Theoretical Spotlight: Attachment Theory


Theoretical Spotlight blogs are basic introductions to theories researchers often use in social science research. As such, they include basic definitions of theories and discussion of their connections to research. They serve as starting points for considering theories that may be suited to your own research. This blog focuses on attachment theory.

Attachment theory helps explain how people approach and develop relationships based on early, formative bonding experiences. Bowlby (1971) theorized that the early relationships of babies and children with their parents or other adult caregivers form the emotional basis or model for romantic and close peer relationships later in life. Generally, attachment theory holds that how children socially and emotionally bond with caregivers influences their relational patterns later in life.

According to Bowlby, bonding involves children’s proximity and emotional connection to adult caregivers, and this bonding represents an intrinsic human need for safety and security. The social and emotional nature of relationships between the self and others early in life then act as a template for individuals’ relationships later in life. These relationships are broadly categorized as secure and insecure attachment. Secure attachment is characterized by adaptive approaches to relationships based on positive early bonding experiences, such as closeness and consistency. Insecure attachment is characterized by maladaptive approaches to relationships based on negative early bonding experiences, such as withdrawal and inconsistency.

Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) expanded the theory of attachment to include four attachment styles: secure, anxious, fearful-avoidant, and dismissing-avoidant. (For definitions of each component, see Bartholomew and Horowitz.) Each attachment style represents an approach to relationships theoretically based on individuals’ early bonding experiences. Researchers have used Bowlby’s theory of attachment, as well as Bartholomew and Horowitz’s research, to explain various relationships in psychological research, including research in social and organizational psychology. In short, attachment theory provides a framework for explaining social and emotional adaptation involving relationships in adulthood.


Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226–244.

Bowlby. J. (1971). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1. Attachment. London: Penguin Books

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