Archive for the psychoanalysis 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 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.

Theories of transsexuality

Posted in 1960s-70s, children's sexual development, homosexuality, Milton Diamond, parenting, psychoanalysis, transsexuality on October 13, 2009 by Steve

The development of human beings is extraordinarily complex. It is the intricate interweaving of genetic, uterine neuroendocrinological, environmental, social, cognitive and cultural factors which come together during the course of our lives to make each one of us absolutely unique. It is no surprise, therefore, that development in the area of one’s sexuality and gender identity is likewise multi-faceted. Understandably, the theories on sexual and gender identity development which have arisen over the years to explain these identity differences are diverse and complex.

Famously, psychoanalytic theories have proposed that resolving the conflicts surrounding one’s genitalia will have a profound influence on the unconscious processes in gender identity development. Freud claimed that a person’s lifelong sexual orientation, determined between the ages of 3 and 6, depends on how a boy resolves the fear that his father will castrate him and how a girl deal with the contempt she feels at her mother for not having provided her with a penis. Perhaps not surprisingly, this view has largely gone out of favour in recent decades.

Prominent since the 60s and 70s, environmental conditioning theories hold that gender identity arises out of the process of parental identification in the first two or three years of life. Here, for exmple, if a boy has difficulty identifying with a masculine gender identity was thought to be due to an excessive attachment to his mother and absence of a male role model during infancy during infancy. These sorts of environmental conditions could be associated with the development of mild gender identity problems and homosexuality, but do not adequately explain all forms of transgender identity.

In recent decades, neuroendocrinological studies have indicated that the brain’s normal differentiation as male or female may be interrupted if a deficit of testosterone in males, and an excess for females, somehow occurs during foetal development. This would appear to explain someone’s experience of “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body”. Other interesting findings, such as the tendency for transsexual males to have been born into families with many sons and to have come later in the birth order, add to the mysterious complexity of transsexuality.

One of the most coherent, comprehensive accounts for transsexuality is the theory of gender development proposed by Milton Diamond, termed “Biased-Interaction Theory”. In this theory, Diamond regards a person’s genetics and uterine neuroendocrinological activity as the fundamental organisational factors which will influence the ways in which this person will develop as he or she interacts with the social environment (parents, siblings, culture). Specifically, the course of a child’s psychosexual development depends on whether peers are perceived as are the same or as different. Thus, a typical boy will see himself fitting into the category “boy” and grow up into a sex-typical gender role. The transgender, boy, however, will experience distress in his assigned gender identity, being unable to see himself as similar to other male peers. Finally, this model incorporates the culture’s level of permissiveness as an indicator of how likely the child will be to express his identity.

Diamond’s robust account of transgender identity development reflects the infinite intricacy of psychosexual development and reminds us that we cannot afford to see this experience as resting simplistically on just one or two factors. The mystery and wonder of the formation of the individual cannot be overstated. It is a overwhelming and worshipful thing for parents of both in utero and postnatal children, child-care workers and teachers to contemplate. We must respect the individuality of each human being, knowing that God is at work in the “typically” and “atypically” developed alike. Indeed, in areas where science is still unable to take us, we know that God is not unknowing, uninvolved, or unsympathetic:

You[, God] knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139:13-16, New International Version

References and access to Diamond’s publications is available online via his website. Australian-based research and various forms of assistance to transsexuals and their friends can be accessed via the Gender Centre website. For an informative audio presentation on the development of sexual identity, check out the most recent podcast at The Psych Files.

References and suggestions for further reading:

Brown, D. G. & Lynn, D. B. (1966). Human Sexual Development: An Outline of Components and Concepts. Journal of Marriage and Family, 28(2), 155-162.

Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., & Gooren, L. J. G. (1999). Transsexualism: A Review of Etiology, Diagnosis and Treatment. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 46(4), 315-333.

Diamant, L. & McAnulty, R. D. (Eds.). (1995). The Psychology of Sexual Orientation, Behavior, and Identity. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Diamond, M. (2006). Biased-Interaction Theory of Psychosexual Development: “How Does One Know if One is Male or Female?”. Sex Roles, 55, 589-600.

Lips, H. M., & Colwill, N. L. (1978). The Psychology of Sex Differences. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Lips, H.M. (1997). Sex and Gender (3rd Edition). CA: Mayfield Publishing.