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The Development of Attachments

Attachment is a strong emotional tie that develops over time between an infant and their
primary caregiver(s) – the person(s) to whom they are most strongly attached. It is a
reciprocal tie because each partner is attached to the other. Maurer and Maurer (1989)
suggested that attachments “are welded in the heat of interactions”. In other words,
attachments depend on interaction between two people rather than simply being

Maccoby (1980) identified four characteristic effects of this tie:

• Seeking proximity, especially at times of stress

• Distress on separation
• Pleasure when reunited
• General orientation of behaviour toward the primary caregiver

Schaffer and Emerson (1964) conducted a classic study of the development of

attachments in order to investigate the way infant behaviours change over time.
Specifically, Schaffer and Emerson wanted to find out how old infants were when they
first became attached, who they became attached to and how strong these attachments

Schaffer and Emerson also wanted to search any individual differences between infants in
their attachment behaviours. They studied 60 infants from a mainly working-class area of
Glasgow. The infants were observed every four weeks until they were 1 year old and
then again at 18 months. At the start of the investigation, the youngest participant was 5
weeks and the oldest 23 weeks.

Observations were conducted in the children’s homes. Schaffer and Emerson used two
measures to determine the strength of attachment. One was separation anxiety – the
distress shown by the infant when separated from their main caregiver. This is regarded
as a sign of attachment because infants only show such distress when separated from
certain people. Shaffer and Emerson asked the mothers about situations where separation
protest was shown, and to whom these protests were directed. This meant that they could
rate the strength of attachment at each monthly visit. They asked the mothers to consider
seven everyday situations, i.e. where the infant was:

1) Left alone in a room

2) Left with other people
3) Left in their pram outside the house
4) Left in their pram outside the shops
5) Left in their cot at night
6) Put down after being held by an adult
7) Passed by while sitting in a cot or chair

The second measure of attachment was stranger anxiety. Very young infants show no
anxiety when they are left with a stranger but, at a certain age, this stranger anxiety starts.
Schaffer and Emerson regarded this as another sign of the onset of attachment. Schaffer
and Emerson measured stranger anxiety by approaching the infant at the start of every
visit and noting at which point the infant started to whimper, thus displaying anxiety
Schaffer and Emerson’s findings were as follows.
• Age of first attachment – Half of the children showed their first specific
attachment (i.e. displayed separation anxiety with respect to one primary
caregiver) between 6 and 8 months. Fear of strangers occurred about a month
later in all children

• Attachment figures – Soon after one main attachment was formed, the infants also
became attached to other people. By 18 months very few (13%) were attached to
one person. One third had 5 or more attachments, such as their father,
grandparents or older sibling. In 65% of the children, the first specific attachment
was to the mother. In a further 30% the mother was the first joint object of
attachment. Fathers were rarely the first sole object of attachment (3%), but 27%
were the joint first object.

• Strength of attachment – This peaked in the first month after attachment

behaviour first appeared. However, there were large individual differences.
Schaffer and Emerson observed that intensely attached infants had mothers who
responded quickly to their demands (high responsiveness) and offered the child
the most interaction. Infants who were weakly attached had mothers who failed
to interact.

• Time spent with infant – In 39% of the cases, the person who usually fed, bathed
and changed the child was not the child’s primary attachment object. In other
words, many of the mothers were not the individuals who performed these tasks,
yet the mother did tend to be the main attachment object.

The three main conclusions are these:

• Specific attachments appear to be formed first around the age of 7 months
• Multiple attachments develop soon afterwards
• Attachments seemed to be formed to individuals who were prepared to play, be
responsive and interact socially with the child, rather than simply with those who
were most often present.

The Sequence of Development

Schaffer and Emerson’s account indicates a sequence of development: Infants display

separation anxiety first with respect to one primary caregiver, and soon afterwards they
show stranger anxiety from other caregivers.

Stranger anxiety appears to be a developmental stage. Such stage accounts are common
in developmental psychology as a means of outlining the typical ages when infants and
children achieve certain milestones – physical or psychological. Sometimes the word
“phases” is used instead to suggest that there are no clear distinctions between one stage
and another.

John Bowlby (1969) proposed a four-phase framework for viewing the changes that take
place in attachment behaviour over time. (See Table 2.1)