John Bowlby

From New World Encyclopedia

John Bowlby (February 26, 1907 - September 2, 1990) was a British psychoanalyst, notable for his interest in child development and his pioneering work in attachment theory. Attachment theory is highly regarded as a well-researched explanation of infant and toddler behavior and in the field of infant mental health. Most clinical work with an infant or toddler includes attachment, since dealing with that issue has been shown to be an essential developmental task for that age period.


John Mostyn Bowlby was born in London to an upper-middle class family. He was the fourth of six children and was raised by a nanny in traditional British fashion of his class. His father, Sir Anthony Bowlby, first Baronet Bowlby, was surgeon to the King's Household, but with a tragic history; at age five, his own father (John's grandfather) had been killed while serving as a war correspondent in the Anglo-Chinese Opium War. Normally, John saw his mother only one hour a day after teatime, though during the summer she was more available. Like many other mothers of her social class, she considered that parental attention and affection would lead to dangerous spoiling. When Bowlby was almost four years old, his beloved nanny, who was actually his primary caretaker in his early years, left the family. Later, he was to describe this separation as being as tragic as the loss of a mother.

At the age of seven, he was sent to boarding school, as was common for boys of his social status. His later work, for example Separation: Anxiety and Anger, revealed that he regarded it as a terrible time for him. Because of such experiences as a child, he displayed an unusual sensitivity to children’s suffering throughout his life.

Bowlby married Ursula Longstaff, herself the daughter of a surgeon, on April 16, 1938, and they had four children, including (Sir) Richard Bowlby, who succeeded his uncle as third Baronet and has in recent years been supportive of interest in his father's work, in which he has, however, no professional training.

He died September 2, 1990, at his summer home in Isle of Skye, Scotland.


Bowlby’s intellectual career began at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he studied psychology and pre-clinical sciences. He won prizes for outstanding intellectual performance. After Cambridge, he took some time to work with maladjusted and delinquent children, then at the age of twenty-two enrolled at University College Hospital in London. At the age of twenty-six, he qualified in medicine. While still in medical school, he also found time to enroll himself in the Institute for Psychoanalysis. Following medical school, he trained in adult psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1937, he qualified as a psychoanalyst, and he became president of Trinity College in 1938.

During World War II, he was a Lieutenant Colonel, RAMC. After the war, he was Deputy Director of the Tavistock Clinic, and from 1950, Mental Health Consultant to the World Health Organization.

Because of his previous work with maladapted and delinquent children, he became interested in the development of children and began work at the Child Guidance Clinic in London.

Bowlby was interested in finding out the actual patterns of family interaction involved in both healthy and pathological development. He focused on how attachment difficulties were transmitted from one generation to the next. The three most important experiences for Bowlby’s future work and the development of attachment theory were his work with:

  • Maladapted and delinquent children.
  • James Robertson (psychoanalyst) (in 1952) in making the documentary film, A Two-Year Old Goes to the Hospital, which was one of the films about ”young children in brief separation.“ The documentary illustrated the impact of loss and suffering experienced by young children separated from their primary caretakers.
  • Melanie Klein during his psychoanalytic training. She was his supervisor, however they had different views about the role of the mother in the treatment of a three-year-old boy. Specifically and importantly, Klein stressed the role of the child's fantasies about his mother, and Bowlby emphasized the actual history of the relationship.

The most famous and enduring work of John Bowlby was theorizing about attachment styles of infants with primary caretakers. He observed and generalized from his observations, and hence developed a scientific theory (attachment theory). In his view, attachment behavior was an evolutionary survival strategy for protecting the infant from predators, and attachment theory reflects that. Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby’s, further extended and tested his ideas, and in fact played the primary role in suggesting that several attachment styles existed.

Attachment theory

Mother and child

The concept of infants' emotional attachment to caregivers has been known anecdotally for hundreds of years. Most early observers focused on the anxiety displayed by infants and toddlers when threatened with separation from a familiar caregiver. Freudian theory attempted a systematic consideration of infant attachment and attributed the infant's attempts to stay near the familiar person to motivation learned through feeding experiences. Bowlby's theory explains how attachment behaviors are activated when an individual feels fear, fatigue, or pain. While both the mother and infant are biologically preprogrammed to develop an attachment relationship, their roles are different. The infant's role is to lead the relationship while the mother's part is to sensitively respond and cooperate. This leads to adaptations in the infant either towards or away from cooperation depending on how well the mother responds to the infant's cues.

