Archive for January, 2011

Attachment – Chapter 5

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby, psychoanalysis, psychopathology on January 3, 2011 by Steve

In this dense chapter, Bowlby expands on and describes the nuts and bolts of behavioural systems (see point 2. in Chapter 3 post), provides some important definitions, and introduces the idea of working models of the world and of the self.

First of all, Bowlby distinguishes behavioural systems which do not have set-goals from those which do, with a set-goal defined as long- and short-term goals concerning how an organism’s behaviour should relate to the environment. Thus, behaviour which is highly stereotyped and which follows its course to completion regardless of the environment (e.g. sneezing, yawning) is termed a fixed action pattern.

Fixed Action Pattern

By contrast, goal-corrected (or goal-directed) behaviour is that which is constantly corrected by reference to discrepancies between performance and a set-goal. Such behaviour constitutes the majority of our intentional activities.

Goal-Corrected Behaviour

The two main mechanisms involved in goal-corrected behaviour are: (a) the receiving and storing of instructions regarding a set-goal, and (b) the comparing of discrepancies between performance and set-goal instructions, which is achieved through the use of feedback and cognitive maps. Cognitive maps, also known as working models, are schematic representations of the environment and of the self, will be explained below.

Bowlby then outlines 3 major principles by which behavioural systems can be co-ordinated:

1.  Simple chain-link

Here, each behavioural system involved in a behavioural sequence may be connected in a way that each is contingent on the one previous to it. The example given is a bee collecting honey. The sequential stages of this activity is: (1) Visual identification of a suitable flower, (2) After flying within 1cm of such a flower, smell is assessed for suitability of this flower, (3) Next, the bee assesses from the tactile stimuli of the flower (shape, size) whether or not to begin sucking nectar.

Simple Chain-link

The simple chain-link organisation of behaviour is limited because, if one link fails, then the entire behaviour fails. As a result the environment must conform exactly to the environment of evolutionary adaptedness for the animal to survive and flourish. However, chain-links can be made more flexible by (i) alternate pathways in the chain being available, or (ii) goal-corrected links being added into the chain.

2.  Causal Hierarchy

According to this principle , a number of behavioural systems share a common causal factor, thus allowing for multiple responses to a certain trigger (Tinbergen, 1951; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974). Thus, the activation of any one of multiple behavioural systems may be appropriate when, for example, a particular level of a certain hormone is reached, or when a particular object is sighted.

Causal hierarchy

3. Plan Hiearchy

In this “master plan structure”  for co-ordinating behavioural systems, an overarching goal is reached by executing multiple sub-ordinate behavioural systems. Overall, this plan is goal-corrected since it allows for feedback and variation within its organisation. Furthermore, the Plan Hierarchy principle applies to behaviour which lies anywhere on the continuum of being environmentally stable (instinctive) or labile (sensitive to environmental influences), and which uses a simple or highly sophisticated map of the environment (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974).

Plan Hierarchy

An example of a common hierarchical plan of behaviour is that of “Getting to work”. Each behavioural system can be broken up into its components, which, in turn, can be further broken down into specific actions. In this plan, it becomes clear that the organisation of behavioural systems is not a chain, because the activities could be re-ordered and varied to some extent.

"Getting to work"




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