Does Chronic Internet Use Mimic Insecure Attachment? Bowlby’s Theory Gives Us a Possible Answer (Part I)

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By now most of us have seen the headlines:

Is the “Me Generation” less empathetic?

Study links Facebook to narcissism

Kids who use Facebook do worse in school

Maybe we have read books like:

David Anderegg’s 2007 book Nerds—Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them (New York: Penguin).

Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books).

Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 book The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (New York: Tracher Putnam).

How do we go about making sense of what these (and many more) headlines and books are trying to tell us? How do we make sense of the following trends:

  • autistic, “nerd,” “database” or mechanical worldviews are on the rise, while at the same time holistic, systems-oriented or biological worldviews are on the decline
  • we’re increasingly moving away  from knowledge and wisdom, and toward information and utility
  • empathy seems to be declining as narcissism ramps up
  • secure attachment seems to be on the wan
  • we seem to be eschewing face-to-face relationships in favor of digital ones
  • we’re increasingly taking up residence in virtual worlds and allowing real ones to decay
  • “back work” is giving way to “mind work” (which has lead to widespread unemployment)

In this multi-part blog post, I’d like to look at a wildly fascinating book that I just finished reading:

Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.).

I’d like to blog about Carr’s book because I think it provides copious amounts of understanding and insight as far as allowing us to make sense of and understand the trends the above headlines and books point to. What amazed me about Carr’s book is how he pulled from such diverse areas as neurobiology, sociology, information processing, control theory, psychology, conceptual revolutions, cybernetics, algorithms, systems theory, cognitive science, mental models or schemas, and feedback loops. Does the above list seem familiar to you? It was familiar to me. These are, for the most part, the same areas that John Bowlby pulled from as he formulated his theory of attachment.

As an example, take a look at the 1971 book edited by Tanner and Inhelder entitled Discussions on Child Development (London: Tavistock Publications). This book contains the transcripts for all of the meetings of the World Health Organization Study Group on the Psychobiological Development of the Child (which took place in Geneva, 1953–1956). Here’s a partial list of the many “movers and shakers” who were a part of these study groups:

  • Dr. John Bowlby—Psychoanalysis
  • Dr. Konrad Lorenz—Ethology
  • Dr. Margaret Mead—Cultural Anthropology
  • Professor Jean Piaget—Psychology (and big on mental models)
  • Dr. J.M. Tanner—Human Biology
  • Dr. W. Grey Walter—Electrophysiology (and of “robot turtle” fame)
  • Bärbel Inhelder—Psychology
  • Professor Erik Erikson—Psychoanalysis (and of “trust versus mistrust” fame)
  • Dr. Julian S. Huxley—Biology
  • Dr. L. von Bertalanffy—General Biology (and the father of systems theory)

Recognize any of these names? Piaget’s name should pop out at you. So too Margaret Mead’s name. Bowlby was truly in the company of some of the greatest minds of that time (the mid-1950s). What ties all of these thinkers together is their interest and participation in the systems theory revolution taking place during that timeframe. As Inge Bretherton points out in her 1992 article entitled The Origins of Attachment Theory, Bowlby pulled from such areas as ethology, cybernetics, information processing, developmental psychology, and psychoanalysis. Bretherton further points out that Bowlby was also interested “in the intergenerational transmission of attachment relations” (quoting Bretherton here). Bowlby theorized that cultural transmission was in large part facilitated by what he called Inner Working Models or IWMs. “With the aid of working models,” Bretherton writes, “children predict the attachment figure’s likely behavior and plan [e.g., map out] their own responses.” Bretherton gives us this “bottom line”: “What type of [cognitive] model they construct is therefore of great consequence.” Suffice it to say that Bowlby was very interested in the interplay between attachment behavior and the development of mental models or schemas. I would go so far as to suggest that Bowlby was influenced by the father of cognitive models, Edward Tolman.

What I’d like to propose here is that Carr (in all likelihood unwittingly) in researching, synthesizing and presenting the information contained in The Shallows, has, in effect, “clean-roomed” Bowlby’s work during the 1950s. What’s clean rooming? Consider this quote from the Wikipedia entry “clean room design”: “The term implies that the design team works in an environment that is ‘clean’, or demonstrably uncontaminated by any knowledge of the proprietary techniques used by the competitor.” In Carr’s case he clean roomed Bowlby by virtue of the fact that nowhere in his book does he mention Bowlby or Bowlbian attachment theory. But the amazing thing is Carr gets to many of the same places Bowlby does. In essence, you have two investigators (separated by time of course) working independently who arrive at many of the same conclusions. Investigators love independent research projects that produce similar results because this type of validation and verification makes the data—on both sides—very robust. I hate to say it but Carr has given Bowlby a big shot in the arm by writing The Shallows. Hopefully in these posts I can point out where Carr gets a huge boost from not only Bowlby’s research but his theory of attachment. The big difference between Bowlby and Carr stems from the fact that Bowlby was able to pull all the information he was looking at (mainly in the mid-1950s) together in the form of an overarching theory. In fairness to Carr, I don’t get the impression he was after an overarching theory to explain “the shallows” he was looking at. I would suggest, however, that he has one in the form of Bowlbian attachment theory. A quick digression on theory.

