I had a psychiatry lecture last week on attachment theory where we were shown an interesting video demonstrating the Still Face Experiment.
In this experiment, an infant sits with her mother, who initially engages the child, talking, cooing, and responding to the child’s sounds and gestures. The mother than abruptly stops interacting, and only looks at the child with a “still face”:
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As you can see the child is at first confused, and tries with more effort to get the mother’s attention. When she fails, she becomes increasingly distressed and upset. Eventually, she will give up.
Theories of Attachment
This experiment helps demonstrate a more fundamental point. When an infant bonds with her primary caregiver, a complicated dance occurs. The child responds very sensitively to subtle cues given by the caregiver. In the video example, the infant is securely attached to her mother, so when she reengages her it only takes a few seconds for the infant become happy again and reconnect. But imagine though if this was how the mother interacted with the child over days, weeks, months, years. That’s when long-lasting attachment problems are created – problems that extend beyond childhood and affect the person’s ability to form secure relationships later in life.
Attachment theorists have named the different attachment styles – healthy and unhealthy – that commonly occur:
You can see these different attachment styles play out in psychological studies, such as Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiments. In these experiments, an infant and a parent are in a room alone together. An unfamiliar adult enters the room, and then the parent leaves the room, causing the infant to feel anxious and distressed (appropriate behavior at that age). What is interesting is the variability in how the infant reacts when the parent returns to the room.
Some infants, after a few moments of being upset, will quickly reconnect with the parent. This is Secure Attachment. Some infants will continue to feel internally anxious (as evidenced by skyrocking cortisol levels), but externally act aloof and disinterested in the parent. This is an Anxious-Avoidant attachment style. Other infants will feel anxious but conflicted about the return of the parent, and will cry and be fussy, alternating clinging to the parents with pushing them away. This is an Anxious-Ambivalent attachment style.
Someone who had an inconsistent mother might develop an anxious-ambivalent attachment style, where they alternate between pulling people in, demanding reassurance, and pushing them away.
Someone with an aggressive or overbearing mother might develop an anxious-avoidant attachment style, remaining aloof even though they desperately want to connect with others.
So what if you or someone you love has trouble forming secure attachments in their adults relationships? Blame your mother. Just kidding. There are many complex factors that contribute to our ability to form relationships in adults, and the infant-caregiver relationship is only a small part of that. It helps explain, though, why children brought up in traumatic or difficult home environments tend to develop the problems that they do.