Attachment and Resilience: The Politics of Nature or Nuture

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A colleague just sent over materials that contain the following quote by Nancy Davis:

In the popular press and in many programs, “resilience” is frequently used as if it were a character trait, as in “John is very resilient.” However, using the term this way has had an unintended but serious negative consequence in that it has paved the way for perceptions that some individuals will “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” no matter what their circumstances, while others simply do not “have what it takes” to overcome adversity. Such perceptions let policy makers off the hook by allowing them to believe that their actions do not matter when it comes to programs and policies that support healthy human development.

According to the materials my colleague sent to me the above quote is from The Promotion of Mental Health and the Prevention of Mental and Behavioral Disorders: Surely the Time Is Right by Nancy J. Davis, Ed.D. Without knowing it, my colleague has just stepped into a hornet’s nest, a political hornet’s nest at that. Allow me to explain.

As talked about at length in Dan Siegel’s 1999 book The Developing Mind, resilience can be looked at from a “trait model” perspective or from an attachment theory perspective (and I’m sure other frames could be used but we’ll stick with these two for now). Suffice it to say that people who believe in trait or temperament models take a dim view of attachment theory. Trait types believe that either you are born with a particular trait (like resilience) or you are not. Trait types (whether they know it or not) believe in genetic determinism. They believe in nature over nurture. However, trait types do believe that if one is not born with a particular trait (such as resilience, or patience, or calmness) one can overcome this deficiency with hard work. Because traits are seen as resulting from nature (and not nurture), an individual is left to overcome (with the help of others of course) his or her own deficit. Most anger management programs are designed this way and espouse a YOYO or “you’re own your own” view of the world. YOYO models are often associated with conservative thinking and conservative models. A “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude is part and parcel of any good YOYO model. For more on this theme, see George Lakoff’s 1996 book Moral Politics. Lakoff is a cognitive scientist turned political commentator.

In contrast (as Siegel points out in The Developing Mind), attachment researchers have discovered that attachment patterns can (and often do) cut across trait or temperament patterns. In technical lingo, attachment patterns are orthogonal (e.g., are at right angles) to trait or temperament patterns. OK, what does this mean exactly? A point that attachment types do not hammer in the popular press is simply this: if the attachment behavioral system is not triggered, then attachment patterns will not be expressed. This is not to say that attachment isn’t functioning, it still is. If no one is breaking into my house then my security system remains quite and in the background. Although quiet, the security system is still monitoring my house for signs of intrusion. The attachment behavioral system works in a similar way. So, sure, a person could have a calm or forceful or even agitated character trait, but these traits say very little (if anything at all) about attachment functioning or attachment patterns. Simply put, calm people can be securely attached, insecurely attached, or even attached by disorganization. Now, there’s another twist here.

Looked at from an attachment perspective, kids (and adults) will often use resilience or self-sufficiency as a psychological defense. How do you protect against being too close to people? Simple, be self-sufficient. And this idea that resilience can be used as a psychological defense actually fits with conservative YOYO models. And, yes, Lakoff points to research that suggests that conservatives tend to be insecurely attached. The mere fact that “temperamental-ists” or “trait-ists” distance themselves from nurture models like attachment (Nuturant Parent models Lakoff calls them) is itself a form of distancing attachment. So, when Davis observes that “perceptions [based on trait or temperament models] let policy makers off the hook by allowing them to believe that their actions do not matter when it comes to programs and policies that support healthy human development,” such an observation only makes sense when viewed through a YOYO or conservative lens. So, you cannot just say “policy makers,” you have to specify which type of policy makers you are talking about: conservative versus liberal, Strict versus Nurturant (to use Lakoff’s frames). You can’t use a phrase like “healthy human development” because this phrase will take on different meaning depending on the political model that you use. Bowlby wrote the following in 1973 (from vol. II of his trilogy—sorry, I am jumping around a bit):

Ignorance of the natural history of attachment behavior, coupled with a misguided enthusiasm that small children should quickly become independent and “mature,” has resulted in practices [and programs I would argue] that expose children … to a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and distress.”

In my view, conservatives would read the above quote by Bowlby and simply say, “And the problem would be what exactly?” All this to say that you really cannot talk about attachment without also bringing in politics and political models (which is exactly what Lakoff does in Moral Politics). If you’d like to know a little bit more about the politics behind Bowlby’s theory, I’d recommend the following article by Ben Mayhew: Between Love and Aggression: The Politics of John Bowlby. This article appeared back in 2006 in the journal History of the Human Sciences (vol. 19 no. 4).

To wrap up, allow me to give you a real world example. Over at I found an article by Rachael Rettner entitled Divorce Not Always Bad for Kids. Citing work by Constance Gager, it’s this comment by Rettner that caught my attention:

There is research to show in the short-term, kids go through a one- to two-year crisis period when their parents divorce, but they are resilient [my emphasis], and they come back from that divorce.

The article never mentions attachment patterns or attachment functioning. So, what’s to say that what the researchers are looking at is a “coming back” that takes the form of resilience born out of psychological defense as mentioned above. In other words, these kids may come back with some pattern of insecure attachment, which often expresses itself as a desire to please, to be perfect, to be, well, resilient. As talked about at length in Gerald Midgley’s 2000 book entitled Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice, research (and the practices guided by research results) is held by and expresses a particular world view or ideology. Suffice it to say that resilience research will also be held by and express a particular world view or ideology. In my experience, if resilience research does not take into account attachment patterns and functioning, I begin looking for conservative views and ideologies. As Mideley points out, techniques are held by methodologies which in turn are held by world views and ideologies. Where you find techniques and methodologies, you will find some form of politics. I wrote a summary of Midgley’s book. Use the CONTACT US link above if you’d like to request a copy. If you know of any good articles or books on the politics of attachment, please leave a comment and let us know.