Attachment – Chapter 3

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.


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