What do we know about social attachment and human nature? | Aeon Essays
Photo by Jianan Yu/Reuters

From cradle to grave, we are soothed and rocked by attachments – our source of joy and pain, and the essence of who we are

Mostafa El-Kalliny is an MD/PhD trainee at the University of Colorado.

Zoe R Donaldson is an assistant professor in psychology and neuroscience and molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Edited byPam Weintraub

The scene is a familiar one: an urban park, with young couples picnicking, dog owners playing fetch, parents chatting while their children scamper around. Marie – a young child – becomes entranced by a new wonder of her world – maybe a springtime butterfly, maybe another child throwing an impressive fit. Eventually, looking away from her intense focus, she realises that the world has shifted around her and that her parents are no longer in sight. Interest and elation morph into concern and fear, as she holds back her tears and begins to search. Just around the corner, she finds her father, who scoops her up, and, as quick as her fear started, it dissipates; her world is complete and safe again.

From the moment we are born, we are hardwired to seek attachment to others. Throughout our lives, relationships that involve attachment serve as sources of emotional security, joy and companionship, while at other times, pain and grief. Compared with those of other animals, human relationships are staggeringly multifaceted. Yet despite this, what lies at the core of our relationships is an elaboration of a phenomenon whose roots across the species spectrum are wide and deep. As we wend our way through life’s course – from infancy to adolescence to adulthood to loss – attachment holds a strong grip on our lives, shifting to accommodate our changing needs. While the roots of this phenomenon tell us much about who we are, they tell us just as much about mysteries that remain unanswered in evolution, psychology, neuroscience and more.

In The Conquest of Happiness (1930), the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

Those who face life with a feeling of security are much happier than those who face it with a feeling of insecurity … The child whose parents are fond of him accepts their affection as a law of nature … The child from whom for any reason parental affection is withdrawn is likely to become timid and unadventurous, filled with fears and self-pity, and no longer able to meet the world in a mood of gay exploration.

What Russell was describing would only later in the 1930s get a scientific description, when the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz observed that ducks and geese are hard-wired to become attached to the first moving figure they encounter in their life, and will demonstrate signs of distress if separated from that figure. Lorenz found this innate drive to be so strong that attachment happens regardless of whether it’s to the birds’ mother, a bicycle tire or Lorenz himself.

While it’s more complicated for human babies, in the 1950s, the British psychologist John Bowlby extended this concept to us. He observed that children who were separated from their families during the air raids of the Second World War first tended to cry out in protest while seeking them out, then would lie in vigilant despair, then become detached. Bowlby’s observations led to his principle that children, from day one, begin to develop unique mental models of how their primary caregivers recognise and respond to their needs. In effect, these caregivers serve as a base from which to explore the world and, in doing so, become the first of many attachments we experience in our lives. As Bowlby wrote:

All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.

The importance of this secure base can hardly be understated. Imagine our park denizens in the age of the Second World War. Kai – a child who plays at that park – is evacuated to live in the peaceful countryside without his parents. Another park child, Marie, remains in London, and experiences bombings and war-related events but in the company of her parents. While perhaps not intuitive – after all, Kai’s parents also had their child’s safety at heart – those who stayed in London with their parents, despite the constant threats of bombings, ultimately fared better psychologically…


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