The Model of Attachment and the Theory of Instinct by Bowlby – III

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Bowlby’s model of attachment is built upon a theory of instinct that is widely accepted by biologists and physiologists but differs radically from that of traditional psychoanalysis. There is disagreement not only over the kind of instincts deemed common to man—for example, instincts for sex or self-preservation— but also over the meaning of the term “instinct” itself, opines Prof. Ashoka, in the third part of his erudite research, in the weekly column. A Different Truths exclusive. 

All studies of human behaviour, except those based upon the most extreme theories of learning and conditioning, posit certain basic behavioural patterns, which have traditionally been termed instincts. Although there is disagreement about the nature of these basic patterns, all agree that the term “instinctive” denotes those behaviours that are common to the members of a species and that are more or less resistant to environmental influences. Bowlby’s model of attachment is built upon a theory of instinct that is widely accepted by biologists and physiologists but differs radically from that of traditional psychoanalysis. There is disagreement not only over the kind of instincts deemed common to man—for example, instincts for sex or self-preservation— but also over the meaning of the term “instinct” itself. 

The psychoanalytic concept of instinct derives from Strachey’s translation of Freud’s trieb. Some psychoanalysts now consider that the translation of trieb as “drive” is a more precise rendering of Freud’s thinking. Omston (1982) has pointed out that Strachey “clustered and clumped” Freud’s wording into single Latin and Greek terms, thereby losing the subtleties of Freud’s distinctions. Freud himself used the term instinkt quite selectively. Instinkt was more of a technical term and referred to a precisely determined activity. Trieb, on the other hand, was used to refer to a “surging and rather undifferentiated need” (Omston, 1982). Thus, problems of translation have compounded the confusions arising out of the psychoanalytic view of the instincts and of the behaviours and emotions to which they supposedly give rise.

Like Freud, Bowlby defines the concept of instinct precisely. The contemporary concept, proposed by biologists and ethologists, offers an alternative account of human motivation that has not yet been incorporated into psychoanalytic theory. Even critics of the traditional view seem unaware that a coherent alternative exists. In accordance with the scientific framework of his day, Freud used the term to denote an inner motivating force or drive that operates as a causal agent. An instinct is activated from within by an accumulation of stimuli and is terminated when the energy aroused flows away. For example, the oral instinct is aroused by hunger and, when a mother nurses her baby, she reduces the amount of pent-up libido (energy) to a tolerable level. 

Bowlby substitutes the phrase “instinctive behaviour” for the more common noun “instinct.” The adjective “instinctive” is intended to be descriptive and leaves open the question of motivation. Human behaviour varies in a systematic way, and yet, as Bowlby (1969) notes, there are so many regularities of behaviour and certain of these regularities are so striking and play so important a part in the survival of individual and species that they have earned the name ‘instinctive’. ” Bowlby (1969) describes four main characteristics of behaviour that traditionally have been termed instinctive: 

  1. It follows a recognisably similar and predictable pattern in almost all members of a species (or all members of one sex); 
  2. It is not a simple response to a single stimulus but a sequence of behaviour that usually runs a predictable course; 
  3. Certain of its usual consequences are of obvious value in contributing to the preservation of an individual or the continuity of a species; 
  4. Many examples of it develop even when all the ordinary opportunities for learning it are exiguous or absent

This account shows that the ethological view of instinctual responses is based upon a very different dynamic to the Freudian view. First, the term “instinctive” always refers to an observable pattern of behaviour, which is activated by specific conditions and terminated by other specific consummatory stimuli. For instance, attachment behaviour in a child is readily elicited under certain environmental conditions such as cold, bright light, sudden darkness, and loud noise, the appearance of strange or unexpected objects and under certain internal conditions such as fatigue, hunger, ill health, and pain. Nearly all the behaviours elicited by these conditions are terminated by contact with and responsiveness from the mother. Second, instinctive patterns are usually linked together and do not occur in isolation. This means that a particular behavioural pattern is not linked causally to one motivating system, but results from the coordination—or the lack—of a number of instinctual responses. Integration is often achieved through the avoidance of various hazards, such as cold weather, sharp objects, loud and sudden noises, and so forth. Here, the care and protection afforded by mother play a unique integrating function.

Third, many attachment behaviours are reciprocal and only function effectively within a social system. For instance, an infant’s proximity-seeking behaviours are matched by the mother’s retrieving behaviours. The latter resembles the child’s attachment behaviours in their biological function-namely, protection from danger and survival. Indeed, in Bowlby’s estimation, the feedback system involved in watching and visual orientation is more important than the oral instinctual behaviours emphasized by psychoanalysis. Many attachment behaviours only make sense within a social context and have been suitably termed social releasers and social suppressors. Babbling, for instance, is most readily released and increased by human faces and voices, particularly by the sight and sound of the mother. In general, friendly responses such as smiling and babbling are easily elicited and reinforced by human stimuli. The situation is usually reversed with respect to crying. Here, social stimuli are the main terminators or suppressors. For instance, picking up and holding the infant is the most rapid terminator of crying from nakedness. Rocking and rapid walking is the most effective suppressor of crying from loneliness, although not of crying from pain, cold or hunger. 

A more thorough exposition of the new concept of instinctive behaviour requires a review of changes that have occurred since Freud’s day in two other disciplines: one, the new field of cybernetics (also referred to as systems theory, information theory or control theory), and the theory of evolution. Most psychoanalysts have not followed these developments and thereby compound their misconception of Bowlby’s work. 

Since most analysts are unfamiliar with control theory, they are unable to grasp that Bowlby offers an alternative theory of motivation. According to cybernetic theory, the behaviour is organised homeostatically into systems that are activated by certain signals and terminated by others. This model’s characterisation of causation calls into question methods used by psychoanalysts in determining the source of a patient’s pathology. The analyst attempts to reconstruct past events that over determine current behaviour in the life of his patient. Cybernetic explanation, on the other hand, is always negative. In cybernetic explanation, we do not look for the cause of an event. Instead, we first consider alternative possibilities and then ask what knocked these other alternatives out of the running. The negative nature of cybernetic explanation is conceptualized by the term restraints. When we look at a particular behaviour pattern, we ask, what were the restraints that excluded alternatives from the system? An excellent example of this distinction between restraints that are negative and clues that are positive has been given by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1967): 

For example, the selection of a piece for a given position in a jigsaw puzzle is “restrained” by many factors. Its shape must conform to that of its several neighbours and possibly that of the boundary of the puzzle; its colour must conform to the colour pattern of its region; the orientation of its edges must obey the topological regularities set by the cutting machine in which the puzzle was made; and so on. From the point of view of the man who is trying to solve the puzzle, these are all clues, i.e., sources of information which will guide him in his selection. From the point of view of the cybernetic observer, they are restraints. 

(To be continued)

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.