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Learning Theory and Bowlby’s Theory

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One theory of attachment that behaviourists such as Dollard and Miller (1950) have put forward is Learning Theory, this theory believes that all behaviours are acquired though learning which takes place through classical and operant conditioning. Learning theory provides explanations on how attachments between the caregiver and baby are formed, one explanation is through classical conditioning; learning by association. This is based upon Pavlov’s work with dogs in 1927. Before conditioning an unconditioned stimulus produced an unconditioned response, during conditioning a neutral stimulus and unconditioned response would produce an unconditioned response then after conditioning the conditioned stimulus would result in a conditioned response.

In the case of learning theory the unconditioned stimulus would be the food and the unconditioned response would a be a happy baby, the neutral stimulus which then becomes a conditioned stimulus would be the mother, therefore after conditioning the mother will make the baby happy as the baby associates the mother with food; a source of pleasure for the baby. Another explanation learning theory provides is that attachments are formed through operant conditioning; learning by reinforcement – positive or negative. This can explain the mothers bond with the child for example a mother will receive reinforcements for behaviours that affect the baby’s wellbeing; an example of negative reinforcement would be feeding a crying baby so it stops crying – the mothers actions have resulted in the subtraction of something negative. An example of positive reinforcement would be when the mother talks to the baby the baby may smile.

A study that undermines the learning theory explanation of attachment is Fox’s 1977 study of Israeli children. Fox studied 122 children raised in an Israeli Kibbutz and only seeing their parents around an hour a day. A metapelet was responsible for feeding and taking care of the children. Fox found that although the metapelet fed the children the children were still more attached to their parents than the nurses. This undermines the learning theory explanation of attachment as according to learning theory the children should have been more attached to the metapelet as she fed the children, however the children were more strongly attached to their parents.

Harlows study in 1959 also undermined the learning theory’s explanation of attachment: Harlow isolated infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers at birth and raised them with artificial wire mothers that resembled monkeys. One of the wire mothers had a feeding bottle attached and the other was covered in a soft cloth but had no food. Harlow found that the monkeys spent the majority of their time clung to the mother wrapped in the cloth. This undermines the learning theory as according to the learning theory the monkeys should have clung to the mother with the feeding bottle; getting pleasure from having the food however Harlow’s study suggested that the monkeys were more attached to the mother that offered them the most comfort as they spent the majority of their time attached to this mother.

Another study that disagrees with the learning theory is Schaffer and Emerson’s study of human infants in 1964. They studied babies in Glasgow and found that the infants would form multiple attachments becoming most attached to adults who were most responsive to their needs. This doesn’t agree with learning theory’s explanation of attachment as according to learning theory the children should have been more attached based on who fed them however the study showed they were more attached to those who were most responsive to their needs.

Overall one strength of learning theory is that it provides an adequate explanation of how attachments are formed and also in some ways we do learn from association and reinforcements. However, a key weakness of the learning theory is that it focuses’ too much on food being the main reinforcer.

Another theory of attachment is Bowlby’s theory of attachment. Bowlby believed babies to have a biological need for attachment with an adult carer. He believed that attachment was adaptive and innate and happened within a critical period before the child turned two and a half. He believed that the attachment instinct promoted survival as it gives babies a secure base, created a good template on which to base future relationships and through social releasers which stimulate an innate care giving response from the caregiver. Bowlby also suggested that attachment was monotropic: the child would initially form one main attachment and other attachments would form but in a hierarchy with this one at the top. Bowlby’s theory suggests that there are negative effects of deprivation, which include emotionally disturbed behaviour, delinquency and affectionless psychopathy. This is supported by Bowlby’s 44 juvenile thieves study in which Bowlby studied 44 emotionally disturbed children who had been in trouble with the police and 44 emotionally disturbed but law abiding children, he found a large number of the thieves had ‘affectionless psychopathy’ a failure to form deep relationships and little concern for others.

In the thieves group there were more children who had been separated from their mothers for 6 months of more before the age of 5. This supports Bowlby’s studied as it shows that those unable to form a secure attachment were more prone to atypical behaviour and showed that maternal deprivation was linked with delinquency. However Rutter’s study in 1972 of children in the Isle of White suggested that bad behaviour was mainly due to high levels of stress in the family and not maternal deprivation as Bowlby had suggested. Another of Rutter’s criticisms was that even though Bowlby shows that deprivation can have a lasting affect on the child’s development, he does not take into account that experiences throughout the child’s life also matter as well as their early experiences.

Hodges and Tizards study questioned Bowlbys theory of attachment – they found that children adopted as late as 7 years old could establish strong attachments with parents. Bowlby’s theory was good as it changed the way hospitals treated children; they are no longer left on their own and a parent is allowed to stay with them at all times. Bowlbys theory also provides us with a plausible explanation of how and why attachments are formed, however it can be seen as quite sexist, as it emphasizes the role of the mother and does not acknowledge the father despite evidence to suggest that in two parent heterosexual families, the quality of the relationship with the father can also have an influence on a child’s development.

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