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A brief history of Attachment Theory

What is attachment theory? Generally when we speak of attachment theory these days we are referring not just to the work of one individual, but the culmination of work by a number of theorists and researchers, each building on the work of those who came before them. While Bowlby is credited as the father of Attachment Theory, really we must go a bit further back to understand where he came from and really understand the relevance of his theory.

Please note that this is a very short, very surface level overview of attachment theory. For a detailed and thorough overview of Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachement theory I recommend Bretherton (1992).

Melanie Klein (1927)

Building on the earlier work of S. Freud, Klein’s Object-Relations theory puts an emphasis on the mother-child relationship, and dropped S. Freud’s Oedipus/Elektra complexes thus de-emphasising the Eros instinct. Klein also embraced (although never credited) the theory of Hug Helmuth (1912) who believed that children’s behaviour could provide evidence of the role of instincts in children. She combined these in her belief that Thanatos can be revealed in the destructiveness of children’s play, which she believed reflected the unconscious phantasy of the child.

Klein believed that the id and the super-ego of the child were constantly in conflict. On one side they felt hatred toward the mother driven by the id, and coming up against this on the other hand was the super-ego messages that they should love the mother.

Klein is credited with expanding the realm of child psychoanalysis beyond free association and dream analysis, but at the same time she is criticized for her assumption that children are as robust as adults in undergoing psychoanalysis.

Quality of Object Relations Scale (QORS)

The QORS was developed by Piper et al. (1984) and is used as a measure of the quality of object-relations in adults, but not children.

It is completed by the therapist based on their obsevations and reflections on the contents of the therapy sessions.

the most recent version of the QORS (Azim & Piper, 1991) emphasises patterns of interpersonal relationships.

John Bowlby (1958, 1959, 1960)

Psychology is full of battles and conflicts between psychologists, and often between mentor and student (Freud and Jung being the classic example), and this is no exception. Bowlby was trained by Klein and originally viewed himself as an object-relations theorist, however he came to conflict with Klein over how useful children’s phantasy is as data for psychoanalysis.

Unlike S. Freud, Bowlby distinguished between emotional and sexual intimacy, and thus emotional intimacy formed the foundation of his theory. Bowlby’s attachment theory is based on the premise that everyone needs emotional intimacy and this is most commonly provided by the interactions of carer (e.g. mother) and child.

Bowlby described two attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment – Results when the emotional needs of the child are met on a consistent basis, and results in relationship-maintaing behaviours in childhood and adult life.
  • Insecure attachment – Results when the emotional needs of the child are met inconsistently or not at all, and results in relationship-threatening behaviours in childhood and adult life.

Mary Ainsworth (1978)

Mary Ainsworth first started working with Bowlby in one of his research units, and collaborated with him extensively on his attachment theory. Although she has made many contributions to the theory, including some excellent observational studies, she is perhaps best known for her introduction of the two insecure attachment styles: anxious-ambivalent and avoidant.

Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation procedure originally to explore the attachments of children in a general sense, however she was soon struck by particular patterns of behaviour she noticed at different stages of the procedure. The procedure lasts roughly twenty minutes in total, with the infant being seperated from and reunited with their mother in the following stages:

1. Parent and infant alone.
2. Stranger joins parent and infant.
3. Parent leaves infant and stranger alone.
4. Parent returns and stranger leaves.
5. Parent leaves; infant left completely alone.
6. Stranger returns.
7. Parent returns and stranger leaves.

Using this procedure Ainsworth was able to evaluate the infant’s seperation anxiety (the distress of the infant at the absence of their mother), their fear of strangers, their willingness to explore a new environment, and their reunion behaviours (the behaviours shown when the mother returned).

Securely attached children are said to use their attachment figure (AF) as a “secure base”, from which they can explore, but return to in times of distress. In the reunion phase securely attached children are easily comforted and will soon return to play and exploration.

Children who are said to have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style display dependent and clingy behaviour, however will reject their AF’s attempts at interaction. They lack the sense of “secure base” which is manifested as a difficulty in moving away and exploring the environment. They are also difficult to console at the reunion stage. Confusingly people sometimes call the anxious-ambivalent style “resistant style”. These are the same thing.

Finally children exhibiting an insecure avoidant attachment style tend to seem oblivious to the presence of their “attachment figure”, not seeking them out when distressed, showing little or no separation anxiety, and showing a lack of response upon the AF’s return.

For a more visual explanation, have a look at this video:

Main & Solomon (1990)

Faced with a number of children that defied categorisation into the existing attachment styles that Ainsworth defined, her colleague Mary Main proposed a new category called disorganised attachment (Main & Solomon, 1990). These children would cry during the separation phase of the Strange Situation, however when the caregiver returned the child would avoid or ignore them completely, and sometimes showed stereotyped behaviour (rocking, self hitting).

