“research supporting attachment theory

23 Mar 2015

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has been conducted primarily in Western cultures, and basic attachment theory concepts such as the caregiver serving as a 'secure base' for exploration, the importance of a caregiver's sensitivity to an infant's communication, or the notion that secure attachment promotes greater social competence are deeply rooted in Western cultural values [and] are not applicable to other cultures." (Wei et al, 2004, p. 408). Discuss the above with focus on the Strange Situation attachment measure. Draw on additional research to support your argument.


There are contrasting views of attachment theory and the actions and signals of infants. What attachment theory does do is give us an insight into child and adult behaviour which is useful when considering this complex relationship. It also offers an alternative theory to those of many major paradigms such as those views held by behaviourists, or Freud's motivational theory.

Studies on strange situation classification in other cultures have sparked a lively debate on their universal versus cultural meaning (Bretherton, 1992). The purpose of this essay, is to provide a summary and critique of current and past research, on the assumption made by Wei, Russel, Mallinckrodt and Zakalik (2004) that most supporting research for attachment theory was conducted in Western cultures and is therefore not applicable to other cultures. The essay will focus mainly on strange situation assessment and how different cultures may affect the infant- caregiver relationship.

Attachment theory was first developed by Bowlby (1969) and is one of the earliest theories of social development. Bowlby, who held the psychoanalytical view that childhood experiences influence behaviour and relationships later in life, believed that the infancy-caregiver relationship was very important when studying attachment in childhood and in adulthood.

Bowlby's work was later elaborated on by Ainsworth (1989) who described attachment as the theory used to explain how childhood attachments serve as a model for future relationships. Ainsworth developed an assessment procedure called 'strange situation' which allowed the relationship between child and caregiver to be observed. Expanding on Bowlby's original theory, four major styles of attachment were found when using Ainsworth strange situation assessment, these were secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure- resistant and insecure-disorganised (Ainsworth, Bleher, Waters & Wall, 1978). Feeney and Noller (1996) stated that the patterns of infant behaviour that define these styles are systematically related to the amount of interaction between mother and infant and to the mother's sensitivity and responsiveness to the infants needs and signals.

Bowlby also believed that the theory of attachment was connected to the broader field of evolutionary psychology; the tendency to make strong emotional bonds to other individuals can be seen as an essential component of human nature (Bowlby, 1988). He suggested that attachment was necessary to promote survival through safety and emotional relationships; it also provides a secure base for exploration.

Evolutionary psychology largely impacted Freud and influenced the development of many of his theories (Brockman, 2007). Fonagy and Target (2005) who studied metallization, and argued that a mother can understand the mental state and attachment relationship of their child, gives an idea of the influence evolutionary psychology may have had on Freud's Psychoanalysis. It was from Freud's theories that Bowlby drew insight concerning the child-caregiver bond. However he was also influenced by developmental psychology and the view that children participate in their own development, he saw this as the defining distinction between attachment theory and other theoretical explanations for child caregiver-bonds (Vaughn & Bost, 1999).

Attachment theory can be seen as a biological process, as attachment will still develop even if a child is maltreated, it is not a learnt behaviour (Rutter & rutter, 1992). This can give insight into the nature verses nurture debate in contemporary developmental psychology as it explains how an infant attaches to a caregiver and continues to develop socially with that person as appose to acquiring their behavioural traits from birth.

Strange situation distributions across cultures:

Many studies have suggested that strange situation distributions differ across and within cultures; this raises doubt about whether or not we can regard how infants behave in the strange situation context as a valid indication of their attachment (Sagi, Van IJzendoorn & Koren-karie, 1991).Miyake, Chen and Campos (1985) found that distributions of attachment in Japanese children differed largely from that of the American 'standard' distribution (Ainsworth et al., 1978) where 70% of children formed a secure attachment to their caregiver, as appose to Japanese children who had a relatively large percentage of resistant attachment relationships. It was suggested that this could be due to Japanese children not being separated from there mothers on regular occasions (Miyake et al., 1985).

These cultural differences spark the question on whether or not attachment behaviours mean the same for each child and whether the behaviour they show in the strange situation can be accepted as their attachment.

Van IJzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988) examined almost two thousand strange situation classifications obtained from eight different countries, they concluded that cross cultural validity should not be doubted only because it differs from Ainsworth et al.'s (1978) US 'standard' as its status is only achieved though aggregation over a wide diversity.

A study using strange situation assessment conducted by Keromoian and Leideman (1986) used 26 African children aged 8 to 27 months, they found similar results to findings in western studies where 61% of infants showed secure attachment to their mothers and 54% to other caregivers. These findings help provide validity for the strange situation assessment as they show that attachment in African infants is similar to that of infants in Western cultures.

Culture and socialisation patterns:

Socialisation patterns and care giving circumstances have an impact on the perceived stressfulness of the strange situation in different cultures (Harwood, Miller & Irizarry, 1995). For example Grossman, Grossman, Spangler, Syess and Unzner (1985) carried out a study on German infants they found that two thirds of their sample were observed to be insecurely attached.