As John Bowlby began to formulate his concept of attachment, he was influenced by case studies, such as one by David Levy, that associated an adopted child's lack of social emotion to her early emotional deprivation.[1] Bowlby himself was interested in the role played in delinquency by poor early relationships, and explored this in a study of young thieves.[2]

Other sources that influenced Bowlby's thought included ethological studies such as those discussed by Niko Tinbergen.[3] Tinbergen and his colleague, Konrad Lorenz, had examined the phenomenon of "imprinting" and felt that it might have some parallels to human attachment. Imprinting, a behavior characteristic of some birds and a very few mammals, involves rapid learning of recognition by a young bird or animal exposed to a conspecific or an object or organism that behaves suitably. The learning is possible only within a limited age period, known as a "critical period." This rapid learning and development of familiarity with an animate or inanimate object is accompanied by a tendency to stay close to the object and to follow when it moves; the young creature is said to have been imprinted on the object when this occurs. As the imprinted bird or animal reaches reproductive maturity, its courtship behavior is directed toward objects that resemble the imprinting object. Bowlby's attachment concepts later included the ideas that attachment involves learning from experience during a limited age period, and that the learning that occurs during that time influences adult behavior. However, he did not apply the imprinting concept in its entirety to human attachment, nor assume that human development was as simple as that of birds. He did, however, consider that attachment behavior was best explained as instinctive in nature.

Bowlby's view of attachment was also influenced by observations of young children separated from familiar caregivers, as provided during World War II by Anna Freud and her colleague, Dorothy Burlingham.[4] Observations of separated children's grief by Rene Spitz were another important factor in the development of attachment theory.[5] Bowlby presented Spitz's and others studies as well as his own surveys on children raised in a variety of settings, in the World Health Organization-sponsored study and report, "Maternal Care and Mental Health" in 1950. This report motivated Harry Harlow to begin his experiments with macaques (rhesus monkeys). Harlow's 1958 publication, "The Nature of Love," is based on the results of experiments which showed, approximately, that infant monkeys spent more time with soft mother-like dummies that offered no food than they did with dummies that provided a food source but were less pleasant to the touch.[6] In 1958, Bowlby introduced the precursory concepts of "attachment" in his paper, "The Nature of the Child's Tie to his Mother."

The important concept of the internal working model of social relationships was adopted by Bowlby from the work of Kenneth Craik, the philosopher.[7]

The theory of control systems (cybernetics), developing during the 1930s and 1940s, influenced Bowlby's thinking about attachment.[8] The young child's need for proximity to the attachment figure was seen as balancing homeostatically with the need for exploration. The actual distance maintained would be greater or less as the balance of needs changed; for example, the approach of a stranger, or an injury, would cause the child to seek proximity when a moment before he had been exploring at a distance.

Personality development

In his book, Secure Base, Bowlby justifies the place of attachment as a basic human drive, alongside the drives for food and sex, and considers attachment as a homeostatic control system operating within the context of other behavioral control systems. He summarizes Mary Ainsworth's early work and describes the four basic infant attachment styles:

  • Secure
  • Anxious/avoidant
  • Anxious/resistant
  • Disoriented/disorganized

He notes that security of attachment is strongly related to the degree of freedom of communication between caregiver and infant. This being the case, a secure attachment organization should be more amenable to change and updating as the individual grows. He argues that the result of less free and easy early communication, along with a mother whose responses are highly contingent on the infant's displayed emotions, is the development of fragmentation within the personality. This fragmentation, or lack of internal communication, makes these patterns more resistant to change. Bowlby notes that attachment theory supports a pathway, rather than a stage theory of personality development, whereby a number of developmental pathways are available.

Bowlby contends that many adult psychiatric disorders are derived from early attachment experiences. Bowlby sees the solution to these conditions as the re-experiencing and integration of the lost childhood experiences.

Attachment theory and violence in the family

Bowlby considers the etiology of violent behavior within family systems. He argues that family violence is rooted in functional anger but has been taken to an extreme. He shows that physically abusive mothers tend to yearn for care and are overly sensitive to forms of rejection, having experienced threatened or actual abandonment in their own childhood. When their own children fail to care for them, they resort to anger and violence. Infants of these mothers tend to show approach-avoidance behavior towards their mothers. During childhood, they tend to become violent and often engage in malicious behaviors which appear to have the sole purpose of causing distress to another. Men who batter their wives tend to do so in apparently inexplicable outbursts. This may take the form of bi-directional violence, coercion or imprisonment, or battering. Like abusive mothers, abusive men also tend to have experienced violence from their own parents. Couples consisting of abused male and female partners are not uncommon. Studies have shown that abused women tend to gravitate towards abusive men, leading to a relationship in which both partners are anxiously attached to each other. A common characteristic of these relationships is the belief, by both parties, that their partner "needs" them, in addition to a dread of loneliness. Bowlby goes on to discuss attachment based intervention programs that have been set up to try to reduce the incidence of child abuse.


