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3.6: What are the parts of “explanation”?

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  • The next step in understanding a theory is to analyze its “explanation” by pulling out (from the list of key constructs if such constructs are presented comprehensively in the theory paper) the antecedents and consequences of the target phenomenon, and the mechanisms or processes that causally connect them. Antecedents are the proposed causes of the target phenomenon and its pattern of developmental change(s). What produces, influences, or generates the target? Here again, clues can be found as to the assumptions underlying the theory. Are the causal antecedents all to be found within the person, perhaps all in the individual’s biology or in their psychology or in their social cognitions? Conversely, are the causal antecedents all to be found within the environment? Or in a mix of person and environment? In drawing a theory, the antecedents are usually placed to the left of the target(s) and connected to them via an arrow pointing from the antecedent to the target (see Figure 3.2).

    Understanding Bowlby: Explanation and antecedents.

    For Bowlby, again not surprising given the theoretical context, the antecedents are found in the biobehavioral predispositions of all humans (in fact, of all mammals who do not cache their young). Newborns come with a set of characteristics and action tendencies that make them attractive to caregivers, such as their “baby-ness” (as seen in their small bodies, large heads, big eyes, soft skin, floppy movements, and so on), their sociability, and their preference for and interest in other humans. They also come with the capacity and willingness to vigorously express their distress as well as with reflexes that allow them to physically attach or fasten themselves to caregivers when distressed, through grasping and huddling. They also bring with them the capacity to be comforted by other people, through, for example, close physical contact, rocking, and humming. Correspondingly, caregivers come with the capacity to be attracted by infants’ “babyness” and the desire to draw near to, comfort, and protect newborns when they are distressed. These are the proposed antecedents of attachment. See Figure 3.3.

    \(\PageIndex{1}\) What are the consequences of the target phenomenon?

    The consequences of the target are the outcomes that the target itself causes, generates, or produces. These are usually the reason that the target is of interest to researchers—because it has a positive or negative impact on people’s lives. For example, in Bowlby’s theory, attachment to a caregiver has the infant is more likely to survive to reproductive age, as depicted in Figure 3.3. In drawing a theory, the consequences are usually placed to the right of the target, with an arrow connecting them, that starts at the target and goes to the consequences. Sometimes two arrows would be included, one to the positive consequences and one to the negative consequences. Sometimes two sets of consequences might be considered—the short-term consequences and the long-term consequences of the target. These options are shown in Figure 3.2.

    \(\PageIndex{2}\) What are the processes that connect the target phenomenon to antecedents and consequences?

    In depicting theories, arrows have a special meaning. They denote influences or causes. One of the most interesting questions about any theory is “What is on the arrows?” or in other words, “What are the processes or mechanisms by which influence is transmitted?”. A theory can posit multiple answers to the question of how causes produce their effects. For example, the mechanisms through which the antecedents produce the target phenomenon are different from the mechanisms through which the target phenomenon produces its consequences. It is also possible for a theory to posit multiple mechanisms through which either of these causal chains operate—for example, multiple pathways through which an attachment increases the chances of the survival of offspring.

    Understanding Bowlby: What is on the arrows?

    In the case of Bowlby’s theory, the processes that connect biobehavioral predispositions to the formation of an attachment are well-specified. Newborns, when distressed, express this directly through crying or fussing. Caregivers, who are attuned to these signals, approach the newborn, figure out what is wrong, and provide comfort and care (e.g., feed the newborn or change a wet diaper). The newborn expresses relief and happiness in having his or her needs met. The caregiver also experiences relief and happiness at the infants’ satisfaction. After many such interactions, the infant learns to direct their communications to their caregiver with the expectation that the caregiver will respond sensitively; at the same time, the caregiver becomes more adept at “reading” the infant’s signals and so becomes more effective in calming and caring for the infant. This positive feedback loop leads to thousands of infant-caregiver interactions from which emerges the specific affectionate bond between caregiver and infant. Over time, these interactions organize the infant’s behavior, so that when distressed, it seeks proximity to the caregiver; and this proximity in turn acts to calm the infant’s distress and stabilize the infant’s behavior. These interactions are depicted in Figure 3.4. In terms of the other set of arrows in the depiction of Bowlby’s theory, namely, from “attachment” to “survival,” a different set of mechanisms are proposed. For immature offspring, and especially in times of distress, proximity to a caring adult (whether accomplished by attracting, gripping, staying near, or getting to a caregiver) makes it more likely that the baby will be taken care of and protected from threats, and so survive to reproduce.

    \(\PageIndex{3}\) What is on the arrows?

    It is worth highlighting that the mechanisms of transmission in Bowlby’s theory are processes of reciprocal social interaction, in the form of thousands of exchanges between the newborn and its caregiver. In general, we argue that “what is on the arrows” is most often a set of social interaction processes, reciprocal exchanges between the target person and others in his or her natural and social contexts, or their surrogates, like books, academic tasks, work assignments, television, Facebook, or other social tools. In subsequent chapters, we will return to the idea that reciprocal social interactions, also called “transactions” (Sameroff, 2010) or “proximal processes” (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006), are the “engines” of development. BY this we mean that they have the power to shape development, and may be the only forces that can accomplish this.

    \(\PageIndex{4}\) Why does this theory seem to be operating on two different time scales?

    All developmental theories operate on multiple time scales. In many theories, two time scales are made explicit: (1) the “micro-developmental” portion of the theory is grounded in “real time,” and depicts the moment-to-moment exchanges between the target individual and their social partners; these exchanges can be captured, for example, by in vivo observations or digital recordings of social interactions; and (2) the “macro-developmental” portion of the theory is grounded in “developmental time,” and depicts the time scale over which these social interaction episodes aggregate to cumulatively shape the trajectory of the target developmental process (which we sometimes refer to as “moving the dial”) or cumulatively lead to the reorganization and emergence of qualitatively new states.

    Understanding Bowlby: Micro- and macro-development

    In Bowlby’s theory, the micro-developmental part is depicted in the reciprocal social interactions between caregiver and infant, which become more attuned with practice. The macrodevelopmental part is depicted in the emergence of the attachment bond, which takes place over a much larger time scale and requires the development of additional underlying antecedents, such as the infant’s neurophysiological, attention, memory, and cognitive subsystems.