QUICK LOOK—Two Volumes In to Bowlby’s Trilogy on Attachment

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I recently finished rereading volumes one and two of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment. I’m rereading Bowlby’s trilogy in preparation for writing my proposed book A Question of Attachment (plans of which I have blogged about in earlier posts). I thought I’d offer up a few quick impressions, mainly comparing my first read to my recent reread.

If I had to sum up volumes one and two in one word, it would be “detailed.” Bowlby offers up copious amounts of detail in support of his theory of attachment. Bowlby defends his detail-oriented approach by stating toward the end of volume two: “It is only because each proposition [concerning his theory] is, or at least has been, so controversial that it seemed necessary to display the evidence on which they rest in so much detail.” I’m not aware of one but it would seem that a book that condenses this detail would be welcomed. My plan for A Question of Attachment is to give you more of a birds eye view.

In a post I wrote for LinkedIn, I suggested that Bowlby’s trilogy was easy to read and understand by a lay person who has an interest in subjects such as psychology, ethology, and evolution. I caught a bit of flak for that assessment. As a result of my reread so far, I do have to make a few qualifications. Yes, there is a lot of detail that you have to wade through. However, Bowlby goes to great lengths to help the reader along through liberal use of analogies. As one example, while explaining his take on psychological development as occurring along multiple paths, Bowlby uses the analogy of a railroad system. To explain the idea of feedback within a system, Bowlby uses the model of a home thermostat.

Now, I noticed an interesting pattern. When the analogies drop off, it’s as if Bowlby sends the children out to play while he reads the riot act to the adults in the room. I’m am here thinking of the section where Bowlby talks about Freud’s embrace of what is known as Lamarckian evolution. [1] One of the hallmarks of Lamarchian evolution are attempts to link function with purpose. As a quick example, a giraffe has a long neck (function) because it wants to reach leaves high up (purpose). Bowlby spends considerable time cautioning against linking function and purpose. These arguments are conspicuously devoid of any use of analogy and seem to be intended for a sophisticated audience. So, yes, ease of reading does wax and wane. I still maintain that the average person could wade their way through and come away with more than just a gist.

In my only book to date—Bowlby’s Battle for Round Earth—I argue that Bowlby waged battles on many different fronts. My reread thus far brings these various battles into finer focus. Simply, Bowlby had to present copious detail because he was battling on many different salients. In his forward to volume three, infant researcher Daniel Stern writes, “In short, attachment theory has had an uphill fight against existing psychoanalytic theories, and a downhill ride filling in gaps in most other clinical psychologies.” Even though I still feel that Bowlby battled against John Watson’s behaviorism, my reread shows me that, under the correct circumstances, Bowlby was charitable by giving behaviorism its due. As a general observation, I was able to pick up on more of the charity that Bowlby showed other theories of psychology. Bowlby went out of his way to reframe concepts contained within other theories using the frames of attachment theory that he was promulgating. As an example, Bowlby would reframe the psychoanalytic concept of “introjecting a bad object” (which was one of Melanie Klein’s favorites) in terms of cognitive maps or models. This leads me to my next observation.

During my first read of volumes one and two, I did pick up on Bowlby’s use of cognitive maps and models but I did not clock that these topics form a pivot point. My reread of volumes one and two revealed to me higher levels of information on cognitive maps, so much so that it is now clear that cognitive maps and models are of central importance. Sadly, most attachment researchers have not spent much time (if any) investigating cognitive maps and models. I find this to be a central failing of post-Bowlbian research efforts. The literature is full of research on such topics as cognitive maps and spatial cognition. More specifically, cognitive maps and models are a central focus of work by neurobiologist Antonio Damasio. [2] I also noted that Bowlby talks about the possibility that a person may harbor multiple cognitive models, say, one for mother and one for father. I was taught by post-Bowlbians that there is only one Inner Working Model. Just an interesting divergence. Again, this central topic of Bowlby’s work—cognitive maps—seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Allow me to end with one last observation, one I found quite interesting. When I first read volumes one and two, I knew very little about the topic of Executive Function. Today I argue that an early history of safe and secure attachment pours the foundation upon which rests robust EF skills. To review, EF skills include such things as planning, delaying gratification, mental time travel (e.g., being able to easily move between past, present, and future), appropriately focusing attention, and acting empathetically. Well, volume two contains an interesting discussion of a group of studies concerned with the connection between early family environment and later development of such things as leadership qualities and moral character. Well, when you look at the dimensions that the researchers used to assess for leadership qualities and moral character, they are largely dimensions of EF development like delaying gratification, acting empathetically, focusing attention, etc. Bowlby writes the following in a note: “[F]indings strongly support the earlier conclusion that infants whose mothers are sensitive and responsive to them are those who later turn cheerfully to exploration and play. Their willingness to cooperate, their capacity to concentrate, and their good scores on developmental tests at twenty one months bode well for their futures.”

The above agrees with the information that Walter Mischel presents in his 2014 book entitled The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. I have blogged about the Marshmallow Test many times before. The Marshmallow Test assesses for the ability to delay gratification (one of the EF skills) in five and six-year-old children. Mischel’s 40 plus years of research shows that those children who do well on the Marshmallow Test go on to be successful in areas such as social; family and marriage; and professional relationships; educational attainment; and even retirement planning. Simply, doing well on the Marshmallow Test “bodes well for their futures” (quoting Bowlby).

That’s it for now. I’ll check back in after I finish rereading volume three.



[1] Strangely, Lamarchian evolution is making a bit of a comeback. Here’s an example from 2009: A Comeback for Lamarckian Evolution?

[2] See Damasio’s 2010 book Self Comes to Mind for an example.