Bowlby Phobia

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In my post of August 25th, 2011, I announced a series of posts focused on Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In my opinion Carr actually “clean rooms” Bowlby’s theory. The series I announced is designed to take Carr’s clean room observations and frame them using Bowlbian attachment theory.

When I write my blog posts I often scan through the many books sitting on my bookshelf looking for a quote or passage that will support the point I have in mind. I started doing this as I thought about the second installment of my The Shallows series. As a result I came upon a short nine-page chapter in volume II of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment theory that really caught my eye. (No, unfortunately, it didn’t contain the quote I was looking for.) Chapter 20 is entitled Omission, Suppression, and Falsification of Family Context (which starts on page 313). This chapter is such a “showstopper” (in my opinion) that I thought it would be a good idea to write a brief chapter summary before continuing on with The Shallows series. Come to think of it, this summary may end up providing a bit of context for my future The Shallows posts. Here we go.

In essence chapter 20 is a summary or recap of the information Bowlby presents in the preceding two chapters: chapter 18—Anxious Attachment and the ‘Phobias’ of Childhood, and chapter 19—Anxious Attachment and ‘Agoraphobia’. Simply, Bowlby, in chapter 20, is trying to generalize his framing of phobias using his theory of attachment. Bowlby gets the ball rolling by posing two questions—two questions those of us using attachment as a theory of social change should ask. Let’s listen in.

Those who support the view advanced here, that school refusal, agoraphobia, and some forms of animal phobia are best understood in terms of anxious attachment arising from disturbed family interaction, have an obligation to answer two questions that their theory [of attachment] poses.

Question one runs something like this: How is it that a phobic person can be afraid of so many different situations—schools, crowds or animals—that have no apparent connection to attachment relationships with parents?

Question two runs like this and asks the converse: If indeed the root cause of the phobic reactions discussed can be traced back or connected to early attachment relationships with caregivers (such as mother and/or father), then why does this connection go largely unrecognized and overlooked in our culture while surrogate or “scapegoat” targets—schools, crowds or animals—are quickly recognized and sought?

Here’s a good example of how theory governs observation. It was Darwin—one of Bowlby’s intellectual mentors—who said that without theory there can be no observation. It would appear that a Bowlbian attachment theory framing of phobias has generated two interesting observations in the form of two thought-provoking questions. Bowlby simply states: “Answers to these questions are not difficult to sketch.” Let’s listen in as Bowlby draws us a picture on his sketch pad.

When an insecure individual, uncertain whether his attachment figures are going to be accessible and responsive, or even alive, is faced with a potentially fear-arousing situation [i.e., schools, animals or crowds], he is more likely to respond to it with fear, and also more likely to respond with intense fear, than is an individual who feels secure and confident in his attachment figures. Thus the increased propensity of an insecure individual to fear any and all of the myriad of potentially fear-arousing situations present in his life outside his family is readily explained. What then remains unexplained is why concern is so narrowly focused on his fear of those [surrogate or scapegoat] extra-familial situations while his fear of what may be happening to his attachment figures is overlooked.

During a film made in 1986 toward the end of Bowlby’s career (use the Contact Us button above for the reference), Bowlby tells his audience that a “real” fear-producing stimulus (such as a school, crowd or animal) is only one part of an overall fear system. In the film Bowlby asks, “Why should we be innately endowed with a desire to keep proximity to a figure that can provide us with security?” He answers his own question thus: “It’s nature’s way of getting us to take out an insurance policy against experiencing undo risk.” Bowlby continues, “The more risk, the greater the need for a companion, a buddy. Keep in mind that it’s not the danger itself, it’s the risk of danger and changes in our evaluations of (or beliefs concerning) risk that cause anxiety” (my emphasis).

Bowlbian attachment theory, then, with its systems theory foundation, provides us with this hugely important point concerning fear systems: It’s not the danger itself, it’s also the risk of danger that causes anxiety. This agrees with the idea of an open system where energy is openly exchanged with the environment. According to John Bowlby, when the attachment behavioral system is triggered we unconsciously ask questions like, “If the risk associated with real world danger increases beyond a certain point, will I be saved, rescued or cared for by my attachment figures?” Simply, we ask, “Does anyone I trust have my back?”

