John Bowlby Biography (1907-1990)

John Bowlby attachment theory
Bolwby believed maternal attachments played a primary role in development.. Erin Lester / Cultura Exclusive / Getty Images

John Bowlby was a British psychologist and psychoanalyst who believed that early childhood attachments played a critical role in the later development and mental functioning. His work, along with the work of psychologist Mary Ainsworth, contributed to the development of attachment theory.

Bowlby believed that children are born with a biologically programmed tendency to seek and remain close to attachment figures.

This provides nurturance and comfort, but it also aids in the child’s survival. Sticking close to a caregiver ensures that the child’s needs are met and that he or she is protected from dangers in the environment.

John Bowlby Is Best Known For:

Birth and Death:

February 27, 1907 - September 2, 1990

Bowlby’s Early Life

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was born in London to an upper-middle-class family. Believing that too much parental affection and attention would spoil a child, his parents spent only a small amount of time with him each day. At the age of seven he was sent to boarding school, which he would later describe as a traumatic experience.

Bowlby went on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied psychology and spent time working with delinquent children. After graduating from Cambridge, Bowlby volunteered at a school to gain experience and consider his career goals.

His work at the school with two maladjusted children set the course of his future and inspired him to become a child psychiatrist.

He then studied medicine at University College Hospital, and then psychiatry at Maudsley Hospital. During this time, Bowlby also studied at the British Psychoanalytic Institute and was initially influenced by the work of Melanie Klein.

He eventually became dissatisfied with Klein’s approach, believing that it focused too much on children’s fantasies and not enough on events in the environment, including the influence of parents and caregivers.

After becoming a psychoanalyst in 1937, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II.

In 1938, he married a woman named Ursula Longstaff and together they had four children. Once the war was over, Bowlby became Director of the Tavistock Clinic and in 1950 he became a mental health consultant to the World Health Organization.

Bowlby’s Career and Theory

Bowlby’s early work with children led him to develop a strong interest in the subject of child development. He became particularly interested in how separation from caregivers impacted children. After studying the subject for some time, he began to develop his ideas on the importance of attachment on child development.

In 1949, the World Health Organization commissioned Bowlby to write a report on the mental health of homeless children in Europe.

In 1951, the resulting work Maternal Care and Mental Health was published. In it he wrote, “…the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”

After the publication of the influential report, Bowlby continued to develop his attachment theory.

Bowlby drew on a variety of subjects including cognitive science, developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, and ethology. His resulting theory suggested that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. According to Bowlby, attachment also serves to keep the infant close to the mother, thus improving the child's chances of survival.

Bowlby was also influenced by the work of Konrad Lorenz, who demonstrated that attachment was both innate and aided in survival. In Lorenz’s well-known 1935 study on imprinting, he was able to show that young geese would imprint on attachment figures in the environment within a certain critical period after hatching. Lorenz was even able to get newly-hatched geese to imprint on him and view him as a “mother” figure. This revealed that not only is attachment innate, but that there is also a critical period during which the formation of attachment relationships is possible. Lorenz’s research found that after a certain period (approximately 32 hours for geese), attachment was not likely to occur.

The central theme of Bowlby’s attachment theory is that mothers who are available and responsive to their infant's needs establish a sense of security. The baby knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world.

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Bowlby defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." His ethological theory of attachment suggests that infants have an innate need to form an attachment bond with a caregiver. This is an evolved response that increases a child's chances of survival. Babies are born with a number of behaviors such as crying and cooing, and caregivers are biologically programmed to respond to these signals and attend to the child’s needs.

While mothers are often associated with this role as primary caregivers and attachment figures, Bowlby did believe that infants could form such bonds with others. The formation of the attachment bond offers comfort, security, and nourishment, but Bowlby noted that feeding itself was not the basis or purpose of this attachment.

When attachment figures are available and reliable, the child develops a sense of trust in the world. At this point, the child can then rely on the caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the world.

Bowlby also suggested that attachment forms in a series of stages:

  • During the first part of the pre-attachment phase, babies recognize their primary caregiver but do not yet have an attachment. Their crying and fussing draws the attention and care of the parent, which is rewarding to both the child and the caregiver. As this stage progress through about three months, infants begin to recognize the parent more and develop a sense of trust.
  • During the indiscriminate attachment phase, infants show a distinct preference for the primary caregivers as well as certain secondary caregivers in their lives.
  • During the discriminate attachment period, children form a strong attachment to one individual and will experience separation distress and anxiety when parted from that person.
  • Finally during the multiple attachment phase, children begin to develop strong attachments to people beyond the primary caregivers.

Contributions to Psychology

John Bowlby’s research on attachment and child development left a lasting impression on psychology, education, child care, and parenting. Researchers extended his research to develop clinical treatment techniques and prevention strategies. His work also influenced other eminent psychologists, including his colleague Mary Ainsworth, who also made significant contributions to attachment theory.

In a 2002 survey of psychologists published in the Review of General Psychology, Bowlby was ranked as the 49th most frequently cited psychologist of the 20th-century.

Selected Publications by John Bowlby:

Bowlby, J. (1946). Maternal Care and Mental Health. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child's tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 1-23.

Bowlby, J. (1968). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 2: Separation, Anxiety, and Anger. London: Penguin Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books.

References

Bowlby, J. (1958). The Nature of the Childs Tie to His Mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Bowlby J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Bretheron, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.Developmental Psychology, 28, 759-775.

Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, J.E., Jones, V.K., Yarbrough, G.L., Russell, T.M., Borecky, C.M., McGahhey, R....Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139.

Holmes, J. (1993). John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Lorenz, K. (1935). Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels. Der Artgenosse als auslösendes Moment sozialer Verhaltensweisen. Journal für Ornithologie, 83, 137–215, 289–413.

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