Archive for November, 2010

The Social Network reminds us of our need to feel connected

Posted in emotions, Facebook, loving people, psychopathology, self-acceptance with tags , on November 26, 2010 by Steve

I just saw The Social Network and was blown away by how compelling it was and how it ‘worked’ at so many levels, especially at a psychological level.

I think there are two reasons why this movie is so interesting and engaging. First, the topic of the movie – Facebook’s ascendancy to fame (as well as its founder’s notoriety) – touches everyone who uses or knows about Facebook. We relate to the movie because Facebook pervades our modern lives: ‘Are you on Facebook?’, ‘Facebook me when you get home’, etc. Yet it is baffling to think that this online social connection tool actually had to be thought up, designed and be made popular. Just as we can’t imagine meeting someone without using our mobile phone, so Facebook seems to have become an essential aspect to communication and friendships. So, in a way, all of us who have used Facebook have contributed to its success. We are part of the Facebook story. Thus, we each have an individual connection to the movie.

Second, the themes of the movie reflect common, everyday experiences which we can all relate to. Ultimately, the movie is about what drives us as human beings: ambition, jealousy and the yearning for friendship. The main character, portraying programming nerd and founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is socially awkward and lacks the ability to communicate warmth to those closest to him. Yet his lack of empathy seems to result more from apathy than from a narcissistic intent to hurt others, and so we pity him. However his intellectual brilliance also makes him arrogant. We thus simultaneously marvel at and despise him. He is the typification of the autistic savant whose hyper-intelligence and social awkwardness leave him misunderstood and emotionally vulnerable.

Fittingly, an interesting  sub-theme which develops is that of the powerful influence of the charismatic personality. Played by Justin Timberlake, the extroverted and suave Sean Parker is the embodiment of persuasion by enchantment. Through his crafty story-telling, apt one-liners, and hypnotic authoritativeness, Parker plays on Zuckerberg’s psychological woundedness, to his own advantage. In meeting Parker, Zuckerberg is changed: his aspirations for grandiosity and absurd wealth are activated, and he enters into Parker’s world of pleasure and madness. Yet, at a deeper level, Zuckerberg remains unchanged; he stands outside Parker’s world looking in: a stranger, confused. It isn’t wealth or parties he desires. It’s a deeper sense of connectedness that he desires. He is still lonely.

Most notably, The Social Network captures brilliantly some of the different motives which people have for their behaviour. In Zuckerberg’s case, money and worldwide fame are not the motives, although he does compete vehemently with those who desire the prestige of success and wealth. Rather Zuckerberg seems to be driven by a need for self-validation and the sense of self-worth derived from how significant others think about him. By the end of the movie, it has become clear that Zuckerberg’s deepest desire is to be reassured that he’s not “a bad guy”. In the final scene of the movie, this longing for acceptance and friendship is powerfully brought home. It is a fitting end to a movie which so perceptively mirrors and critiques what drives us.

Tragically, and ironically, the founder of Facebook just wants someone to be his friend.


Attachment – Chapter 3

Posted in attachment on November 25, 2010 by Steve

This chapter begins Part II, titled ‘Instinctive Behaviour’, of Bowlby’s Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (1969/1974). In this chapter, Bowlby introduces a framework for understanding “instinctive” behaviour, and elaborates on some of the key terms in his theory, in particular an organism’s behavioural systems and its environment of adaptedness.

1. Instinctive behaviour

For Bowlby, a behaviour is neither innate nor is it simply acquired by experience. Instead, all behaviours can be placed on a continuum, with “environmentally stable” (e.g. nest building in birds) at one end and “environmentally labile” (influenced by the environment) at the other. Where patterns of behaviour display striking conformity within a species, these behaviours are referred to as instinctive, meaning environmentally stable. Humans, despite obvious individual variability and idiosyncrasy, also follow recognisable patterns and demonstrate  environmentally stability. Examples of heavily patterned behaviours include mating, caring for young children, and attachment of young children to parents.

2. Behavioural systems

Control systems theory explains how instinctive behaviours are activated and deactivated as an organism responds to the environment. The room thermostat provides an analogy for understanding behaviour in terms of purposefulness and feedback from the environment: it is set by the user (turned on/off), has a goal (to keep the room cool) and responds continuously to feedback (temperature change). Thus, behavioural system denotes the integrated set of responses  that an organism develops in order to respond to the constantly changing conditions of the external environment. Bowlby gives the example of  sheep, which “instinctively” flock together, but which will divert from this pattern when hand-raised. Thus Bowlby writes: “Instinctive behaviour is not inherited: what is inherited is a potential to develop certain sorts of system, termed here behavioural systems, both the nature and the forms of which differ in some measure according to the particular environment in which development takes place.” (p. 45).

