The Evolutionary Explanation of Attachment (John Bowlby):

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The Evolutionary Theory of Attachment – John Bowlby, 1969 (Description, AO1):

Bowlby’s theory (1969) is an evolutionary theory. He proposed infants form an attachment to a caregiver because attachment is adaptive (aids survival). Attachment is seen as a biological process because he argues infants are born with an ‘attachment gene’ that programmes them to exhibit innate behaviours called ‘social releasers’ which increase their chances of receiving care such as clinging, crying and smiling. These behaviours ensure the infant stays close to their caregiver who will feed and protect them.

Similarly, the attachment gene also drives parents to provide care as this is also adaptive (increases chances of one’s genes continuing into the next generation). Parents instinctively protect their infant and care for them whilst they are young and defenceless during their ‘critical period’. Although Bowlby did not deny infants form lots of attachments, he argued one relationship (usually with their mother) is more important and the drive to have one main attachment is called ‘monotropy’.

Bowlby also proposed the mother-child relationship was important for future relationships. He argued this first relationship provides infants with an ‘internal working model’ or attachment ‘template’ for later relationships with others (this is also referred to as the ‘continuity hypothesis’ as the same attachment behaviours and abilities continue to follow the same template).

Evaluation of the The Evolutionary Theory of Attachment – John Bowlby, 1969 (Evaluation, AO3):


(1) POINT: Lorenz’s imprinting study can be used as evidence to support Bowlby’s theory. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: Lorenz suggested that new-borns ‘imprint’ an image of the first moving object they see (usually their parents) within hours of being born which allows them to stick closely to this important source of protection and food. After carrying out his experiment on newly hatched Greylag geese, Lorenz found that when shortly after hatching he was the first image the geese saw they followed him everywhere as he became their ‘imprinted’ parent. EVALUATION: This is positive as Lorenz’s study supports Bowlby’s theory providing evidence that attachment is innate.


(2) POINT: Hazen and Shaver’s research supports Bowlby’s theory. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: They found that, after participants were asked to answer a series of questions as part of the ‘love quiz’ which assessed their adult romantic relationships as well as their childhood relationship with their parents, there was a strong correlation between childhood attachment type and adult relationships. EVALUATION: This is positive as it supports Bowlby’s theory that the ‘internal working model’ allows an infant to form an attachment template which then continues into adulthood.


(1) POINT: However, Howes et al (1994) provide evidence against Bowlby’s theory: EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: Evidence to dispute this comes from Howes et al (1994) who found that parent-child relationships were not necessarily the same as child-peer relationships. This means that Bowlby argued that early attachment forms the template (internal working model) for future relationships which leads us to expect children to form similar relationships with others. EVALUATION: This is problematic because it suggests children may possess more than one ‘template’ which can’t be accounted for by Bowlby’s theory.

(2) POINT: The Evolutionary Explanation, in particular the monotropy can be considered to be a socially sensitive idea. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: Feminists like Erica Burman (1994) have pointed out that this places a terrible burden of responsibility on mothers, setting them up to take the blame for anything that goes wrong in the rest of their child’s life. It also pushes mothers into certain lifestyle choices like making the decision not to return to work when a child is born. EVALUATION: This is a weakness because the theory can be seen to be unethical if it’ key assumptions are seen to negatively discriminate against women/mothers.