Attachment Theorists

HARRY F. HARLOWE (1905-1981) Experimental and comparative psychologist Harry Harlow is best known for his work on the importance of maternal contact in the growth and social development of infants. Working with infant monkeys and surrogate mothers made of terrycloth or wire, Harlow concluded that extended social deprivation in the early years of life can severely disrupt later social and sexual behavior. Harlow also conducted important studies involving the behavior of prisoners of war during the Korean War, as well as work concerning problem-solving and learning among primates.

Harlow was born in 1905 in Fairfield, Iowa. Following his education at Stanford, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. in 1930, he began a long academic career at the University of Wisconsin. His teaching career spanned 44 years, beginning in 1930. He also served as director of the university’s Regional Primate Center from 1961-71. In his work with primates, Harlow developed what he called a “uniprocess learning theory,” which describes how primates learn through a succession of incorrect responses to stimuli.

When Harry Harlow began his famous studies of attachment behaviors in rhesus monkeys, he was able to pit two competing theories of the development of affiliative behaviors against each other. Drive-reduction approaches were based on the premise that bonds between mothers and children were nurtured by the fact that mothers provided food and warmth to meet the infant’s biological needs. Attachment theorists, on the other hand, felt that the provision of security through contact and proximity were the driving factors in the development of attachment .

Harlow devised a series of ingenious studies in which infant rhesus monkeys were raised in cages without their natural mothers, but with two surrogate objects instead. One surrogate “mother” was a wire form that the monkey could approach to receive food. Another form offered no food, but was wrapped in terry cloth so the infant could cling to a softer and more cuddly surface. What happened when a large, threatening mechanical spider was introduced into the cage? The infant monkeys ran to the terry cloth surrogates, demonstrating that contact comfort was more important than just meeting basic hunger needs for the establishment of a relationship from which the infant might derive security.

In a series of related experiments, Harlow studied the effects of maternal and contact comfort deprivation across the monkey’s lifespan, uncovering unexpectedly harmful effects of such deprivation on the monkeys’ own childrearing abilities at maturity. Later, Harlow’s student Stephen Suomi and his colleagues demonstrated that these longstanding effects could be improved by introducing a nurturant “foster grandmother.”

Harlow’s conclusions about maternal bonding and deprivation, based on his work with monkeys and first presented in the early 1960s, later became controversial, but are still considered important developments in the area of child psychology.

Retrieved June 10, 2008, from


JOHN BOWLBY (1907-1990) was an English psychiatrist who developed attachment theory, one of the century’s most influential theories of personality development and social relationships. Born in London, England, Bowl-by graduated from Cambridge University in 1928 and began his professional training at the British Psychoanalytic Institute as a child psychiatrist. He was trained in the neo-Freudian object-relations approach to psychoanalysis, which taught that children’s emotional disturbances were primarily a function of their fantasies generated by internal conflict. While embracing the psychoanalytic emphasis on the importance of the early years for children’s healthy emotional development, Bowlby felt that this approach neglected the importance of their actual early experiences with their parents.

After World War II, Bowlby became the head of the Children’s Department at the Tavistock Clinic, where he focused his clinical studies on the effects of mother-child separation. He completed a monograph for the World Health Organization on the sad fate of homeless children in postwar Europe and collaborated with James Robertson on a film, A Two-Year-Old Goes to the Hospital. These works drew the attention of child clinicians to the potentially devastating effects of maternal separation, and led to the liberalization of family visiting privileges for hospitalized children.

Unsatisfied with the psychoanalytic view that the child’s love of mother derived from oral gratification, Bowlby embraced the ethological theories of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, which stress the evolutionary foundations of behavior as a source of explanation for mother-child attachment relationships. He presented his first formal statements of ethologically based attachment theory to the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1957. Bowlby argued that mother-child attachment has an evolutionary basis, promoting the child’s survival by increasing mother-child proximity, particularly when the child is stressed or fearful. The mother thus serves as a secure base for the young child’s exploration of the world. Bowlby expanded his theory of attachment in his Attachment and Loss trilogy (volume 1: Attachment, volume 2: Separation, and volume 3:Loss). Bowlby’s theory was supported by the empirical work of his collaborator, Mary Dinsmore Salter Ainsworth, who examined the normative development of attachment relationships across cultures as well as the maternal care-giving patterns that predict individual differences in the quality of mother-infant attachment security.

Controversial at first, attachment theory became a dominant principle of social and personality development by the 1980s, generating thousands of research papers and serving as a theoretical basis for clinical intervention programs. After his retirement in 1972, Bowlby continued to develop the clinical application of attachment theory. He completed a biography of Charles Darwin shortly before his death in 1990.

Retrieved June 10, 2008, from


MARY AINSWORTH (1913-1999) was an American developmental psychologist. She was well known, for her work in, emotional attachment. She was born in Glendale Ohio, in December of 1913. Ainsworth’s parents graduated from Dickenson College. Her father earned a master’s degree, in history. Her mother taught for a while, and then she became a homemaker. Mary Ainsworth’s parents were strict on liberal arts education, and attending college. At the age of fifteen, Ainsworth read William Mc Dougall’s book, Character and the Conduct of Life. She then decided to establish a career in, the field of psychology. In addition Ainsworth concluded that, individuals did not focus on external forces, to shape behavior. Ainsworth was enrolled at the University of Toronto, in the fall of 1929. She also had the opportunity to enter the honors program in psychology, and earned her B.A, in 1935.Ainswroth taught for a few years at the University of Toronto, in 1939.

During World War II, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corp, and reached a high rank. Her involvement with the research project, allowed her to investigate the effects of maternal separation. She then concluded that the separations, lead to the development, of children’s personality. Moreover Ainsworth joined the research team, at Tavistock clinic in England. She was then directed by John Bowlby. They both realized that the effects of personality, disrupted from mother-child bond. They found evidence that children are affected, by the absence of their mother. She also concluded that children, who lack mother figure, are adverse, to development. Ainsworth’s interest in security was developed at the Tavistock clinic. She conducted longitudinal studies, to examine children relationship, in normal settings. During 1954, Ainsworth had a chance to conduct a research study, in Tavistock Clinic. She concluded that patterns of interactions between infants and mothers were related to responsiveness. She developed the “Strange Situation” theory, which explained attachment. She also developed three response techniques, to prove her theory. The reaction response included: anxious/avoidant, anxious/resistant and securely attached.

Retrieved June 10, 2008, from College of St. Elizabeth.
Video (3:49): Attachment and the Growth of Love


1 Response to Attachment Theorists

  1. Daniel says:

    When looking at Harlowe’s study my mind wonders and I try to pull different aspect of the study and apply them to other forms of society. If we can see that a monkey can find comfort in something that is not it’s actual mother, and is able to find that comfort in the most nurturing object, than could we say that individuals are able to cope with their surroundings by finding comfort in any object? If we feel as though we are lacking in the availability of a parent shouldn’t we be able to find comfort in some sort of substitute? Thus, attachment styles should plays into how an individuals respond to the world, however, if we have a parent that is unavailable a substitute shouldn’t be far off. Is it possible that overeating, conduct disorders, exercise or any other coping method could just be our own little terry cloth monkey?

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