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The Verdict Is In

The Verdict Is In

The case for attachment theory

By Alan Sroufe and Daniel Siegel

While many schools of psychotherapy have held that our early experiences with our caretakers have a powerful impact on our adult functioning, there have been plenty of hard-nosed academics and researchers who've remained unconvinced. Back in 1968, psychologist Walter Mischel created quite a stir when he challenged the concept that we even have a core personality that organizes our behavior, contending instead that situational factors are much better predictors of what we think and do. Some developmental psychologists, like Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption, have gone so far as to argue that the only important thing parents give their children is their genes, not their care. Others, like Jerome Kagan, have emphasized the ongoing influence of inborn temperament in shaping human experience, asserting that the effect of early experience, if any, is far more fleeting than is commonly assumed. In one memorable metaphor, Kagan likened the unfolding of life to a tape recorder with the record button always turned on and new experiences overwriting and erasing previous experiences. n At the same time, the last 50 years have seen the accumulation of studies supporting an alternative view: the idea that the emotional quality of our earliest attachment experience is perhaps the single most important influence on human development. The central figure in the birth of this school of research has been British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who challenged the Freudian view of development, claiming that it had focused too narrowly on the inner world of the child without taking into account the actual relational environment that shapes the earliest stages of human consciousness.

Bowlby's thinking was influenced by his study of how other mammals rear their young, and the distinctive core of his contribution to developmental psychology may be traced to a very simple observation: whereas young ground-dwelling animals run to a place of protection when frightened, primates like chimpanzees and gorillas run to a protective adult, who then carries them to safety. As he focused on the developmental significance of this survival pattern, Bowlby concluded that humans—the most dependent of mammal infants—are wired like their primate cousins to form attachments, because they couldn't survive without them.

But Bowlby went further. While agreeing with his psychoanalytic colleagues that early experiences with our caretakers are crucial to the people we become, he made an important distinction. Infants are attached to their caregivers not because caregivers feed them, but because caregivers trigger the unfolding of infants' inborn disposition to seek closeness with a protective other. By divorcing human attachment from the drive-reduction notions of Freudian theory, Bowlby laid the foundation for a shift from seeing people as individuals somehow standing apart from their social environment to a more fine-tuned grasp of just how deeply relational human nature is.

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