Attachment theory is highly regarded as a well-researched explanation of infant and toddler behavior and in the field of infant mental health. It is hard to imagine any clinical work with an infant or toddler that is not about attachment, since dealing with that issue has been shown to be an essential developmental task for that age period.

Following Bowlby's leads, a few established child development researchers and others have suggested developmentally appropriate mental health interventions to sensitively foster emotional relationships between young children and adults. These approaches used tested techniques which were not only congruent with attachment theory, but with other established principles of child development. In addition, nearly all mainstream approaches for the prevention and treatment of disorders of attachment use attachment theory. Treatment and prevention programs include those of Alicia Lieberman ("Parent-child Psychotherapy"), Stanley Greenspan ("Floor Time"), Mary Dozier (autonomous states of mind), Robert Marvin ("Circle of Security"), Daniel Schechter (intergenerational communication of trauma), and Joy Osofsky ("Safe Start Initiative").

Mary Ainsworth conducted research based on Bowlby's theory and devised the "Strange Situation" protocol, still used today to assess attachment style in children, as the laboratory portion of a larger study that included extensive home visitations over the first year of the child's life. This study identified three attachment patterns that a child may have with his primary attachment figure: Secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent.

Further research by Mary Main and colleagues (University of California, Berkeley) identified a fourth attachment pattern, called disorganized attachment, which reflects these children's lack of a coherent coping strategy.

Other research has followed children into the school environment, where securely attached children generally relate well to peers, avoidantly attached children tend to victimize peers, and ambivalently attached children may be victimized by peers and be coy.[9] These early studies focused on attachment between children and caregivers.

Some clinicians have claimed Bowlby's theory as a basis for controversial interventions popularly known as attachment therapy, but such claims have not had wide confirmation from theoreticians and the interventions themselves have been criticized as not meeting generally accepted standards of research or practice by professionals.[10]

Interest in attachment theory has continued, and the theory was later extended to adult romantic relationships by Cindy Hazen and Phillip Shaver.[11]

Major publications

  • Bowlby, J. Maternal Care and Mental Health. London: Jason Aronson, 1950. ISBN 1568217579
  • Bowlby, J. Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0140202714
  • Bowlby, J. Attachment. New York: Basic Books, 1999. ISBN 0465005438
  • Bowlby, J. Separation: Anxiety and Anger. London: Hogarth Press, 1973. ISBN 0701203013
  • Bowlby, J. Loss: Sadness and Depression. London: Hogarth Press, 1980. ISBN 0701203501
  • Bowlby, J. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. London: Routledge, 1988. ISBN 0415006406


  1. D. Levy, American Journal of Psychiatry, (1935) 94:643-x
  2. J. Bowlby, Forty-four juvenile thieves: Their characters and home life. International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1944) 25:19-52, 107-127.
  3. E.A. Tinbergen, and N. Tinbergen, Early Childhood Autism an Ethological Approach (Berlin: Parey, 1972). ISBN 3489780361
  4. A. Freud and D.T. Burlingham, War and Children (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1943). ISBN 9780837169422
  5. Rene Spitz, Hospitalism: An Inquiry into the Genesis of Psychiatric Conditions in Early Childhood (1945).
  6. John Bowlby, The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds (Routledge Classics, 2005). ISBN 0415354811
  7. K. Craik, The Nature of Explanation (Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 1943). ISBN 0195032152
  8. P. Robbins and J.M. Zacks, Attachment theory and cognitive science: Commentary on Fonagy and Target, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 55(2):909-920.
  9. J. Bowlby, Attachment (London: Hogarth Press, 1969). ISBN 0-465-00543-8.
  10. O'Connor TG and Zeanah CH (eds) (Sep 2003). Special Issue: Current perspectives on assessment and treatment of attachment disorders. Attachment & Human Development 5 (3): 219-326.
  11. C. Hazan and P. Shaver, Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Holmes, J. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. New York: Routledge, 1993. ISBN 041507729X
  • Mayhew, B. Between love and aggression: The politics of John Bowlby. History of the Human Sciences. 19(4): 19-35.
  • Van der Horst, F.C.P., R. van der Veer, and M.H. van Ijzendoorn. John Bowlby and ethnology: An annotated interview with Robert Hinde. Attachment and Human Development. 2007.
  • Van Dijken, S. John Bowlby: His Early Life: A Biographical Journey into the Roots of Attachment Theory. New York: Free Association Books, 1998. ISBN 1853433934
  • Van Dijken, S., R. Van der Veer, M.H. Van Ijzendoorn, and H.J. Kuipers. Bowlby before Bowlby: The sources of an intellectual departure in psychoanalysis and psychology. Journal of the History of Behavioural Sciences. 31(3): 247-269.


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