Nearly half a century ago, psychiatrist John Bowlby proposed that the instincts underpinning infants’ attachment to their mother are accompanied by “internal working models,” which help them to better understand the world around them. These mental models mediate infants’ ability to use their caregiver as a buffer against the stresses of life, and help facilitate the development of important self-regulatory and social skills.
Yet no research has ever directly assessed internal working models of attachment in infancy. In a study published in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Stanford University psychologist Susan Johnson and her colleagues Carol Dweck and Frances Chen sought to examine internal working models in infants for the first time.
To do this, the researchers recruited infants to watch a short video enacting a separation event. In the video, two animated ellipses (a large “mother” and small “child”) appear together at the bottom of a steep incline. As the video begins, the mother travels halfway up the incline while the child begins to cry. The video then concludes in one of two ways: The mother either returns to her crying child or she continues up the slope, creating even further distance from her kin.
Securely attached infants — infants who demonstrate a positive parent-child relationship by showing confidence when the parent is present and mild distress when they are absent — looked significantly longer at the screen when the mother ignored the child’s cry and moved farther away from the child.
The authors reason that by looking at the screen longer than their insecurely attached peers, the securely attached infants viewed the negative separation event as a novelty, or rather an event that did not fit with their internal working models of the world.
The authors describe the effect as though “the securely attached infants, but not the insecurely attached infants were surprised to see a parent act unresponsively.”
“These results are clear evidence that infants’ interpretations of the social world are influenced by their own histories with their caregiver,” they continue.
Johnson and her colleagues are quick to note that the literature on attachment has long shown the profound impact of early experience. However, by identifying a mechanism underlying this process, researchers have a means of “looking into the mind upon which that experience has left its imprint.”