Bowlby, John (1907-1990)

John Bowlby was born on February 26, 1907, and studied medicine in Cambridge, England and psychology in London. While still a student, he volunteered at a progressive school and began his training at the British Psychoanalytic Institute. After graduation, he began working at the London Child Guidance Clinic.

Bowlby's experiences outside academia were at least as formative as his academic training. His supervisors at the progressive school convinced him that the maladaptive behavior of some children was a result of their primary care-givers having abandoned them. His psychoanalytic training made him aware of the importance of affective relationships in the first years of life. Finally, his work at the Child Guidance Clinic brought him into contact with juvenile delinquents whose behavior Bowlby believed to be rooted in unsatisfactory emotional relationships.

Starting in about 1940 Bowlby elaborated his conviction that children's socioemotional problems originate in a lack of consistent parental love. This led him to formulate his attachment theory. In its ultimate form, attachment theory incorporated elements of psychoanalytic theory, cybernetics, Piagetian theory, and ethology. In line with ethology, for example, Bowlby believed that crying and smiling are proximity-seeking behaviors that trigger parental intervention and love and thus promote the infant's survival.

Empirical support for Bowlby's ideas originally came from maternal deprivation and hospitalization studies. The invention of two measurement instruments, and their accompanying classifications, gave the empirical study of attachment behavior new impetus. These instruments were the Strange Situation (SS) procedure invented by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) invented by psychologist Mary Main.

The SS is a standardized laboratory procedure during which a one-year-old child and her caregiver are twice briefly separated. The child's behavior as she is reunited with the caregiver is believed to betray essential elements of their relationship. On the basis of these reunions, children's attachment patterns are characterized as secure (B), avoidant (A), ambivalent (C), or disorganized (D).

The SS and the classification into attachment patterns led to an avalanche of empirical studies, including investigations into the factors that contribute to specific attachment patterns (e.g., child characteristics, parental behavior, life events), ways to modify unsatisfactory attachment patterns, and long-term effects of attachment patterns as measured by the SS.

The AAI is a semistructured interview devised to assess adults' views of their own childhoods with respect to attachment. The ways the adults reflect on their childhood experiences are believed to be indicative of the ways they have coped with these experiences. Different styles of coping lead to an A, B, C, or D classification, similar to the one used in the SS.

The AAI has been used in numerous studies to investigate how attachment patterns are transmitted across generations, thus testing Bowlby's belief that, for example, parents' unresolved conflicts are played out in the interactions with their own children. Although attachment theory and its measurement instruments have been criticized, the number of investigations inspired by Bowlby's theory is still growing. The practical implications of attachment theory for the way we raise our children are potentially enormous.

See also: Age and Development; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology; Freud, Anna; Freud, Sigmund; Klein, Melanie.


Bretherton, Inge. 1992. "The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth." Developmental Psychology 28: 759-775.

Holmes, Jeremy. 1993. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Van Dijken, Suzan, René van der Veer, Marinus H. Van Ijzendoorn, et al. 1998. "Bowlby before Bowlby: The Sources of an Intellectual Departure in Psychoanalysis and Psychology." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 34: 247-269.