3. Environment of adaptedness

The behavioural systems of an organism are suited to operate in their evolutionary environment of adaptedness, the environment to which a system has become adapted (adaptedness is preferred over the more ambiguous word adaptation [see Weiss, 1949; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974]).  In line with Darwinian theory, the ultimate outcome of biological adaptedness for any organism is species survival (see Darwin, 1859; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974). It may have as its proximate (more immediate) outcome any other goal, such as gaining adequate nutrition, self-protection, sexual union, etc.

Lastly, Bowlby points out that while adaptedness is a property which applies to a population and not to an individual of the species, this does not make adaptedness irrelevant to the study of instinctive behaviour in a given individual. This is because, just as in psychopathology, individuals cannot be properly understood without reference to the population. I suppose this is one way of understanding what is normal and what is abnormal, a division which will no doubt help frame secure and insecure attachment later in Bowlby’s volumes.


Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Attachment – Chapter 2

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby, personality on November 23, 2010 by Steve

During World War II many children in England were separated from their parents in order to keep them safe from the bombings. In this chapter Bowlby (1969/1974) discusses what impact this sort of separation has on a child, both in terms of the the short term response and the longer term consequences for emotional and personality development.

Bowlby describes the reaction of a securely (happily) attached child who is separated from his (or her) mother (or caregiver) and placed in the care of a stranger (carer, nurse, etc.). The typical response sequence is as follows:

  1. Protest: a vigorous, noisy and teary response which lasts from several hours up to a week or more.
  2. Despair: a withdrawn and lethargic state of mourning and sadness. The child will not be comforted or cheered up by the presence of the carer-stranger.
  3. Detachment: a state of listlessness and apathy, yet also increased compliance with carer-strangers, often mistaken as a form of emotional recovery. Once a child has reached this state, there is typically a striking absence of enthusiastic response to the mother when she does reunite with the child.

This sequence is at the core of attachment theory and will be referred to throughout the three volumes.

Bowlby then describes what happens to a  child who experiences not only the loss of his mother, but also the repeated loss of temporary mother-figures who have cared for him, i.e. carers or nurses who work at the institution for a limited period of time each. Bowlby observes that after a series of upsets at losing several of these carers, to whom the child has given some trust and affection, the child will gradually commit himself less and less to each successive carer. In time, the child will stop attaching himself to anyone at all (i.e. the state of detachment will be reached):


The process of becoming emotionally detached

Bowlby explains that this child will become “increasingly self-centred and, instead of directing his desires and feelings towards people, will become preoccupied with material things such as sweets, toys, and food.” (p. 28).

I wonder to what extent this type of “preoccupation” will result in later addictions to various substances and activities, as the grown up individual seeks to satiate their unmet childhood thirst for interaction with their attachment figures. Bowlby goes on to describe how a child who has reached the state of detachment will no longer show desire for his parents when they visit him. He will appear sociable and cheerful, but “this sociability is superficial: he appears no longer to care for anyone.” (p. 28). What Bowlby is describing here suggests the roots of a depressive personality, a person who will experience emotional numbness and apathy towards other in adulthood.

Bowlby points out (p. 29) that attachment distress is reduced when the child is in the company of a sibling (Heinicke & Westheimer, 1966; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), or when the child is in the care of one, constant mother-figure, especially when the child has met him or her before in the mother’s presence (Robertson & Robertson, 1967; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974).

In the contemporary Australian context we do not face the same situation as English children in the 1940s (WWII), and, thanks to people like Bowlby, we are generally much aware of and responsive to a child’s emotional needs than sixty years ago. Nevertheless, there are situations today which may have similar implications for children’s emotional and mental health, and which Bowlby’s writings can prepare us for. Children living in boarding schools might provide an example of this. Or amongst younger children, children attending day care when their parents returns to work is likely to be a source of distress in the first few weeks of this experience.

