Attachment – Chapter 1

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.


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