Bowlbys deprivation hypothesis

In his hypothesis, Bowlby believed that an infant’s failure to attach to a primary caregiver would have long term effects. This essay will attempt to evaluate Bowlby’s deprivation hypothesis. Firstly, the terms ‘attachment’ and ‘deprivation’ will be defined. Following that, a full definition of the hypothesis will be made, and then an attempt will be made to describe and understand the studies and period of history that lead to Bowlby’s ideas and the influence they generated. A full evaluation will be made of his deprivation hypothesis, including detailed criticisms of his theory. Finally, conclusions will be drawn to show if Bowlby’s deprivation hypothesis can still retain any credibility.

The first task is to define the terms attachment and deprivation. In 1973 the leading attachment psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, pointed out that “Attachment is an affectional tie that one person forms to another person, binding them together in space, and enduring over time”. Deprivation can occur when there is insufficient opportunity for interaction with a mother figure (privation), when there is insufficient interaction with mother (masked deprivation), or when there are repeated breaches of ties with mother figures.

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In 1949, the World Health Organisation became concerned about the number of homeless children, or children who were growing up in institutions as a result of the war years. They commissioned Bowlby to look into this matter, and to report to them whether these children were likely to be suffering from their experiences, and what the best kind of upbringing for such children was. Bowlby concluded that a warm intimate and continuing relationship with a mother figure is an essential precondition for mental health. Maternal deprivation or a disturbed emotional attachment between mother and child was said to cause irreparable damage, not only to the child but also to society as a whole. He stated (1951) “deprived children, whether in their own homes or not, are a source of social infection as real and serious as are carriers of diphtheria and typhoid”. Bowlby’s report to the WHO had a great deal of influence among health care officials, social workers, and parents. But the conclusions he came to were very controversial and caused arguments right from the very beginning.

Contrary to behaviourists and Freudians, who thought that physical comfort was a caregiver’s primary concern, Bowlby (1951) suggested that emotional care was at least equally important. He states that “maternal attachment is as essential for healthy psychological development as vitamins and minerals are for physical health”. Bowlby (1951) also proposed the concept of monotropy, that is the need for one central caregiver, usually the mother, but alternatively the father or another person. Finally, Bowlby (1951) felt that there was a critical period in the formation of attachments. He believed that children who experience maternal deprivation below the age of four will suffer permanent damage.

Three landmark studies conducted in the 1950s supported his views. In 1946, Bowlby looked at the life histories of eighty-eight children who had been referred to his psychiatric clinic, half of whom had a criminal record for theft. Fourteen of the ‘thieves’ displayed an ‘affectionless’ character, that is, a lack of normal affection, shame or sense of responsibility. Almost all of these affectionless children (eighty-six per cent of them) had suffered ‘early and prolonged separations from their mothers’. In practice, this meant that, at least before the age of two, these children had continually or repeatedly been in foster homes or hospitals, often not visited by their families. Of the remaining seventy-four children who were not affectionless, only seven (one per cent) had been separated. This appears to be strong evidence in support of Bowlby’’ hypothesis, but the data was retrospective and, more importantly, correlational. It can not be assumed whether the maladjustment was caused by the separations themselves or if there was a third factor responsible for both maladjustment and separations, for example general family discord could be cause of both. This was one of Rutter’s criticisms, which will be discussed later, in further detail.

More support for Bowlby’s views came from a piece of classic research conducted by Lorenz (1935). In this study, Lorenz became ‘mother’’ to a brood of goslings. It was already known that many birds attach themselves to the first figure they see upon hatching and persist in this attachment, and Lorenz’s work confirmed this. The phenomenon is called imprinting, an ethological concept taken from embryology. During pre-natal development, there are short periods when an individual is especially vulnerable. These times are called ‘critical periods’, and the effect is an imprint. Imprinting is an example of an instinct, an inherited behaviour pattern that predisposes an individual to certain forms of learning at critical times in development. Bowlby suggested that attachment behaviour is a kind of imprinting and is irreversible.

However, in more recent studies of adopted children, Tizard (1977) have found that older children can form satisfactory new relationships with adults despite the lack of earlier attachment. A third line of evidence came from Harlow’s work with rhesus monkeys (1959), an experiment was devised where a monkey was provided with two ‘mothers’, one a wire cylinder with a monkey-like face and a feeding bottle attached, the other with no feeding bottle but wrapped in a cloth. The position taken by behaviourists and Freudians (Gleitman etc 1988????) would be that the monkeys should become attached to the ‘mother’ that offered food rather than comfort. In fact, the monkeys spent most of their time with the cloth mother, visiting the other one only for food. When they were frightened, they always went to the cloth mother. In later life, the monkeys raised without a responsive mother became socially maladjusted and had difficulty with mating and parenting.

When considering Harlow’s research, it could be argued that making generalisations from animal to human behaviour is not always appropriate. (REF). Behaviourists argue that the difference between human and non-human species are quantitative rather than qualitative, but other psychologists believe that certain unique features of the human species (such as consciousness and language) mean that non-human animal research has limited applicability. REF Harlow’s research has also been criticised in terms of the ethics of allowing animals to be manipulated in this way. Such criticism could also be applied to Lorenz’s work with goslings.

Schaffer and Emerson (1964) challenged some of Bowlby’s claims. They found attachment to a specific person started to occur at around 7 months, but multiple attachments were the norm. For many the attachment to the mother was at the top of the hierarchy, but for others the main attachment was to the father. They also found the strength of attachment was not related to the length of time spent with the child, or to basic caretaking functions of feeding etc., being fulfilled. It was the quality and intensity of interaction that was important. Studies of Kibbutzs support this as despite multiple mothering their primary attachment were still with their parents (Sagi et al, 1978). Therefore, these studies do not support the behaviourists of Freud as both theories state feeding is important for attachment to occur.

These findings suggest that Bowlby was correct in identifying the importance of attachment, but incorrect in overemphasising the single maternal role and the time factor for all children. Attachment, however is only one part of his theory. Another part relates to the effects of deprivation. Rutter (1981) felt that the main problem with the concept of maternal deprivation was that it muddled together a range of essentially different experiences. He felt that separation is not the crucial factor in emotional disturbance. Instead, it may be that general family discord underlies the emotional disturbances observed by Bowlby. It may also be that affectionless psychopathy is due to the initial failure to form attachments (privation) rather than attachment disruption (deprivation). Finally, situations where children experience deprivation, such as short hospital stays, may create emotional disturbance because of the strange and frightening environment as much as the separation and interference with attachments.

Bowlby’s reliance on retrospective studies linking caregiver separation with delinquency cannot be seen as establishing a causal link between the two. It is equally possible that factors other than the absence of the mother (lack of parental supervision for example) could have been responsible for the delinquency. Rutter (1981) found that it was the circumstances surrounding the loss that was most likely to determine the consequences rather than the loss per se.

Bowlby’s deprivation hypothesis was important in changing our view of early emotional behaviour from one of dependency, the behaviourist and Freudian view, to one where the infant is an active participant in eliciting care. The criticisms served to refine this theory in several important ways: to include multiple attachments, to place less emphasis on mother-love and to distinguish between different kinds of deprivation. McFaydon (1994) suggests that many critics ‘seem almost to have got stuck in a time warp, hanging on to [Bowlby’s] early ideas, which were of course extremely controversial but also important and influential at the time’.


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Bowlbys deprivation hypothesis. (2018, Jun 08). Retrieved from