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Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory

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Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory

Bowlby’s monotropic theory (1969) is an evolutionary theory of attachment that focuses on the concept of a child’s attachment. He argued that we evolved a biological, pre-programmed need to form attachments with our primary caregivers, which aids the natural survival process. According to Bowlby, this attachment focuses on one primary attachment that provides a template for future relationships.

This article will provide an outline of Bowlbys monotropic theory of attachment, its stages and criticism.

Bowlby's Monotropic Theory Mother-child attachment StudySmarterMother-child attachment, Flaticon

What is Bowlby’s monotropic theory of attachment?

Monotropy is the concept that infants have an innate capacity and drive to attach to one primary caregiver or attachment figure.

Bowlby’s monotropic theory of attachment focuses on the idea that we form an evolutionary-based attachment to one primary caregiver. This is the main attachment and is an innate process that is incredibly important in an infant’s development. Infants will try to form an attachment to the primary caregiver to increase their chances of survival (external factors such as illness or family dysfunction may disrupt this process).

Bowlby’s attachment theory stages

Infant attachment stages are the developmental stages in which infants form attachments to their primary caregiver and to others in their environment. If you recall from our Stages of Attachment article, Schaffer and Emerson (1964) propose four stages of attachment: asocial, indiscriminate, specific, and multiple.

According to Bowlby’s monotropic theory, attachment is an evolutionary, biological process. It is an innate process that we are naturally able to complete in infancy and one that was beneficial to our ancestors.

For example, in prehistoric times, a secure bond to one caregiver would be vital to a child’s survival as it would ensure they are fed and stay close to those who can protect them. These attached children were more likely to survive into adulthood. Therefore, through natural selection, the process of attachment would be a beneficial trait and would be passed on and become innate.

The actual process of attachment involves social releasers. These are innate behaviours that the infant performs to maintain proximity with their attachment figure, such as smiling, crying, crawling and making eye contact. These behaviours encourage the attachment figure to care for the child, which suggests attachments form because of care and responsiveness rather than simply food and biological needs.

The four characteristics of Bowlbys attachment theory are a safe haven, a secure base, proximity maintenance, and separation distress.

The critical period

In this theory, Bowlby states a critical period in which this primary attachment must occur a bond can’t form outside it. He describes this period as being between birth and three years old, although in further revisions, he did state that within a ‘sensitive period’ of 05 years, attachments may still be able to be formed.

Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory Critical period of primary attachment StudySmarterThe critical period of primary attachment, Flaticon

What happens if we don’t attach?

A key part of Bowlby’s monotropic theory is that this primary attachment is essential for normal social, emotional, intellectual and psychological development. Without this attachment, Bowlby suggests the child will suffer many detrimental effects.

Maternal deprivation

Maternal deprivation describes instances where a mother and child are separated for an extended time, which causes disruption in their attachment.

Bowlby suggested that experiencing maternal deprivation caused children to experience detrimental consequences, such as lack of emotional intelligence, antisocial behaviour, and delinquency.

In his ‘44 Thieves’ study from 1944, Bowlby studied 44 young offenders at the London Child Guidance Clinic. Of the 14 children he diagnosed with ‘affectionless psychopathy’, 12 had experienced maternal deprivation within the first five years of life.

Affectionless psychopathy refers to a lack of awareness and care for the emotions of others.

The results of this study support Bowlby’s hypothesis that children who experience maternal deprivation are more likely to become ‘affectionless psychopaths’.

Privation

Privation describes instances where a child does not have the chance to form an attachment with a caregiver in infancy/early childhood.

In his theory, Bowlby describes privation as having highly detrimental effects on a child’s emotional and social development. However, he describes both privation and maternal deprivation as the same thing. Psychologist Micheal Rutter (1981) suggests that the failure to form any attachment is privation, leading to different issues than maternal deprivation. Deprivation focuses more on the loss or withholding/damage of this attachment.

The problems that Rutter hypothesises that children who have experienced privation were likely to face include attention-seeking, co-dependent behaviours, antisocial behaviour, and an inability to follow the rules or feel guilt.

Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory Privation StudySmarterPrivation, Flaticon

The internal working model (IWM)

As we mentioned above, Bowlby’s monotropic theory of attachment operates around the idea that this attachment will form a template for future relationships. Attachments we form as infants affect how we trust, socialise, and care for others.

As it is a working model, it is adaptable, and the continuity hypothesis suggests the primary caregiver’s interactions and the formed attachments influence the child’s future relationships.

Bowlby’s monotropic theory of attachment: evaluation

Which studies supported Bowlby’s monotropic theory?

  • Lorenz (1935) found that infant greylag geese formed attachments with the very first thing they saw after hatching, suggesting that attachment is an innate process. This finding supports Bowlby’s idea that attachment is an evolutionary, instinctual behaviour.

  • Ainsworth (1967) studied the Ganda tribe of Uganda and found that infants formed strong bonds with one primary caregiver even when cared for by multiple people, suggesting that Bowlby’s idea of attachment being innate is universal.

  • Fox (1977) found that infants formed monotropic bonds with their mothers in some Israeli communities, despite only seeing their mothers for approximately three hours a day (nannies took care of them). This finding suggests once more that attachment is innate, as Bowlby describes.

What are the limitations of Bowlby’s monotropic theory?

Schaffer and Emerson’s research (1964) into attachment stages found that children begin to form multiple strong attachments around 10 to 11 months, rather than just their mother, challenging Bowlby’s ideas.

Rutter (1981) argued that the problems children who had suffered privation or deprivation faced were due to the lack of intellectual stimulation and social contact that attachments provide, rather than the lack of attachment itself.

Bowlby’s original research in developing this theory may be subject to cultural bias because all of his participants in the ‘44 Thieves’ study were all from London. When generalised to people of other cultures, Bowlby’s conclusions may not apply.

What are the practical applications of Bowlby’s monotropic theory?

Is Bowlbys monotropic theory adaptive to everyday life? We can use Bowlby’s monotropic theory to understand why some people suffer from developmental problems later in life and implement strategies in early years settings, such as nurseries, to facilitate healthy attachments and help children grow up as best they can.

This theory could also find use in therapeutic settings; by knowing what has caused someone to have some emotional or social deficits, we can help treat them.

Bowlby’s research has inspired many psychologists who have specialised in attachment, such as Mary Ainsworth and Patricia McKinsey Crittenden. This has helped to develop more understanding of how and why we attach, and the implications of this on our development.

When Bowlby first introduced the theory, it had economic implications. Mothers were considered the main caregiver vital for a child’s development and were encouraged to stay at home. As a result, the number of women in the workforce decreased.


Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory - Key takeaways

  • Bowlby’s monotropic theory (1969) is an evolutionary theory of attachment that focuses on the concept of a child’s attachment.
  • He argued we have evolved a biological, pre-programmed need to form attachments with our primary caregivers, which aids the natural process of survival. Bowlby stated this attachment focuses on one primary attachment that provides a template for future relationships.
  • John Bowlby uses monotropy to describe his hypothesis that attachment to one primary caregiver is the most important in an infant’s development. It is also an innate process all infants try to achieve unless external factors interrupt it, such as illness or family dysfunction.
  • Bowlby suggested that maternal deprivation caused children to experience detrimental consequences, such as lack of emotional intelligence, antisocial behaviour, and delinquency.
  • Bowlby suggested a critical period in which this primary attachment must occur a bond can’t form outside it. He describes this period as being between birth and three years old. He later expanded on this to suggest a bond can form within the first five years of life.
  • Research from Ainsworth (1967) and Fox (1977) supports Bowlby’s theory, but it has issues with generalisability and cultural differences.
  • We can use Bowlby’s monotropic theory to understand why some people suffer from developmental problems later in life. By using the theory, we can also implement strategies in early years settings, such as nurseries, to facilitate healthy attachments and help children grow up as best they can.

