How Do People Form Attachments? An Account by Bowlby

Freud found that people were motivated by two basic needs: hunger and libido (i.e. desires / aggression). Bowlby added a third basic need to this list: the need to attach to others. Bowlby based this discovery on his research and on evidence from the fields of biology and the study of animals.

One of Freud’s major contributions to psychology was the discovery that humans are motivated by one of two basic needs: hunger and libido. For many years, it was thought that all human behavior, including highly complex behaviors like human relationships, could be traced back to one of these two needs.

In the fifties however, the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby put forward a third essential human motivation: the need for attachment. According to this theory, humans possess an innate need to form relational bonds. In developing his notion of attachment, Bowlby drew on concepts from many different fields and theories, including evolution, biology, the study of animals, and developmental psychology.

Basically, the theory of attachment holds that infants and children will instinctively seek to attach to at least one primary caregiver for the sake of physical survival and for the sake of psychological security. Bowlby thought the need to attach was critical for evolutionary purposes at a time when straying from the caregiver might mean falling prey to predators. Nowadays, the need to attach to a primary caregiver is still seen as essential for psychological security and for healthy emotional and social development.

The child’s early experiences with the primary caregiver or caregivers help that child develop a system of thoughts, memories, beliefs, expectations, emotions, and behaviors about the self and others.  This internal system is unique to each person, continues to develop based on interactions with other people, and evolves into typical modes of relating to oneself and to other people as well as into typical modes of managing emotion.

Though this internal system of attachment is unique to each person, psychologists and researchers (See the seminal work of Mary Ainsworth) have also classified patterns of attachment into four broad categories. These four distinct attachment patterns are based on appraisals of oneself as deserving / not deserving of care and on expectations of others as available / not available to provide care. These four categories are: Secure Attachment; Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Style; Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style; and Fearful Avoidant Style

Adults with a secure attachment style have a capacity to balance intimacy and independence in a manner that enhance their lives. They find it relatively easy to become emotionally close to others. They are comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. They don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept them

Adults with a dismissive attachment style desire a high level of independence, often appearing to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. They tend to suppress their feelings, usually report being comfortable without close emotional relationships, and prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on them.

Adults with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style seek high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from partners. They tend to see themselves as unworthy of attention and may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry, and impulsiveness in their relationships. They often perceive others as reluctant to get as close as they would like, they are uncomfortable without close relationships and worry that others don’t value them as much as they value others.

Adults with a fearful attachment style both desire and feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They tend not to trust others, view themselves as unworthy of others’ attention, and they tend to seek less intimacy and to suppress their feelings. They often report wanting emotionally close relationships but worry that they will be hurt if they allow themselves to become close to others. Many adults with such an attachment style will manifest “fight-flight” responses to others when they feel emotionally vulnerable. Parts of these descriptions about attachment styles are based on the scoring of the Relationship Questionnaire (RQ) Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991)