Affectional Bonds—Bowlby on Inner Working Models and Expectation Fields (continued)

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This is part IV of my multi-part review of John Bowlby’s 1979 book The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. Here’s a brief recap of the central topics covered thus far:

  1. Sir Richard Bowlby’s introduction, which was added in 2005
  2. Feminist criticism of attachment theory and Bowlby’s take on women entering the workforce
  3. Bowlby’s idea of Inner Working Models

In part IV we’ll look at Bowlby’s idea that Inner Working Models could be viewed as expectation fields. Before we move on, I’d like to say a word or two more about Inner Working Models.

In part III, I tried to leave things on a positive note. However, Bowlby makes a point that is common knowledge among cognitive scientists who study cognitive models: once cognitive models are set up, they are very hard to change or modify. Why is this important? Well, if we believe Bowlby when he tells us that life experiences, especially those that activate the attachment behavioral system, lead to the development of Inner Working Models, then it follows that clinical efforts should be directed toward changing or modifying those same Inner Working Models. Bowlby states:

How far therapy can and should be taken with any one family or patient is a complex difficult question. The main point perhaps is that a restructuring of a person’s representational models and his re-evaluation of some aspects of human relationships, with a corresponding change in his modes of treating people, are likely to be both slow and patchy.

At best therapeutically changing, updating or otherwise modifying Inner Working Models will likely be a “slow and patchy” affair. What about the worst case scenario? Here’s Bowlby’s take:

There are many … cases …, especially in patients who have developed a highly organized false self [a concept Bowlby borrows from Donald Winnicott’s work] and become compulsively self-reliant or given to the caretaking of others, in which a much longer period of treatment may be necessary before change of any kind is seen.

Pulling from the work of cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff, changing an entrenched cognitive model would be like changing a staunch conservative into a bleeding heart liberal. Probably not going to happen. And, yes, the political models that we use to navigate the political terrain are themselves mental models. Lakoff tells us that we use cognitive models based on two different family structures to navigate the political landscape: the Nurturant Parent cognitive model for liberals, and the Strict Father cognitive model for conservatives. Lakoff goes so far as to suggest that liberals use a cognitive model based on enmeshed attachment—a hyper focus on providing care to everyone—while conservatives use a cognitive model based on distanced attachment—a hyper focus on self-reliance and self-determination.

Again, once cognitive models are set up, they are very hard to change. Interestingly, mourning is one of those “two layer” experiences (see part III) that provides us with an opportunity to update cognitive models. For more on this topic, see the 2003 article by Hans Welling entitled An Evolutionary Function of the Depressive Reaction: The Cognitive Map Hypothesis (New Ideas in Psychology, vol 21, issue 2, p. 147–156). Sadly, our society tends to “poo poo” the mourning process. As an example, the current version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–V) in effect pathologizes the normal mourning process. For more on this topic, see the article by Kenneth J. Doka entitled Grief and the DSM: A Brief Q&A.

Let’s turn back to the topic of expectation fields. As Lakoff tells us, our Inner Working Political Models tell us what to expect of our political leaders. Conservatives expect their leaders to act as if they are Strict Fathers. And “Strict Father” is a gender neutral frame in that both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thathcher were conservative Strict Fathers. Liberals expect their leaders to act as if they are Nurturant Parents. Probably one of the best ways to get a sense for expectation fields would be to read Lakoff’s 1996 book entitled Moral Politics—How Liberals and Conservatives Think. But Bowlby has a lot to say about expectation fields in Affectional Bonds. Consider this statement by Bowlby as he talks about studies conducted in the 1950s with children living in residential nurseries:

These studies seem to make it clear that in those circumstances [e.g., residential nurseries] very young children grieve overtly for a missing mother for at least some weeks, crying for her or indicating in other ways that they are still yearning for her and expecting [my emphasis] her return.

Suffice it to say that expectation is built into the attachment behavioral system. When a young child (or young animal) is separated from his or her (or its) mother, immediately an expectation is created: that the mother will return. I guess you could say that activation of the attachment behavioral system is synonymous with activation of an expectation field. Because expectation is so much about the future, it is no wonder that there is the following continuum: (1)

secure attachment <==> ability to delay gratification <==> ability to access the Executive Functions

This is probably a good place to bring in an excerpt from my February 3rd, 2015, post entitled Of Marshmallows, Brain Plasticity and Attachment (part IV). In this earlier post I profiled the work of Walter Mischel. Mischel developed the Marshmallow Test, a test used to assess “the ability to delay gratification” in kids age five or six.