Frequently Asked Questions about Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory

Attachment theories are psychological ideas that help explain the bonds we form with other people.

The four stages of attachment are asocial, indiscriminate, specific, and multiple (Schaffer and Emerson, 1964).

The four characteristics of Bowlby’s attachment theory are a safe haven, a secure base, proximity maintenance, and separation distress.

Bowlby identified that one strong attachment is essential for a child’s development. An example of this being used in current practice is where nurseries have ‘key workers’ for each child to help facilitate healthy attachment.


When Bowlby first introduced the theory, it had economic implications. Mothers were considered the main caregiver vital for a child’s development and were encouraged to stay at home. As a result,  the number of women in the workforce decreased.

Bowlby’s monotropic theory (1969) is an evolutionary theory of attachment that focuses on the concept of a child’s attachment. 


He argued we have evolved a biological, pre-programmed need to form attachments with our primary caregivers, which aids the natural process of survival. Bowlby stated this attachment focuses on one primary attachment that provides a template for future relationships. 

Final Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory Quiz

Question

When was Bowlby’s monotropic theory created?

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Answer

1969.

Show question

Question

Who does Bowbly suggest is the most important attachment for a child?

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Answer

Their primary caregiver, usually the mother.

Show question

Question

What is monotropy?

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Answer

The concept infants have an innate capacity and drive to attach to one primary caregiver or attachment figure.

Show question

Question

What kind of process is attachment, according to Bowlby?

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Answer

Innate and biological.

Show question

Question

Bowlby describes attachment as an evolutionary process; what does this mean?

Show answer

Answer

It means attachment is innate, a process that we are naturally able to complete in infancy and one that was beneficial to our ancestors.

Show question

Question

How might attachment have become an innate process?

Show answer

Answer

In prehistoric times, a secure bond to one caregiver would be vital to a child’s survival as it would ensure they are fed and stay close to those who can protect them. These attached children were more likely to survive until adulthood, and therefore through natural selection, the attachment process would become innate.

Show question

Question

What are social releasers?

Show answer

Answer

Innate behaviours that the infant performs to maintain proximity with their attachment figure.

Show question

Question

Which of these is not a social releaser?

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Answer

Playing with blocks.

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Question

What does the idea of social releasers suggest about attachment?

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Answer

The idea of social releasers suggests that attachments form because of care and responsiveness rather than simply food and biological needs.

Show question

Question

What does Bowlby suggest a child will experience if they do not experience monotropic attachment?

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Answer

Detrimental developmental effects, such as low language skills and developmental delays.

Show question

Question

What is maternal deprivation?

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Answer

Maternal deprivation describes instances where a mother and child are separated for an extended time, which disrupts their attachment.

Show question

Question

What is privation?

Show answer

Answer

Privation describes instances where a child does not have the chance to form an attachment with a caregiver in infancy/early childhood.

Show question

Question

Who first proposed the idea of privation being different to deprivation?

Show answer

Answer

Michael Rutter (1981).

Show question

Question

What did Rutter suggest are the consquences of privation?

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Answer

The problems that Rutter hypothesises that children who have experienced privation were likely to face include attention-seeking, co-dependent behaviours, antisocial behaviour, and an inability to follow the rules or feel guilt.

Show question

Question

What is one study that supports Bowlby’s theory?

Show answer

Answer

Lorenz (1935) found that infant greylag geese formed attachments with the very first thing they saw after hatching, suggesting that attachment is an innate process. This finding supports Bowlby’s idea that attachment is an evolutionary, instinctual behaviour.

Show question

Question

What is a limitation of Bowlby’s theory?

Show answer

Answer

Rutter (1981) argued that the problems children who had suffered privation or deprivation faced were due to the lack of intellectual stimulation and social contact that attachments provide, rather than the lack of attachment itself.

Show question

Question

How can Bowlby's theory be applied?

Show answer

Answer

This theory could find use in therapeutic settings; by knowing what has caused someone to have some emotional or social deficits, we can help treat them.

Show question

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