The suggestion for these findings was that German culture highly valued independence, and that some interpersonal distance was held between parent and child (Eysenck, 2004). German parents were found to consider some aspects of secure attachment in a negative way; this was reflected in the upbringing of their children (Sagi & Lewkowicz, 1987). The strange situation assessment may then produce less stress in German children as they are more used to episodes without their caregiver (Grossman et al., 1985) as appose to Japanese children who are given less independence as infants (Miyake et al., 1985).

However the fact that secure attachment is associated with many valued characteristics does not mean that this is necessarily the best form of attachment, children that obtain avoidant attachment may do so as these are the characteristics best suited for their culture (Harwood, 1995). So we can see that the notion of secure attachment being the best to promote children's proficiency is based mainly in western cultures.

Sensitivity and attachment security:

Strange situation assessment is used to observe the relationship between infant and caregiver (Ainsworth, 1989) and gives us an insight into the different types of attachment infants may acquire. Although different cultures may affect the way in which a mother or caregiver reacts with their infant, it does not refer research from observing the importance of a caregivers sensitivity towards an infant and how this may affect the type of attachment that is formed.

Ainsworth (1963, 1967) studied the differences in the quality of mother- infant interaction in Uganda; she found that secure attachment was significantly correlated with maternal sensitivity, infants of sensitive mothers became securely attached whilst infants of less sensitive mothers were more likely to form an insecure attachment (Bretherton, 1992). Ainsworth, Bell and Stayton (1974) found in a study on Baltimore infants, those that had shown avoidant or resistant styles of attachment in the strange situation had a less sensitive relationship with their caregiver than those that showed secure attachment (Bretherton, 1992). The fact that similar patterns were observed in both settings became the basis for Ainsworth's assumption that attachment theory constructs are culturally universal (Wei, Russell, Mallinckrodt and Zakalik, 2004).

However Western attachment investigators have began to acknowledge the affect of cultural differences on attachment, yet they tend to maintain the idea that caregiver sensitivity is universal (van IJzendoorn & Sagi, 1999; Waters, Vaughn, Posada, & Kondo-Ikemura, 1995).

However fundamental differences can be seen in security between cultures for example, a study conducted on 20 preschool teachers, nine from United States and eleven from Japan; found that U.S teachers reacted to expressions of need, whilst Japanese teachers tended to anticipate the needs of their children (Rothbaum, Nagaoka & Ponte, 2006).

These findings suggest cultural differences in sensitivity, as sensitivity has been linked to attachment security it is apparent that these differing types of sensitivity will produce different levels of attachment. Fuertes, Dos Santos, Beeghly and Tronick (2007) found that attachment quality can be influenced by multiple factors, including infant temperament, coping behaviour, and mainly maternal sensitivity.

However it could easily be argued that the Rothbaum, Nagaoka and Ponte (2006) study only used a small sample of American and Japanese preschool teachers', and only concerns Japanese and American culture and can therefore not be generalised to a larger population. It also only focuses on the different levels of sensitivity between the cultures and not on the attachment relationship that is formed as a consequence of sensitivity.

Culture and the 'Secure base' concept:

Bowlby (1969) suggested that secure-base behaviour was regulated by a neurally represented control system that coordinated various input (mother's location/availability) with a set goal, to initiate attachment behaviours and exploration (Posada et al., 1995).

Bowlby drew on the Darwinian theory of Evolution to help make evident his attachment control system theory; he suggested that this control system was a product of natural selection (Posada et al., 1995). With this assumption it can be argued that if the control system that produced secure- base behaviour has occurred in humans through natural selection then it will be apparent across all cultures.

However although the concept of secure base may be evident across all cultures, it does not necessarily mean that the secure-base principle holds the same meaning for different cultures. The notion that a secure-base provides foundation for exploration is mainly emphasised in Western cultures, the belief that exploration will lead to a more independent individual is not likely to be shared by say Japanese culture, who as seen above do not promote independence ().

In Puerto Rico people live by ethics of community and are more concerned with things like respect, duty and obligation, for them attachment has more to do with the awareness of a person and situations in which these values must be exhibited ( ). This suggests that although all cultures see the importance in the secure-base concept, its meaning differs greatly.


It is clear that a vast amount of cross cultural studies of strange situation have focused on describing cultural differences in attachment classifications and attributing these differences to cultural practices ( Feeney & Noller, 1996). For example Grossman, Grossman, Spangler, Syess and Unzner (1985) and Miyake et al., (1985) studies showed differences in attachment due to cultural differences in parenting i.e. early independence in Germans.

From the research and arguments above it can be assumed that culture does play some role in the attachment style infants acquire and on some level the sensitivity shown by caregivers. However although secure attachment is meant to be the most dominant across cultures we cannot assume that infants that form insecure attachment bonds will become less successful adults, as the attachments formed may promote behaviour that is best suited to their culture. We must also be aware that there are other factors that may affect the attachment relationship seen in Ainsworth's strange situation, for example infant temperament. Each infant and caregiver differ even within cultures, there may still be a large diversity of people within a culture that would show different levels of sensitivity and parental technique to their infant.

The cultural effects may make the strange situation technique questionable as a reliable procedure for determining attachment bonds, but it is still able to give a great deal of information and understanding on the relationship between mother/caregiver and infant and how the bond formed affects the adult relationships and personality, for future researchers to elaborate on further.

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