Archive for the John Bowlby Category

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.


Attachment – Chapter 4

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby on December 17, 2010 by Steve

In this chapter Bowlby builds on the importance of an evolutionary perspective for a scientific understanding of the behavioural system of the mother-child attachment relationship. This is crucial because the environment in which this behavioural system became adapted (the natural environment) was a very different environment to those in which we now live and raise children.

Modern humans are believed to have emerged around 2 million years ago (Tobias, 1965; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), whereas the modification of environments in which we dwell began only 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. Accordingly, the environment which presented the hazards which selected the behavioural systems of humans is likely the natural environment of primeval man. Furthermore, the modification of our environments is not instinctive (such as in the nest building of birds), but is culturally acquired and constantly changing with each generation. Bowlby thus asserts that our instinctive behaviour can be properly understood by reference to the environment in which it evolved, and that for such an understanding we must turn to these three areas of study:
– anthropological studies of primitive human societies (where their environments are still fairly ‘natural’).
– archaeological evidence of how early humans lived
– the study of primates (primatology)

Bowlby then goes on to describe the ways in which humans and primates are similar, affirming that the similarities between humans and primates are equally, if not more, important than their differences for the purposes for which he is writing. Bowlby agrees that the mother-child bond may be the core unit of society, rather than the nuclear family (Fox, 1967; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), making humans very similar to primates in terms of their social group structure. Bowlby then highlights the characteristics of social cooperation and communication which means the whole group can be protected from predators. Other similarities include:
– calls, postures, gestures
– tool use
– a long period of immaturity during which skills can be learnt
– the protection of the ‘home base’
– the practice of sharing food
– the differentiation of roles between males and females
– cooperative hunting

To summarise then, Bowlby proposes that studying the way in which primates interact with their environment provides an approximate understanding of the evolutionary environment of adaptedness of humans. This will therefore provide a means of understanding the behavioural systems which tie the mother to the child (which he will discuss in later chapters).


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.

Underbelly, Sex & Psychopathy – The case of Terry Clark

Posted in children's sexual development, John Bowlby, Narcissism, parenting, personality, psychopathology on March 24, 2009 by Steve

terry-clark-alison-smallerHaving been watching this series of Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, it has been facinating, enthralling and disturbing to see qualities in the relationships between characters such as trust, fear, respect, cowering, allegiance and power working themselves out in such an interesting period of Australian history (1970s-80s).

So far the main character – Terry Clark – has been revealed as the devious drug trafficking-boss; the persuasive and empassioned two-faced person-user; the brilliant and calculatingly cruel mastermind; the perfectly charming seducer and womaniser. Last night’s episode gave particular insight into the psychopathic and narcissistic aspects of his personality. Not knowing any of the true story apart from this series, I am basing my observations entirely on the character of Terry as revealed by the Channel 9 TV series.

Firstly, Terry is characterised by a cold, calculating attitude and remorselessly cruel treatment of anyone who threatens his drug importing schemes. He uses people for his own ends, buttering them up with praise and flattery, only to turn on them when they fall out of his favour. Superficially, he is warm and generous, lavshing money, parties and praise on his “friends”. However, without much warning at all, these so-called friends soon discover the daker side of Terry’s personality, and his perfectionistic standards don’t permit second chances. The result is that those failing to perform or “cracking” under police pressure don’t last long, usually ending up savagely murdered, battered and buried.

The underlying issue seems to be Terry’s incapacity to genuinely feel the reality of another’s emotions – an inability to empathise. This particularly came to the fore on last night’s episode when Terry threatens to kill his ex-girlfriend over her taking their son back to New Zealand: “If you take him away from me, I’ll kill you.” She aptly replies: “What do you think that will do to him? You don’t know how to love him. Until you can feel somebody else’s pain, you don’t know how to love.” Here, Terry’s obvious emotional coldness is verbalised in terms of his inability to feel another’s pain.

Interestingly, this comment seems to make an impression on Terry, since it stops him for a moment, catching him off guard. Momentarily aware of his emotional deadness, it saddens him, thus experiencing a genuine emotion. His super-cool façade is prized open, revealing a instance of grief and perhaps anger over his lost, emotionless existence. This momentarily living in his ‘heart’ rather than in his ‘head’ reveals that he is not simply a purely evil monster after all. He is not a monochrome Dr-Evil-carboard-cut-out villain of darkness. Some part of him is still emotionally alive; he is hurt – with a deep sense of powerlessness – and trying desperately to hide this pain behind his perfectionistic strivings, coldness and accomplishments of power and prestige.