Feeling anxious is our first clue that the risk associated with danger has increased. The next feeling of anxiety we feel has to do with our fear that we will loose our attachment figure when we need him or her the most. Looked at another way, our fear of loosing our relationship with an attachment figure when we need him or her the most may amplify and exacerbate the fear associated with an increase in risk arising from our assessment of the “real world.” According to Bowlbian attachment theory, fear systems are comprised of assessments of objects or events in the real world, and assessments of “import” relationships in the relational world. Persons with insecure attachment tend to answer the “systems-oriented ‘import of aid’ or ‘got your back’ question” with a resounding “no outside aid will be forthcoming.” So, as Bowlby points out, there are myriad real world fear-producing stimuli, but they all trigger one overall attachment pattern that answers the systems import question. With respect to fear, we hope that attachment relationships will be important, that is to say, “import-potent.” Using Elaine Graham’s work as a background here, real world fear is defined locally and temporally; “systems import fear” (so-to-speak) is defined globally and atemporally.

So, why is it, then, that, culturally speaking, attention is readily given over to so-called real world forms of fear while at the same time the systems import forms (e.g., those governed by attachment relationships, patterns and models) remain largely behind prison walls? Bowlby states in chapter 20: “In Western cultures … there is a bias to give attention to that component in the [fear] situation that is most readily taken to spell real danger.” As trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk discusses in his work, it took a Herculean effort to get PTSD associated with war (post traumatic stress disorder) into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Why was the effort so difficult? Bessel lays the lion’s share of the blame at the feet of a culturally entrenched fear of malingering—a widespread cultural fear that once the real threat of war is over (i.e., bombs, bullets and such), soldiers will fabricate fake, imagined threats so that they can live off of the fat of the land. If you are interested in a modern history of culture’s fear of malingering, see the introductory chapter to the 1996 book (which Bessel co-edited) Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. Culture’s fear of malingers and deadbeats (a fear that cognitive linguist and political commentator George Lakoff suggests is largely a fear expressed by conservative cultural models) is one reason why real fear is valued whereas the “fear of fear” (e.g., “fake fear” as defined by conservative cultural models) is not. In chapter 20 Bowlby describes another reason why the fear of fear is devalued in our culture.

Bowlby writes, “Whenever [the fear problems of a child] can plausibly be ascribed to some extra-familial situation, the parents seize eagerly upon it.” He continues, “Unsympathetic teachers, bullying boy, barking dog, the risk of a traffic accident—each is caught at hopefully in order to explain [the child’s fear] condition. Thus are phobias born: and, because so often they provide a convenient family scapegoat, they grow to have a life of their own.” I would suggest this is why parents (and other child experts) have eagerly seized upon the ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) DSM diagnosis and accompanying treatment of choice: behavioral drugs. Bowlby often talks about “affectionless character.” I’d go so far as to call it ACD—Affectionless Character Disorder. But is this truly what’s going on? How about PCD—Parentless Character Disorder. And here I’m talking about lack along the entire parent spectrum, from real parent, to community parent, to political parent (a la Lakoff—see below), to corporate parent. As the parent spectrum continues to break down, those remaining remnants come under extreme pressure to take up the slack. For more on this theme see books like Robert Bly’s Sibling Society, Mary Eberstadt’s Home-alone America, or Henry Giroux’s Youth in a Suspect Society.

A few years back we made a grant to Dr. Stuart Twemlow in support of his work at the Menninger Clinic in the area of bullying. What Dr. Twemlow’s research suggests is quite fascinating. Apparently the environment—consisting of parents, teachers, principals, administartors, and other community leaders (e.g., the parent spectrum)—“selects” a bully to be its surrogate, a surrogate who will represent two things: 1) the environment’s own fear, and, 2) the environment’s fear over not being able to import aid into the overall fear system (effectively fear arising from import-impotency). The environment then lives vicariously through the bully. What Dr. Twemlow’s work points out is that we spend too much time looking at (and trying to treat) the bully and little to no time looking at what (and who) the bully represents—a collective import-impotency fear environment . This is at the heart of scapegoating, “otherizing” or otherwise externalizing fear.

