Early Attachment as a Predictor of Development
Showing that infant attachment relationships could be reliably assessed and that they were derived from the history of care was one important step. But it was only the first step. Bowlby's theory suggested that not only would these relationships provide the foundation for personality development, but they'd do so by affecting the child's capacity for emotional regulation and the formation of mental representations of self and others. For example, a child who's been rejected is likely to interpret the behavior of others as rejecting and behave in ways that lead to further rejection, continuing the pattern. However, the theory also states that such behaviors are subject to change, especially given fundamental changes in relationship support. If others are supportive, despite off-putting behavior, a child's worldview and behavior may change. Further, early experience isn't erased, but retains its potential to impact later developmental stages.
The Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (MLSRA), a research project begun in 1976, has been the source of a vast literature about the predictive power of early attachment relationships, while distinguishing the impact of these relationships from the effects of social class and temperament. What MLSRA has shown over the past 35 years in study after study is that attachment security with a primary caregiver measured in infancy predicted important aspects of adjustment and functioning throughout childhood and into adulthood. Those with secure histories had a greater sense of self-agency, were better emotionally regulated, and had higher self-esteem than those with histories of anxious (insecure) attachment.
In general, attachment predicted engagement in the preschool peer group, the capacity for close friendships in middle childhood, the ability to coordinate friendships and group functioning in adolescence, and the capacity to form trusting, nonhostile romantic relationships in adulthood. Those with secure histories were more socially competent and likelier to be peer leaders. Each of these findings, as well as the findings on resilience and psychopathology to be discussed, holds true controlling for temperament and IQ.
As Bowlby's theory also indicated, security of a child's attachment predicts the reactions of peers and teachers to that child. Children describe peers with avoidant histories as aggressive or "mean." They frequently victimize those with resistant or ambivalent attachment histories, who tend not to be socially competent and are the least liked by others. Those with secure histories are liked best. This finding can be best understood by recognizing that early attachments create social expectations in children, and may incline them to see the present in terms of negative past experiences. For such children, their attachment history can become a self-fulfilling prophesy as they behave toward new people in their lives—like peers or teachers—in ways that reproduce old, negative relationships.
Teachers, too, with no knowledge of the child's history, treat children in the different categories of attachment differently. Coders, who were blind to the child's history, but who watched videotapes of interactions between teachers and each child, rated teachers as treating those with secure histories in a warm, respectful manner. They set age-appropriate standards for their behavior and had high expectations for them (indicated by actions such as moving on to take care of other tasks after asking the child to do something). With those having resistant histories, the teachers were also warm, but highly controlling. They didn't expect compliance, set low standards, and were unduly nurturing (taking care of things that 5-year-olds should do for themselves). Teachers were controlling and had low expectations with the avoidant group, but displayed little nurturing and got angry at them most frequently. Thus, the reactions of teachers tended to support the attachment assessment of the children that had been made through other observations.