Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Attachment Processes

The attachment an infant and parent feel for each other is a fundamental aspect of human relations. Research presented at the APS Annual Convention in Atlanta explored the importance of infant attachment, including understanding the realities of the world, the lasting effects on adulthood, child stress levels and parental attachment, and biological connections needed for survival.

R. Chris Fraley, University of Illinois at Chicago, chaired the symposium, “Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Attachment Processes.” Symposium presenters were APS Fellow Ross Thompson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; APS Fellow Jeff Simpson, Texas A&M University; Mary Dozier, University of Delaware; and Dario Maestripieri, University of Chicago.

Thompson’s research focuses on cognitive aspects of attachment, such as how working models in children’s developing minds are altered by interactions with their caregivers. His presentation, “Developing Minds and Working Models,” looked at how children come to an understanding about the psychological world around them: “How do they begin to grasp the invisible realities of emotion, relationships, morality, what people’s personalities and dispositions are like – and what the child’s own personality is like?”

His research uncovers evidence for the idea that, through everyday conversations with their children, parents are imparting a vast amount of knowledge to their children about emotions, relationships, and the nature of people in general. Whereas a child may only remember parts of an emotional event, such as a fight over bedtime, a caregiver may be able to share with the child insights about why certain emotions occurred and how the event was resolved. These interactions help to teach the children about their own emotional world. After repeated interactions, a child’s model of how the world works, what emotions are, and how other people might feel are altered through their everyday interactions with their parents.

Simpson’s research focuses on how the quality of a person’s attachment at infancy may affect his/her perceptions of adult relationships. For instance, the anxiety/ambivalence aspect of a person’s attachment may affect self-perceptions including worthiness of love and support and whether or not others are willing to provide it. In his presentation, “Adult Attachment, Chronic Stress, and Depressive Symptoms,” Simpson pointed to the diathesis/stress model of depression, which states that individuals who are vulnerable in some way should show an increase in depression when they encounter life stressors that test or strain that aspect. Simpson’s research has found that women who are high in ambivalence and who feel that their husbands are unsupportive are more vulnerable to postpartum depression. Through his research, Simpson may have uncovered an important predictor and possible intervention area for postpartum depression.

Though the research presented in this symposium was very diverse, it is all focused on understanding one phenomenon: the attachment process. By sharing, comparing, and combining their research findings, researchers are better able to understand and interpret the psychological world.

Dozier’s presentation, “Links Between Attachment Organization and Neuroendocrine Regulation for Infants in Foster Care,” examined connections between the stress level of an infant and the level of attachment felt by the infant’s foster parent.

Most research assessing attachment quality in infancy uses the strange situation test during which the mother leaves the room and then returns, Dozier said. She explained that this measure assesses whether or not a child can be soothed by the mother after this distressing event has occurred, but it does not assess whether or not the infant feels that the mother will guard against danger.

Dozier argued that this type of “protection” instinct could be assumed with real parents but that it may be lacking in some foster parents who do not consider a foster child as really “theirs.” Foster parents may lack “the sparkle in their eye” that biological parents come by naturally. In order to assess the degree foster parents feel their foster children are really “theirs,” Dozier and her colleague developed the “This Is My Baby” interview. They found that maternal commitment as measured by the interview is related to the pattern of cortisol in an infant’s bloodstream. Because cortisol levels are related to the amount of stress a child is going through, the pattern indicates that foster parents who feel the foster child is really theirs have infants who are more securely attached and less stressed. Interestingly, cortisol levels were found to be unrelated to scores on the strange situation test, indicating that perhaps this may be an important facet of attachment that is overlooked by typical methods of assessment, especially for foster parents.

Maestripieri examined attachment from an ethological perspective. Specifically, it involves how the attachment system may be an evolutionary adaptation that began long before humans evolved.

“The caregiver attachment system is not an evolutionary novelty that originated with the human species,” Maestripieri said. “Rather, many aspects of this behavioral and motivational system can be observed in the nonhuman primates.”

This may be a result of the fact that biologically-based attachment to an infant is necessary for protection and care. In evolutionary times when one’s own survival was often difficult, strong caregiver attachment to an infant would have been essential in order for the caregiver to make an extra effort and to take risks to protect an infant from danger. In addition, this attachment would have needed to be biological in order to be transferred across generations. Through his research, Maestripieri has found evidence to suggest that this may be the case. His research suggests that caregiver attachment to infants may be yet another of the evolutionary adaptations that have helped us to survive.

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