Lorenz and his geese

Attachment in animals

Imprinting in ducks, geese and chickens

One of the first studies carried out into animal attachments was that by Konrad Lorenz. He discovered that if he remained near hatching goslings they would become attached to him and follow him in much the same way that he had observed with goslings and their natural mother. Intrigued, he decided to study the process more closely in an experimental situation rather than ‘ethologically’ (ethology is study on behaviour in the natural environment). His findings from this line of research revealed that the young geese would automatically follow any object that was large and bright enough irrespective of its appropriateness. Once they had followed it for about 10 minutes or more they would become attached. He called this process imprinting – a form of attachment that had both an involuntary innate element – the following – as well as a learned part – the object to which the attachment was made. In a later experiment by Hess, in which ducklings of various ages followed a model of a male mallard (after being kept in the dark), it was discovered that there was a 'best time' for imprinting: 13-16 hours. This became known as the critical period. Sluckin renamed it 'the sensitive period’ on finding that chicks would still imprint if they were kept isolated beyond the critical period although there was still a best time i.e. a sensitive period.

Attachment in monkeys

In a series of experiments Harlow and Zimmerman brought up infant monkeys with surrogate mothers: one wire and one cloth. They found that the infant monkeys would form an attachment to the cloth mother regardless of whether it was the one that fed them (by way of bottle).


What conclusion would you draw from these results.

However, it was found that the surrogate mothering resulted in severe disturbances in later life, with the males unable to mate and the females incapable of mothering their own offspring adequately.


What criticisms have been made of this study?

Attachment in humans

Theories of attachment

Up until the 1950's it was widely believed that the child's attachment to its mother was mainly the result of feeding. 'Cupboard Love' theories, as they became known, included Psychoanalytic and Learning Theories. For Freud attachments were formed in the oral stage due to the satisfaction of the primary need for nourishment and libidinal instincts. Similarly, learning theorists such as Sears et al. believed that the baby's primary hunger drive is reduced (satisfied) by the mother and, through classical conditioning, the infant acquires a secondary (dependency) drive for the mother herself. Social Learning theorists (e.g. Hay & Vespo) have tried to explain the development of attachments through such processes as modelling and direct instruction. Ethological research, such as Lorenz's, and other findings, such as Harlow's, led Bowlby, a psychoanalyst, to suggest that there was a sensitive period for children in the first two to three years of life during which the infant forms an attachment to its mother. Bowlby held that this bond was different from all other relationships and was formed with only one person - the mother or permanent mother substitute. He called it a monotropic bond. He suggested it was an imprinting kind of process. If the bond was not developed during the sensitive period the child would suffer emotionally, intellectually and socially. He also suggested it was a two-way innate and adaptive process between mother and child.


  1. Find out about Freud’s theory and Learning and Social Learning theories . Note and understand what is meant by ‘the oral stage’, ‘libidinal instincts’, ‘classical conditioning’, ‘secondary drive’ (‘secondary reinforcer’) and ‘modelling’.
  2. Why would mother-child attachment have evolved?.

Later research

A number of studies have failed to support these theories. We have already noted that Harlow found that feeding was not a major cause of attachment in primates. Later research was to prove Bowlby was also wrong on a number of counts. Let us see the way in which he was wrong by looking at what the later research has to tell us about the answer to the following three questions:

  1. When are attachments formed?
  2. With whom are attachments formed?
  3. Why are attachments formed?


Schaffer and Emerson carried out a study of the development of attachments with a group of Scottish infants. They found that the infants passed through four distinct stages:

  1. The asocial stage (0-6 weeks) - when any kind of stimulus, social or non-social will produce a favourable reaction
  2. The stage of indiscriminate attachments ( 6 wks. to 6,7 months.) - when infants clearly enjoy human company but they tend to be somewhat indiscriminate and protest whoever puts them down or leaves them alone
  3. The stage of specific attachments ( 7-9 months. approx.) - At this stage they will protest only when separated from a particular individual. They also begin to fear strangers.
  4. The stage of multiple attachments - Within weeks of forming their first attachments, Schaffer and Emerson found about half the infants they studied were becoming attached to other people.

There is evidence that children can form their first attachment later if necessary (e.g. Schaffer).

To whom?

Bowlby's idea that there is a primary attachment which is different from all others has been criticised with a number of studies finding results that seem to contradict his hierarchical view. One of the most well known of these was that of Schaffer & Emerson. In their study of attachments in Scotland, they discovered the following:-

Schaffer and Emerson have concluded that different attachments serve different functions; the person the child prefers most will depend on the situation. For example, if the infant is frightened they may prefer the mother’s company, while fathers may be preferred as playmates (Lamb et al.).


What are the causes behind forming attachments? Schaffer & Emerson and others have found it depended on a number of factors:
1. Intensity
Schaffer & Emerson believe that the total amount of stimulation is another important factor in the formation of attachments. i.e. It's not time spent but what happens during interaction that matters.
2. Sensitive Responsiveness
Schaffer and Emerson found that it depended on the way that people interacted with the baby rather than on functions such as feeding, washing, dressing. Sensitive responsiveness is what the baby looks for in adults.


What evidence have Ainsworth et al. found to support the second factor above (page 86).

Individual differences in attachments

How do children’s attachments differ? This question was the focus of a famous study by Mary Ainsworth. She used an experimental method, which has become known as the ‘Strange Situation’. The Strange Situation involved a series of episodes with the child, his or her caregiver and a stranger. The child’s reactions to each of these situations would be noted. Ainsworth found a pattern of three types of responding, which she called avoidant, secure and resistant. Later research suggested a further type: disorganised. Ainsworth continued her research by investigating why infants differ in their attachments and what effect these early attachments have on later behaviour.


Read pages 86 to 89 and do the following.

  1. Briefly note the seven episodes involved in the Strange Situation.
  2. Note the reaction of the infants to the Strange Situation in the case of each of the attachment categories/types.
  3. Note one study that has tried to assess the reliability and one the validity of the Strange Situation.
  4. Give one argument for the ‘temperament hypothesis’ and one against.

Cross-cultural variations

There has been a number of cross-cultural studies of attachment. One of the reasons for this research has been to investigate the effects of different forms of maternal care, another reason is to discover if attachment in universal and thus innate. One of the principle methods of study has been the Strange Situation.


Read page 89-91 and do the following.

  1. Summarise the findings for the four countries studied.
  2. Suggest explanations for the differences found.
  3. Note one criticism of cross-cultural research.


http://www.personalityresearch.org/papers/pendry.html - A sound paper on the reseach we've looked at above.