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.

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Contents
Table of contents
    • We will start by trying to answer the question, what is Bowlby's monotropic theory of attachment?
    • Then, we will explore Bowlby's attachment theory stages.
    • Then we will see what Bowlby theorised about what happens if we don't form attachments; some topics discussed include the Bowlby maternal deprivation theory and the Bowlby internal working model.
    • And finally, we will discuss some points focusing on Bowlby's monotropic theory of attachment evaluation.

    Monotropy Theory

    The monotropy theory assumes humans have an innate drive to form an attachment with one person, the primary caregiver. The infant holds the primary attachment with the primary caregiver as the most important.

    According to Bowlby, a famous psychologist, a primary attachment must be formed before the critical period, or this could lead to later developmental, intellectual, social and psychological issues.

    What is Bowlby's Monotropic Theory of Attachment?

    Bowlby's monotropic attachment theory focuses on the idea that we form an evolutionary-based attachment to one primary caregiver. Forming an attachment with the primary caregiver is an innate process that is incredibly important in an infant's development.

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

    Bowlby Monotropic Theory

    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).

    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, forming attachments would be a beneficial trait and passed on to the next generation.

    Bowlby argues that the natural selection theory highlights that children are genetically pre-programmed to form attachments to increase their chances of survival.

    A child may cry each time they are hungry, and caregivers' instincts kick in to feed them; as the child will not go hungry, it decreases the risk of starvation.

    Bowlby's Attachment Theory Stages

    Infant attachment is the developmental stage in which infants form attachments to their primary caregiver and others in their environment.

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

    The process of forming attachments involves social releases.

    The infant's social releases are innate behaviours used to maintain proximity to 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 Bowlby's attachment theory are a safe haven, a secure base, proximity maintenance, and separation distress.

    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.

    What Happens if we don't Form Attachments?

    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.

    Bowlby Maternal Deprivation

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

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

    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'.

    Bowlby: Privation

    In his theory, Bowlby describes privation as highly detrimental to 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, which leads to different issues than maternal deprivation.

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

    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 Internal Working Model

    As we mentioned above, Bowlby's monotropic attachment theory 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.

    The continuity hypothesis suggests that we use our early attachments to dictate how we should feel, behave and interact with people we later form attachments with during adulthood.

    Bowlby Critical Period

    According to Bowlby, the critical period is between 6 to 30 months old.

    The critical period is when a child should form an attachment with their caregiver to prevent later developmental, intellectual, emotional, psychological and social issues.

    The primary attachment formed in the critical period must be reciprocal, continuous, warm and healthy to prevent later issues.

    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 Bowlby's 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 us understand how and why we attach and its implications 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 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 humans have a biological, pre-programmed need to form attachments with our primary caregivers, which aids the natural survival process.
    • John Bowlby uses monotropy to describe his hypothesis that attachment to one primary caregiver is the most important in an infant's development.
    • Bowlby suggested maternal deprivation caused children to experience detrimental consequences, such as a lack of emotional intelligence, antisocial behaviour, and delinquency.
    • Research from Ainsworth (1967) and Fox (1977) supports Bowlby's theory, but it has issues with generalisability and cultural differences.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Bowlby’s Monotropic Theory

    What is a simple definition of the attachment theory?

    Attachment theories are psychological ideas that help explain why we form bonds with others and what happens if we don't.

    What are the 4 stages of attachment?

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

    What are the 4 characteristics of Bowlby’s attachment theory?

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

    How does Bowlby’s theory influence current practice?

    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 home. As a result,  the number of women in the workforce decreased.

    What is the 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 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. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was Bowlby’s monotropic theory created?

    What is monotropy?

    Which of these is not a social releaser?

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