Outline of attachment. The learning theory of attachment

Topic: LifeBeauty
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Last updated: April 28, 2019

Outline and evaluate learning theory as an explanationof attachment. The learning theory of attachment is abehaviourist explanation that suggests that attachment is developed through classicalor operant conditioning. It is sometimes referred to as a cupboard love theory,as the infant attaches to the caregiver who provides the food. Classicalconditioning is learnt through association and occurs when a response isproduced naturally by a certain stimulus.This is then associated with another stimulus that is not normally linked withthat particular response.

Whereas operant conditioning is based on the ideas ofreward and punishment. This is learning through reinforcement of certainbehaviour. This increases the chances of the behaviour occurring again.  However, there are other factors withinattachment that aren’t covered as there is evidence that infants can formattachments with a person who is not the primary care giver.

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 The learning theory offers manydifferent ideas on how attachments could be formed, one study supporting thelearning theory is by Ivan Pavlov (1902). He observed andrecorded information about dogs and their salivation rates. Pavlov said thedogs were demonstrating classical conditioningas he used an unconditional stimulus of food to get an unconditional responseof salivating. He usedthe process of conditioning where there’s a neutral stimulus being a bell, which by itselfwill not produce a response, like drooling.

There’s also an unconditioned stimulus which is the food, whichwill cause the dogs to salivate which is an unconditionedresponse. This supports the idea of thelearning theory being an explanation of attachment however, this may not bevalid for humans. Although classic conditioning has now been explored withyoung infants. For example, the infant will be happy when given food which is anunconditioned response given from an unconditioned stimulus. When theunconditioned stimulus is given with a natural stimulus being the mother italso gives the unconditioned response of the baby being happy. Now when themother is on her own which is the conditioned stimulus, the baby is happy whichis the conditioned response.  Onthe other hand, there are studies that oppose the learning theory and the ideasit proposes. Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found that in 39 per cent of cases, themother was not the baby’s primary care giver.

This suggests that feeding is notthe main explanation of attachment which goes against the learning theory. Thisevidence can also be supported by Harlow’s Rhesus monkey study (1959). He usedinfant monkeys to see if attachments are primarily formed through food asexplained by the learning theory. A wire surrogate mother and a towellingsurrogate mother were created and placed in four different conditions. The babymonkeys most often chose the soft towelling mother whenever she was available.He even found that some of the monkeys would cling to the comfort of thetowelling mother whilst leaning over to feed from the wire mother.

This goesagainst the learning theory as it suggests that attachment concerns contactcomfort more than food. Anotherstudy that supports the learning theory is Dollard and Miller (1950) whichproposed the idea that attachment is a learned behaviour that is acquiredthrough both classical and operant conditioning. They argued that in theirfirst year, babies are fed up to 2000 times, generally by their primary caregiver.

This creates an opportunity for the carer to become associated with theremoval of unpleasant feeling of hunger. The removal of that unpleasant feelingof hunger is a form of negative reinforcement so that the caregiver becomes asource of reinforcement (reward) themselves. This supports learning theorybecause it shows the idea that attachments and learnt through operantconditioning.   

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