Bartholomew & Horowitz (1991)

Bartholomew & Horowitz contributed to the field when they distinguished between two different avoidant styles: fearful-avoidant and dismissing-avoidant. The fearful-avoidant style is seen in individuals who want emotional intimacy but are unable to trust their partners, and this can often result in relationship-threatening behaviours.

The dismissing-avoidant style is seen in individuals who deny their need for emotional intimacy. As a result of this they may avoid close attachments entirely and see them as unimportant.

Experience in Close Relationships Survey

As the above has made clear, attachment research is ongoing, continually improving and refining our understanding. Since the major developments outlined above, attachment research has moved away from discrete categories like “anxious-ambivalent” toward continuous scales based on the dimensions of attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. Based on this the 36-item self-report Experiences in Close Relationships Scale was developed (ECR; Brennan et al., 1998), which was then revised in 2001 (ECR-R; Fraley et al. 2000)

It is also being increasingly recognised that people can display different attachment models in different relationships and the ECR-R has been adapted recently to reflect this, giving the Experiences in Close Relationships—Relationship Structures (ECR-RS; Fraley et al. 2011) questionnaire.

The ECR-R has also been adapted into a version for children, the ECR-RC (Brenning, 2011)

You can take an online version of the ECR-R provided by the authors at (I got an attachment-anxiety score of 5.27 and an attachment-avoidance score of 2.11). You can also find more information about the scale on the authors website.


Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. ( 1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bowlby, J. ( 1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XXXIX, 1– 23.

Bowlby, J. ( 1959). Separation anxiety. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XLI, 1– 25.

Bowlby, J. ( 1960). Grief and mourning in infancy and early childhood. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, VX, 3– 39.

Brennan, K.A., Clark, C.L., & Shaver, P. (1998). Self-report measures of adult romantic attachment. In J.A. Simpson & W.S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. pp. 46-76. New York: Guilford Press.

Bretherton, I., 1992. The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, (5), pp.759-775.

Brenning, K. et al., 2011. An adaptation of the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale-Revised for use with children and adolescents. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(8), pp.1048-1072.

Fraley, R.C., Waller, N.G., & Brennan, K.A. (2000). An item response theory analysis of self-report measures of adult attachment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 350-365.

Fraley, R.C. et al., 2011. The Experiences in Close Relationships-Relationship Structures questionnaire: a method for assessing attachment orientations across relationships. Psychological assessment, 23(3), pp.615-25.

Main, M and Solomon, J (1990). “Procedures for identifying infants as disorganised/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation”. M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti and E.M. Cummings (eds) Attachment in the Preschool Years. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. pp. 121–160.

Freud pt.1

Its interesting that despite my long interest in psychotherapy I have never read or studied Freud. To be honest I have always been put off by the overemphasis of sexual and aggressive drives, and now I’ve read more about Freud’s theories I still feel the same about it. However I do now appreciate more just how much he is to be thanked for; I can see how many other schools of psychoanalysis have drawn from and adapted his ideas. So I will attempt to summarise Freud’s theories very briefly here.

Freudian psychoanalysis is built around three models: The topographic, the structural, and the developmental.

The first model splits the mind into the Conscious, the Pre-conscious, and the Unconscious. The Conscious contains those things that you are aware of and attend to (pay attention to). The Pre-conscious contains those things that you could be aware of, if you attended to them (a physical example would be someone standing on the edge of your vision). Finally Freud’s major and vital contribution: the Unconscious. Here lie things that you are not aware of, and cannot become aware of simply by attending to them. Freud believed that everything in our Unconscious has an innate force pushing it towards consciousness, but anything that could be threatening or objectionable to our conscious selves (such as certain sexual fantasies) is pushed back into our unconscious through a process called repression. However if this objectionable material is mutated and disguised, perhaps as a joke, a dream, or a slip of the tongue (often called a Freudian slip) it may be let through into our consciousness.
This conflict between consciousness and unconsciousness forms, Freud believed, our personalities, behaviours, and mental disorders.

Some time after the above theory, which is the only of Freud’s theories to stand up to empirical testing, Freud proposed the structural model. Here he proposed three collections of thought types (they were never meant to be taken as individual entities or personalities the way they have often been mis-interpreted today): the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego.

The Id houses all our desires and fantasies, which Freud believed all came from sexual or aggressive drives. It is concerned primarily with immediate gratification and avoiding a state of unpleasure.

The Super Ego contains all the commands and rules of society. It is the aspect of our minds that deals with deciding what is appropriate in different contexts, and tries to control the chaotic Id.

The Ego mediates between these two, helping us balance desires against societal restrictions, resolving the conflict.

The final model Freud proposed is the developmental model, however I will save that for my next post 😉

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