Another facet of Terry’s narcissistic disturbance is reveal in his intimate and romantic exploits – particularly in his performance of sex acts. As revealed in the series so far, Terry has an appetite for women – particularly for having sex with them (the series is very intent on showing us this!). Having impregnated his first girlfriend from New Zealand, Terry is quick to move  in on a younger, more available girl – Alison – while the first is back home preparing to give birth. His lack of genuine attachment is seen in his inability to remain loyal for any lengthy period. Indeed, being alone is probably too painful a reminder of some past abandonment that Terry must find someone to share his lonely nights (bed) as soon as it is empty.

Nevertheless, Terry is an intense lover, and it may seem to stand in contrast to the earlier observations that Terry is emotionally cold to see such a passionate and romantic side to Terry’s personality. Indeed, Terry has the ability to charm and seduce. He knows how to put on sincerity and empathy when it comes to obtaining the sex he wants. He plays his smooth-talker cards and woos the woman with the body he desires. Ultimately, though, the sex is sought as a reflection of his ability to achieve, and the woman who provides the sex meets his narcissistic need to be successful in all areas to which he sets his mind. That he will later decide to have Alison killed reveals the true nature of his “love” for any of these romantic pursuits.

Furthermore, if the intimate relationship for Terry is not a genuinely emotional bond of mutual trust and respect, then the sex itself is not something he is emotionally engaged in – it is but a performance. Terry’s passion and intensity in the relationship is not directed towards her as a prized lover, but it is directed towards himself as a triumphing, accomplished performer. It is a show of his “success” at getting a woman respond positively to him. As Alexander Lowen explains in his book Narcissism about one of his clients, “Being emotionally dead, Erich derived little bodily pleasure from the sexual act. His satisfaction stemmed from the woman’s response… his lovemaking was more a servicing of the woman than an expression of passion.” (pp. 3-4)

However faithfully Underbelly portrays Terry Clark as a ruthless criminal, cold-blooded murderer and grandiose lover, it points us to the reality of the deep emotional disturbance which makes him a tragically fascinating case study from recent Australian history. Many books have now been written about the roots of psychological disturbances, but I would like to refer to one by John Bowlby, a psychoanalysist and attachment theorist, which I happen to be reading at the moment. The book is particularly remarkable since it was written with so much clarity on the topic and yet was written so long ago. Child Care and the Growth of Love is a summary of a World Helath Organisation report prepared by Bowlby in 1951 and details the psychological impact of deprivation in childhood and the importance of love from the primary carer (usually the mother). Written in the context of hospitalisation and institutionalisation of abandoned or unwell children, Bowlby revealed that an absence of motherly love in the critical period of a child’s first years of life will frequently result in depression, excessive demanding, superficial socialising, sexual promiscuity, lying, stealing and aggression, as an adult.

In one example Bowlby described the child who has withdrawn himself emotionally from others, due to the previous intensity of pain of having had his heart broken by the loss of loving relationships (mother, nurses, carers). He wrote (p.63):

To withdraw from human contact is to avoid further frustration and to avoid the intense depression which human beings experience as a result of hating the person whom they most dearly love and need. Withdrawal is thus felt to be the better of two bad alternatives… But experience shows that once a person has taken refuge in the relative painlessness of withdrawal he is reluctant to change course and to risk the turmoil of feeling and misery which attempting relationships brings with it. As a result he loses his capcity to make affectionate relationships and to identify himself with loved people… Thenceforth he becomes a lone wolf, pursuing his ends irrespective of others. But his desire for love, repressed though it is, persists, resulting in behaviour such as promiscuous sex relations and the stealing of other people’s possessions. Feelings of revenge also smolder on, leading to other anti-social acts, sometimes of a very violent character.

Tragically, though such knowledge has been circulating for so many years and though we have more resources and support, we still seem to be unable to escape the cycle of neglect-pain-repression-coldness that continues on throughout the generations. Indeed, until we can find the healing that comes from warm acceptance and unconditional tender love that God wants us to give to and receive from each other, this cycle of pain will go on. Sadly, there will be more Terry Clarks.

So we long for mercy now, and for the healed, whole, resurrection-life to come when Christ returns.