All behaviourist explanations maintain that attachment is learnt. There are 3 main behaviourist explanations.

1) Classical Conditioning - pairing of a stimulus and a response.

  • Children are born with reflex reactions of hunger, thirst and a desire to be fed. When the child is fed these reflexes are reduced leaving the child satisfied, happy and pleased.
  • These feelings are then linked to the person who provides the food leading to these feelings when the child sees the food provider, whether food is present or not, therefore attachment has been learned.

2) Operant Conditioning – behaviour which is rewarded will be repeated whereas behaviour which is punished will not be repeated.

  • Eating food results in positive feelings and is therefore rewarding. Behaviour will continue because it is rewarded leading to a stronger attachment.

3) Social Learning Theory (Vicarious Reinforcement) Bandura – this is a more complex explanation than classical and operant conditioning. It maintains that behaviour seen to be rewarded will be copied whereas behaviour that is seen to be punished will not be copied.

  • Hay & Vespo - “parents deliberately teach their children to love them”
  • They do this in one of 3 ways…
  • 1) Direct Instruction – providing reinforcement when the child behaves in the required way e.g. “give mom a kiss”
  • 2) Modelling – the child will imitate affectionate behaviour shown by the parent e.g. giving the child a hug gives them a model.
  • 3) Social Facilitation - parents watch how children behave, then correct or change their behaviour e.g. if the child hits some one they would explain why they should not do it.

Key Research – Harlow’s Monkeys

  • Harry Harlow did 3 experiments where he removed rhesus monkeys from their mothers at birth then brought them up in different conditions.
  • Condition 1 - monkeys were provided with pretend mother monkeys, one was made from wire and the other was made from cloth. Some monkeys were fed by the wire mother and some were fed by the cloth mother. Regardless of which mother provided the food all monkeys spent most of their time with the cloth mother.
  • In later life the monkeys had difficulties with mating and parenting and were either abusive or indifferent towards other monkeys.
  • Condition 2 – the monkeys were raised in isolation. In later life the monkeys remained withdrawn from other monkeys and were extremely fearful of other monkeys.
  • Condition 3 – monkeys were raised in a group without a mother. At first the monkeys spent their time huddled together but eventually started to develop more independence and appeared to have suffered no ill effects.


  • Weakness - the research criticises the behaviourists because condition 1 of the experiment shows that food is not a factor in attachment.
  • Strength - however, condition 1 would support social learning theory in that the monkeys had no role model leading to problems with forming attachments in later life.
  • Strength / Weakness – if the research can be generalised to humans, poor parenting will lead to the child being a poor parent.
  • Strength / Weakness – conditions 1 and 2 would suggest that it is better to have a “bad” parent than no parent.
  • Strength / Weakness - condition 3 shows that social privation (when you have never had social interaction) may have a bigger influence on attachment than maternal deprivation (when you have experienced having a mother, but you are then taken away from your mother).
  • Weakness – the behaviourist explanations are reductionist (reduces all complex behaviour to the simplest explanation)  and deterministic (suggests we have no choice in attachment).
  • Weakness - ethics - research has caused the monkeys to become distressed and has had a long term impact on them.