s leaving or return.

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What are the two theories of attachment?

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Learning Theory & Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory

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Which theory was more prominent in the 20th century?


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Learning theory.

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What approach is learning theory based on?


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Cognitive approach.

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