Outline and evaluate the learning theory of attachment.
The learning theory argues that attachments are based on the principles of operant and classical conditioning. First attachments are quite often formed to the person who looks after the child, who feeds them, changes their nappies and comforts them. First attachment figures are a powerful source of pleasure for the baby, as well as removing physical and emotional discomforts including pain, cold and hunger. An early version of the learning theory based on both operant and classical conditioning was proposed by Dollard and Miller (1950)
According to the learning theory, the baby has to learn to form an attachment with his/her caregiver. In the process of operant conditioning, the caregiver rewards the baby by feeding it, so the baby then associates the caregiver with the reward and repeats any action that brings her close. This happens because food brings a feeling of pleasure to the baby. Food is the primary reinforcer. By removing discomfort, it reinforces the behaviour that led to its arrival. But food doesn’t come without the caregiver bringing it, so the caregiver becomes the secondary reinforcer – even without bringing food, the presence or the mother reduces discomfort and brings a feeling of pleasure. The baby will therefore repeat any action, for example, crying which brings the caregiver close.
On the other hand, classical conditioning argues that attachment is learnt by association. According to classical conditioning, food is an unconditioned stimulus that produces an unconditioned response (pleasure). At the outset, the caregiver is a neutral stimulus who produces no response. However, because the caregiver is continually paired with the unconditioned stimulus (food), she slowly becomes associated with it until eventually the mother/caregiver alone can produce pleasure. The mother then becomes a conditioned stimulus and the pleasure she brings is a conditioned response.
A study that undermines the learning theory is Fox’s study of children born and raised in an Israeli kibbutz. The children were raised communally and lived in a children’s house from an early age where they were cared for by a metaplet. The metaplet was responsible for feeding the infants and taking care of their daily needs. Very little time during the day was spent with their parents. According to the learning theory, the infants should form their strongest attachment to the metaplet; however, under these circumstances, the children were still more strongly attached to their parents. This shows research against the learning theory.
Primate studies have also shown that attachment appears to be based on the need for comfort more than feeding. Mary and Harry Harlow (1958) carried out a series of experiments using young rhesus monkeys. They studied eight infant monkeys who were reared in isolation and deprived of their real mothers until they were eight months old. In each cage, there were two ‘surrogate’ mothers, one made of wire with a feeding bottle attached and an identical soft ‘mother’ without a feeding bottle. The Harlow’s found that the baby monkeys used the soft mother as their safe base, returning to her for comfort when they were frightened and only visiting the wire mother to feed. While this is an animal study, which cannot be directly generalised to human babies, it provides strong evident to suggest that there is much more to attachment than feeding and rewards.