You are here:Psychology News>Autism changes molecular structure of the brain, UCLA study finds
Wednesday, 17 September 2008 20:32

The Learning Theory of Attachment

Written by Keiron Walsh
Rate this item
(16 votes)
Behaviourists argue that all behaviours, including attachment behaviours, are acquired through learning and that learning takes place through the processes of classical conditioning and operant conditioning.




Dollard and Miller's (1950) secondary drive hypothesis suggests that, through classical conditioning, the presence of the mother becomes a source of pleasure in itself for babies:

Hunger and thirst are primary drives as they are innate - satisfying these needs is essential for survival. Relief from hunger is a primary reinforcer. Because mothers feed babies an estimated 2000 times during their first year (Dollard & Miller, 1950), the mother becomes a conditioned stimulus whose presence produces a conditioned response of pleasure.

Sources of pleasure, by nature, are reinforcing, therefore the mother becomes a secondary reinforcer. Wanting the mother to be near is a secondary drive – secondary because it has been acquired through classical conditioning.

Learning theory can also explain the mother's bonding with the child; the mother receives reinforcements and punishments for behaviours that affect the baby's well-being. For example, feeding a hungry baby, or changing a dirty nappy will mean that the baby stops crying (negative reinforcement) and the babies will smile and make cooing noises when caregivers talk to them (positive reinforcement).

Reinforcements can also come from signs of the child's happiness and development, for example, the mother may be excited by the baby achieving milestones like sitting up, crawling, babbling, first words etc.

Additionally, reinforcers that have been acquired due to sex-typing during their own childhood can increase caretaking behaviours (Gewirtz, 1961). For example, girls are reinforced by adults for looking after dolls, so looking after a baby may itself become reinforcing.

Last modified on Thursday, 07 January 2010 11:14

7 comments

  • Comment Link Keiron Saturday, 31 December 2011 18:30 posted by Keiron

    Yes, drive reduction is operant conditioning, as reducing the drive is reinforcing; however, secondary drives are acquired by classical conditioning.

    The primary drive is milk (source of pleasure), the mother becomes associated with milk through classical conditioning and becomes a secondary reinforcer (or drive)

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Comment Link Richard Packer Saturday, 03 December 2011 20:52 posted by Richard Packer

    I think that drive reduction for the a level syllabus is classed as Operant conditioning, not Classical conditioning.

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Comment Link Laura Saunders Wednesday, 18 May 2011 18:47 posted by Laura Saunders

    going back to the point that you made about female enfants gaining positive reinforcement for playing with dolls, and therefore sex-typing. There was a very contraversial study by somebody called Dr. Money who believed that female and male qualities can only be learnt and are not based on genetics (by the way, this is not needed for the AS course, so if you are reading this, hoping it will help in the exam, chances are it wont im afraid).
    Basically what happened is that 2 twin boys went for a routin circumsition at their hospital and the procedure went wrong, ending up in one twin having his penis totaly removed. (the parents then decided not to continue with the other twin having the procedure). They had heard about Dr. Money on the TV and got in contact with him, where he suggested raising the boy (without a penis) as a girl. He stressed the importance that neither twin must ever know what happened. For more details on this here is a link:
    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/dr-money-boy-with-no-penis/
    (for those that do not have time to read on, it basically ended with both of the twins finding out what had happened and suffering psychologically because of it - the twin who was raised as a boy took it the hardest and comitted suicide, and afterwards so did the twin who was raised as a girl).
    Oviosly this study has raised serious ethical issues and may i just stress that I do not suppost this study in anyway, just thought I would mention it as it is very educational in the topic of sex-typing. Laura x

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Comment Link Dr Do-little Wednesday, 05 January 2011 18:29 posted by Dr Do-little

    This is what im using to revise for learning theory. is it enough? yes i think so ;).

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Comment Link skaiste Sunday, 21 November 2010 21:49 posted by skaiste

    Pavlovs study showed that clasical conditioning existed or something.
    the person handling food was a conditioned stimulus and the sound of the person was a drive for the dog; because he enjoyed the food. therefore whenever they see the person they become exited.

    if this makes sense? my notes are upstairs :)

    im doing AS level of psychology myself :D

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Comment Link marie Sunday, 14 November 2010 18:31 posted by marie

    Hello, I'm doing Psychology at AS Level at a Sixth Form. I would really appreciate it if you would have any handy tips to help me to revise the first 3 chapters of the Psychology AS book (second edition) I'm finding it very difficult to revise it, and reading it all over and over again is hopeless for me. Thankyou.

    P.s. Could you tell me What year Pavlov's Dog Study was please?

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Comment Link Jesis Tuesday, 05 October 2010 19:12 posted by Jesis

    A very good summary and in depth analysis of the learning theory of attachment.

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Add comment


Keiron Walsh

Keiron Walsh

If you have any tips, suggestions or would like to contribute to the site, email me at this address.

Website: alevelpsychology.co.uk E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it