– – o O Begin Excerpt O o – –

Allow me to end up by sharing Mischel’s thoughts on how “father absence” can set up expectations within family structures that do not favor the future. Back in the late 1950s Mischel was working on his graduate studies. He was working with African families living in Trinidad. Apparently these families experienced high levels of father absence. As Mischel puts it, “There’s no good reason for anyone to forgo the ‘now’ unless there is trust that the ‘later’ will materialize.” In many ways attachment patterns could be framed as expectation patterns. Securely attached kids expect that certain things—like a parent being there—will happen. They have reason to forgo the now in favor of the later. “Beginning in early childhood,” writes Mischel, “far too many people live in untrustworthy, unreliable worlds in which promises for delayed larger rewards are made but never kept.” Mischel continues, “Given this [attachment] history, it makes little sense to wait rather than grab whatever is at hand.” Hopefully the reader can surmise how divorce could disrupt if not decimate expectation patterns within a family system.

– – o O End Excerpt O o – –

What I think both Bowlby and Mischel point to is a simple concept: if a child’s expectation fields are traumatized in some way—prolonged absences of the child’s primary caregiver, death of a child’s primary caregiver, divorce, substance abuse on the part of caregivers, violence in the family, extensive use of daycare, etc.—the child may come to devalue the future (and delaying gratification) in specific and Executive Functioning in general, with its focus on such things as planning, appropriately focusing attention, appropriately shifting attention, perspective taking, and empathy. Once again Mischel tells us, “There’s no good reason for anyone to forgo the ‘now’ unless there is trust that the ‘later’ will materialize.” When we devalue the future, we “grab whatever is at hand” (quoting Mischel): food, substances, consumer products, sex, etc.

Bowlby takes great pains to translate between psychodynamics and attachment theory. The topic of expectations is a particular bone of contention. According to attachment theory, it is natural for children and adults to expect that an attachment figure will return after a separation. However, in psychodynamic theory such expectations are often referred to as “regression” or “infantile dependence.” “Not only do we believe such theorizing to be mistaken on scientific grounds,” admonishes Bowlby, “but it plainly represents an attitude which, if carried over to clinical work, can only reinforce the tendencies of a bereaved person to feel guilty and ashamed of the very feelings and behaviour we believe it will help him most to express.” Bowlby provides the same criticism of such psychodynamic concepts as “magical thinking” and “fantasy.” (2) Speaking of how psychodynamic theory tends to denigrate expectation fields, Bowlby states: “A fantasy is by definition something wholly unrealistic; so that to refer to a child’s hopes and expectations [my emphasis] of her dead mother’s return as a ‘wishful fantasy’ is, in our eyes, to do them less than justice.” Bowlby gives us this “bottom line” with respect to the psychodynamic framing of expectation fields: “[A]ny strong desire for the presence of an attachment figure comes to be regarded [in psychodynamic theory] as an expression of an ‘infantile need’, part of a ‘baby’ self that should have been left behind.”

Bowlby performs these types of translations throughout his book (a topic I will take up in my next and final installment). As mentioned in part III, Bowlby challenges us to replace the psychodynamic concept of “internal objects” with the attachment theory concept of “working models of the world.” Bowlby calls the concept of internal objects “ambiguous.” “In its place can be put the concept, derived from cognitive psychology and control theory,“ writes Bowlby, “of an individual developing within himself one or more working models representing principal features of the world about himself as an agent in it.” Bowlby once again invokes concepts drawn from Executive Function theory when he tells us, “Such working models determine his expectations and forecasts and provide him with the [EF] tools for constructing plans of action.”

I hope the above gives the reader some idea of how Bowlby views Inner Working Models as expectation fields. Again, cognitive models, expectations, and forecasts are all parts of Executive Functioning. For a good book on EF, see Russell Barkley’s 2012 book entitled Executive Functions—What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved.


(1) – This continuum is covered in more detail in my February 3rd, 2015, post entitled Of Marshmallows, Brain Plasticity and Attachment (part IV).

(2) – Back in the 1990s, I worked with troubled adolescents at a Behavioral Health Residential Treatment Center as a psychotherapist. Given that it was a behavioral health facility, all therapists were required to use behavioral techniques such as CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. I hate to say it but like psychodynamically oriented therapists, behaviorally oriented therapists take a dim view of such things as “magical thinking” and “fantasy.” We were told to frame such things as magical thinking and fantasy as “stinking thinking.” Well, after I had left that facility (and started studying attachment theory in earnest) I came around to the view that those kids I had worked with were probably trying to express their feelings around early experiences of insecure attachment and trampled expectation fields. I still find it troubling that certain schools of thought, like psychodynamics and behaviorism, denigrate children’s (and adult’s) attempts to grapple with early experiences of insecure attachment and even dashed hopes and expectations that primary caregivers would be reliable, dependable, and trustworthy. In the US, behaviorism still rules. Sadly, so too the bias against an innate motivational system like attachment.