As most of you know, the FHL Foundation uses John Bowlby’s theory of attachment as a theory of social change. During my discussions with colleagues who know much more about theory than I do, what they tell me is that for a theory to stand the test of time, it must do two things (and do them fairly well):

1. provide a framework from which understanding can spring
2. produce understanding in such a way that it allows us to make certain predictions about the future

My colleagues usually make an additional observation: a theory earns the label “practical” if it can do one more thing:

3. allow us to develop interventions—based on our understanding and predictions—that have the potential to change our current course so that we can bring about a new future, one deemed “beneficial” (which, I know, is a relative term—beneficial to whom exactly).

If a theory can be investigated through such processes as quantification, operationalization, and statistical analysis, then, generally, it’s called a scientific theory. As an example, General System Theory (GST) doesn’t play well in certain areas of quantification, operationalization, and statistical analysis. As a result, there’s continuing debate over whether GST truly is a scientific theory. However, there’s little argument over whether GST provides understanding, allows us to make predictions, and has practical implications (as the reams of studies on operational research and systems engineering will attest). As another example, Freudian psychology also doesn’t doesn’t play well in many areas of quantification, operationalization, and statistical analysis. It may not be a good scientific theory, but it’s a good theory nonetheless. In truth, one of Bowlby’s big motivations came from his desire to move Freudian psychology over into the realm of scientific theory. Today, brain studies are showing us that Freud, in many ways, was right (i.e., see the April/May 2006 issue of Scientific American MIND, which contains a special section Freud at 150). Even the folk theory of the so-called “evil eye” can be scientifically framed using attachment theory. Back to Carr.

Now, in the spirit of fairness (and disclosure), Carr does mention work by neurobiologists Dan Siegel, Antonio Damasio, and Joseph LeDoux (among others). Dan Siegel is a big name in the Bowlbian attachment world, and both Damasio and LeDoux have said a great deal about the functioning of attachment in their respective work. So Carr gets really close to that “Bowlbian vibe” but never really leaves the clean room so-to-speak. Does Carr know about Bowlby’s work? I can’t say. If he does, again, nowhere do I pick up on that knowledge from reading his book. I hate to say it but, ironically, Carr in many respects (from his clean room perspective) says more about true Bowlbian attachment in The Shallows than do many present-day attachment researchers. This is a theme I’ll look at in some detail.

Sidebar—OK, I’m jumping the gun here but I just found a great quote by Gary Allen that I’d like to share with you. Allen is writing in a 1999 edited volume entitled “Wayfinding Behavior—Cognitive Mapping and Other Spatial Processes” (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press) when he tells us that the study of wayfinding in animals and humans affords “the opportunity for a truly comparative psychology” because it “includes a range of cognitive and behavioral phenomena diverse in their complexity” (quoting Allen here). According to Allen, this diverse complexity naturally invites the “collaborative efforts of psychologists, geographers, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and linguists.” Cool list eh? That’s effectively the list that Bowlby used. It’s the one Carr uses. Sadly, most present-day attachment researchers are not using this list in large part because such collaborative efforts are an academic luxury that can no longer be afforded. Simply put, attachment patterns are about finding one’s way in environments that contain and mix elements that have both Euclidian and emotional extensions. The study of attachment behavior has to be interdisciplinary in nature.

Back in 1973 Kenneth Boulding—a big name in the development of general system theory—commented that books that take on an interdisciplinary perspective “are an oasis.” Boulding continues by lamenting, “But one longs for a time when the oasis will expand and emerge in an uninterrupted fertile and traversable republic of the mind.” Because of its interdisciplinary nature Carr’s book is definitely an oasis, but, I hate to report, the desertification of the interdisciplinary landscape continues unabated.

In the next part of this blog series we’ll start looking at Carr’s The Shallows. Along the way I hope to frame many of Carr’s observations and insights using Bowlbian attachment theory. But the flow is not one-way: Carr provides information that I think sheds new exciting (but also scary) light on Bowlbian attachment theory. As they say, stay tuned.