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4.7: How do we draw Gewirtz’s theory of attachment?

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  • Gerwirtz’s macro-developmental theory, presented graphically in Figure 4.4, places the target phenomena, namely, the attachment or bond between infant and caregiver, in the center of the picture. As antecedents, infants bring their primary drives (such as hunger), and caregivers bring the means to satisfy these primary drives (such as food). Together these produce a bond (the target). This bond allows a set of consequences to unfold, in which the response systems of the interaction partners come under each other’s control. As shown by the return arrow, these consequences in turn feed back to the target, strengthening the bond or attachment.

    Gewirtz’s micro-developmental theory specifies the mechanisms, or what is on the arrows. The explanatory mechanisms depicting how the antecedents cause the target are pictured in Figure 4.5. According to this perspective, all newborns arrive with a desire for food, warmth, safety, and so on. These are considered “primary drives” or “unconditioned reinforcers,” because the presence of these commodities increases the likelihood of infants’ behaviors without any prior experience. When caregivers provide food, warmth, physical comfort, and so on, they become associated with the satisfaction of these primary drives, and take on their properties. Through classical conditioning, the caregiver (or more precisely, their attributes, such as their physical appearance, voice, and smell) acquire the status of a secondary drive: These are reinforcers that are conditioned on their association with the satisfaction of primary drives.

    Gewirtz explains the essential elements of the notion of “acquired” or “secondary drive:” “The central features of this theory were the concepts of discriminative and conditioned (generalized) reinforcing stimuli (e.g., provided by incidental caretaking appearance characteristics which acquired and maintained their reinforcing value by being discriminative for a limited set of apparently unconditioned reinforcing stimuli thought to be the satisfiers of physiological needs (in particular food, water, and the removal of noxious stimuli)” (1969, p. 164). Over time, through continued social interactions, this connection creates a bond between infant and caregiver.

    The mechanisms hypothesized to create a causal link between the target and its consequences are pictured in Figure 4.5. The attributes of the caregiver become discriminative stimuli for the arrival of primary reinforcers, like food, and so now the caregiver and his or her attributes (even in the absence of primary reinforcers) trigger a host of positive anticipatory baby behaviors, such as tracking, vocalizations, and wiggling. These baby behaviors in turn serve to reinforce the caregiver’s caregiving behaviors (such as responding to cries, feeding, and holding the baby). As a result, the baby’s attributes (such as their physical appearance, characteristic movements, or the feel of their skin) themselves become discriminative stimuli that trigger caregiving behavior.

    As Gewirtz explains, “It is assumed also that the behaviors of the object person or persons who function in a caretaking-socializing role at the same time will come under the control of the behaviors and appearance stimuli provided by the child. These processes will account for the progressively longer S-R chains between the infant’s responses and the stimuli provided by his caretaking environment” (1969, p. 165). These positive caregiving behaviors then reinforce the baby’s behaviors. Through these mechanisms, operating in the social interactions between newborns and their caregivers, the behavior systems of each party come under the control of the physical characteristics (discriminative stimuli) and behaviors (reinforcing stimuli) of the other party, which feedback into the attachment or bond.

    What are the optimization implications of Gewirtz’s theory?

    There is nothing in Gerwirt’s theory to suggest that there are multiple kinds of attachment or that one would be better than another, so Gewirtz does not specify an “optimal” attachment per se. However, he does indicate what would qualify as “more” of an attachment: A “stronger” attachment is one in which mutual control over behavior systems is stronger or more extensive— for example, when a greater number of behaviors and behavior systems of the infant are under caregiver control and vice versa, when partners exert a greater degree of control, or when control operates in a greater number of settings. All of these kinds of “increases” in attachment behavior would be achieved through the same procedures that are described in his theory—processes of reinforcement. So presumably teaching parents how to be more contingent and consistent in their responses to infants would be one optimization strategy, or perhaps reinforcing them for doing so.

    Why are the assumptions underlying Gewirtz’s theory?

    As is made clear by the name of the theory (i.e., social learning) and the explanatory mechanisms that he proposes, Gewirtz assumes that behavior change is a function of associative learning (e.g., acquisition of the status of secondary reinforcers) and the operant reinforcement of behaviors that were initially elicited by biological reflexes. As Gewirtz explains, “the analysis proceeds in simple conditioning terms, using the concepts of responses, discriminative and reinforcing stimuli, and the conception of sequential contingencies or chaining” (1969, p.160).