From Bowlby’s and others’ findings, then, parents of children going into day care can be equipped with the knowledge that: (a) previous contact with the carer in the presence of the child’s mother, or primary caregiver, can reduce the distress of separation, (b) prior familiarity with the environment in the presence of the mother may also reduce the distress response, and (c) being with a sibling can be of great comfort to a child while in the absence of the mother.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, parents and carers should appreciate that a child’s distress response is not a “problem” to be managed, rather is it the natural, “right” response of a healthy child  (an 18-month-old who doesn’t cry when left with strangers on their first day at day care is more of a concern than the child who does). Bowlby writes: “the more affectionate the relationship has been [with the mother] the greater the child’s manifest upset during separation” (p. 33). Thus parents shouldn’t feel embarrassed by their child’s tears, nor should they try to persuade their children to be “good” by not crying. The “good” (i.e. healthy) child is the one who protests vigorously when mummy leaves him. The “good” / healthy mother is one who tolerates and permits her child to experience and express his sadness. Likewise, those looking after a child who is besides himself and who wants nothing but to be with his mummy or daddy, ought to refrain from dismissing or downplaying his emotions. Carers should respect the fact that the child may not wish to respond enthusiastically towards a replacement carer. They should empathise with his pain and divert his attention towards enjoyable activities, until he is reunited with the eagerly-desired parent. This way, it would seem, the child’s emotional state will hopefully remain one of protest, and not have to advance to that of despair and detachment.

This parent – and replacement carer – side of the attachment relationship will be revisited in later discussions.



Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Attachment – Chapter 1

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby, personality, psychoanalysis on November 22, 2010 by Steve

In the first chapter of Attachment (Volume One of the Attachment and Loss trilogy; Bowlby, 1969/1974), Bowlby sets forth the defining features of his theory, primarily by comparing and contrasting it with the approach of Freudian psychoanalysis. He distinguishes attachment theory by the following:

  1. A forwards-looking (prospective) rather than backwards-looking (retrospective) approach
  2. The study of the specific trigger for abnormal development rather than the symptoms
  3. The use of direct observation of children
  4. The study of animals (ethology) as the basis for informing development, especially of early childhood development

Each of these key aspects are expanded in the following chapters of this volume. But in this chapter Bowlby gives a brief rationale for the first three of these.

Concerning #1, Bowlby proposes that attachment theory seeks to investigate the origins (ontogenesis) of personality, just as Freudian psychoanalysis does. Bowlby asserts that Freud was well aware that one limitation of retrospective interpretation of adult experience is its potential to be misleading. Indeed, Freud was, again and again, lead to the importance of early childhood experience in the ontogenesis of personality and mental health problems (psychopathology). However, Bowlby points out that Freud himself rarely drew on direct observation of children. By contrast, Bowlby puts forward that his theory seeks to understand how patterns of functioning in childhood compound on each other over time, thereby resulting in adult personality characteristics.

Regarding point #2, Bowlby’s theory highlights the importance of the mother-child relationship for personality development: he proposes that how a child behaves in a mother’s presence is important, but more importantly, he says, later personality is predicted by how a child behaves in his mother’s absence:


Separation from mother

Separation from mother


In arguing for the value in observing young children (#3), Bowlby points out that, as a child grows older, the capacity for outward behaviour and inner mental states (e.g. feelings) to be discrepant increases (For example, children develop the capacity to understand that others hold separate beliefs to their own from around age 2 or 3). Thus, observing very young children should provide a very good index of their current mental state. Older children and adults have more “layers” of experience and psychological strategies (deception, defence mechanisms, etc.) which make their behaviour, and even their verbally-reported beliefs and feelings less accurate indications of what is really happening inside them.

Lastly, in this chapter Bowlby acknowledges that his formulations of attachment theory are derived from object relations theory, and references Freud, Klein, Balint, Winniott and Fairbairn in this tradition.


Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Blogging Attachment theory

Posted in emotions, John Bowlby, parenting, personality, psychoanalysis on November 18, 2010 by Steve

In studying psychology I have become increasingly aware of attachment theory and its importance as a framework for understanding emotional and personality development. Attachment theory is centred around the relationship between a child and his (or her) primary caregiver (usually the mother), and has gained increasing popularity and scientific validity over the past 30 years. Since attachment theory was first articulated by John Bowlby in his publications in 1969, 1973 and 1980, the literature refining, rephrasing and adding to this approach has amassed and multiplied incredibly. As a crude measure of the popularity of attachment theory, a database search (Cambridge Scientific Abstracts) of the descriptor ‘attachment’ brings up 18,678 articles!

So, now that I’m on a break from hurried study, I have decided to take the time to go back to the original writings of Bowlby and to learn what attachment theory meant in its original presentation. My plan is to read, on average, one chapter per day, and to blog about what I’ve learnt, hopefully with some applications.