The Human Spark

The science of human development

The Attachment Debate

An infant's attachment is not a determinant of the future.

As this is my first blog, I ask readers to be kind to an inexperienced beginner. I have chosen the concept of attachment because it is controversial and a theme considered on pages 103 to 109 in my new book, The Human Spark (Basic Books, 2013).  Everyone agrees on two facts. Parents, or hired caretakers, vary in their behaviors with infants and the infants, in turn, vary in the quality of their emotional relationship with each caretaker. The debate centers on three issues. What is the best way to think about this relationship? How do we measure the nature of this relationship? Finally, does the relationship established in the first year influence the child’s future personality?

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John Bowlby thought he had an answer to the first question. He suggested in the 1950s that infants varied in the security of their relationship to a parent due to differences in the adult’s sensitivity to the child when he or she was upset. Mary Ainsworth, who studied with Bowlby in London, thought she answered the second question when she invented a procedure called the Strange Situation designed to determine how one-year-olds behaved when the mother left them in a laboratory room with a stranger or totally alone. Ainsworth assumed that the one-year-old’s  behavior was determined primarily by the sensitivity the mother displayed at home with her infant over the course of the first year. She decided that infants who cried a little when the mother left but were easily soothed when she returned a few minutes later must be securely attached to the parent. Infants who did not cry at all as well as infants who cried so intensely the mother could not soothe them were probably insecurely attached.

We can’t answer the third question because the infant’s behavior is influenced in a serious way by its inherited temperamental biases, independent of the mother’s sensitivity and the infant’s attachment bond. The small proportion of infants who inherit a temperament that renders them susceptible to extreme levels of uncertainty to unexpected events become very upset when the mother leaves and, therefore, are hard to soothe. These infants can have affectionate, sensitive mothers to whom they are securely attached. Other infants possess a temperament that allows them to remain calm when the mother leaves them alone in the unfamiliar room. They too can have sensitive mothers to whom they are attached. A sufficient number of studies allow me to conclude that psychologists do not yet possess a sensitive measure of the quality of an infant’s relationship to each parent. Therefore, no one can know whether the nature of the infant’s attachment  relationship exerts a strong force on the future. My guess, based on my own research and the work of many others, is that it does not and that the child’s social class and later experiences in school and with peers have far more influence than the early attachment relationship.   

I acknowledge that I might be wrong. The more important conclusion is that until we have the needed facts, it is wise to refrain from strong statements about the power of an infant’s attachment to affect his or her future moods, sociability, or mental health. The attractiveness of this idea derives its force from a belief, originating in Europe in the eighteenth century, that the child’s first experiences are formative and an ethical premise which assumes that a mother’s love is necessary for a child’s healthy development. Both the belief and the premise remain unproven.   

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.

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