So, why do children within the family and bullies within the culture so readily accept their position as a surrogate? “No child,” writes Bowlby in chapter 20, “cares to admit that his parent is gravely at fault.” George Lakoff in his work suggests that a government or a corporation can take on the role of parent to adult children (citizens). In such situations Lakoff maintains that Bowlby’s theory still holds. (See Lakoff’s 1996 book Moral Politics for more). Bowlby continues at length:

To recognize frankly that a mother is exploiting you for her own ends, or that a father is unjust and tyrannical, or that neither parent ever wanted you, is intensely painful. Moreover it is very frightening. Given any loophole, therfore, most children will seek to see their parents’ behaviour in some more favorable light. This natural bias of children is easy to exploit.

“During the course of development,” writes Bowlby in chapter 20, “a child constructs for himself working models of his attachment figures and of himself in relation to them.” He continues, “The data used for model construction are derived from multiple sources: from his day-to-day experiences, from statements made to him by his parents, and from information coming from others. Usually the data reaching him from these diverse sources are reasonably compatible [e.g., coherent].” A bit further along we hear Bowlby reveal, “For a minority of children … the data reaching them from different sources may be regularly and persistently incompatible.” On a very simple level, the AAI or Adult Attachment Interview is designed to assess whether cognitive models were formed from coherent incoming data, or from data that is conflictual in nature. In cases of conflicting data, Bowlby outlines four possible outcomes:

  1. the child adheres to his own viewpoint, even at the risk of breaking with his parent(s)
  2. complete compliance with the parent’s version at the cost of disavowing his own
  3. an uneasy compromise whereby a child tries to give credence to both viewpoints and oscillates uneasily between them
  4. the child desperately attempts to integrate the two pictures, an attempt that, because they are inherently incompatible, is doomed to failure and may lead to cognitive breakdown

“Pervading the scene,” writes Bowlby, “is the time-honoured commandment ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’.” Bowlby finishes up with a discussion of why adult or parental cognitive models—whether coherent or chaotic—are believed over and above the models of children. One big reason is the above commandment. Another is a “dominant bias in psychoanalysis and psychiatry … to give credence to a parent’s constructions and to throw doubt on a child’s” (quoting Bowlby). Bowlby gives us this “bottom line”: “Discrepencies are attributed with great readiness to the distorting effects of a child’s feelings and phantasies, and only reluctantly to the distorting effects of those of the parent.”

So, to wrap up, here are a few bullet points:

  • A behavioristic worldview only recognizes so-called “real” fear-producing stimuli and S-R (stimulus and response) chains.
  • An attachment perspective framed by naturalistic systems theory recognizes that there are real fear-producing events, and that there may be a fear of fear as well (e.g., a fear over whether attachment figures can be accurately perceived to be trustworthy and reliable). The fear of fear is centrally about whether aid or care from attachment figures can, when the situation calls for it, be imported into the overall fear system.
  • An overall fear system stays coherent and regulated when the various sources of information that go into making up a cognitive model are mostly coherent.
  • When information is incoherent or chaotic, this can lead to an incoherent cognitive model, which, in turn, makes for a chaotic and dysregulated fear system.
  • A semblance of order can be brought to a chaotic or otherwise dysregulated fear system by such self-defeating strategies as (and I’m in part pulling from Peter Marris’ and Ernest Keen’s respective work here) …
    • … strictly adhering to cultural commandments like “fear all malingering” or “honor thy mother and father.”
    • … a widespread use of behavioral drugs that have the effect of reducing fear systems to simple S-R chains.
    • … a widespread use of behavioral therapy that, again, has the effect of reducing fear systems to simple S-R chains.
    • … devaluing connectionist theories—like Bowlbian attachment theory—and valuing non-connectionist theories like behaviorism, mechanism or even psychopharmacology.
    • … engaging in scapegoating, whether within the family, the community, or the nation.
    • … engaging in the myriad forms of addiction—drugs, sex, food, consumerism, gambling, etc.
    • … spending an inordinate amount of time in chaotic and fragmentary environments (such as the Internet, foreshadowing Carr’s work) such that these environments become normalized.

Let me end with the final paragraph from chapter 20 of Bowlby’s second volume on attachment theory:

The position adopted here is that, while parents are held to play a major role in causing a child to develop a heightened susceptibility to fear, their behaviour is seen not in terms of moral condemnation but as having been determined by the experiences they themselves had as children. Once that perspective is attained and rigorously adhered to, parental behaviour that has the gravest consequences for children can be understood and treated without moral censure. That way lies hope of breaking the generational succession.