Monday, April 25, 2011

A Great Attachment Debate?

It seems as though the nature versus nurture argument will go on forever, even though we now know a great deal about how the two of them interact in order to affect human behavior.

In the March/April issue of the Psychotherapy Networker, the cover story is titled "The Great Attachment Debate: How important is early experience?  The "debate" is over the issue of whether or not the quality of the relationship between babies and toddlers and their primary attachment figure has a profound effect on  mental health and relationships when the child grows up.  In particular, "attachment" refers to how secure the child feels and behaves with its primary caretaker.

The  two sides of the "debate" in the issue are represented by Jerome Kagan, Ph.D. on the one hand, and the tandem of Alan Sroufe, Ph.D. and Daniel Siegel, M.D. on the other. Kagan researches the effects of inborn temperament, personality, and neurobiology.  Strouffe is a developmental child psychologist.  Siegel is a UCLA psychiatrist who wrote a highly influential book called The Developing Mind.

Jerome Kagan

Alan Sroufe

Daniel Siegel
Jerome Kagan thinks that the "pro" attachment side downplays the importance of both cultural influences and inborn, genetically determined temperament in creating an adult's personality and vulnerability to psychiatric disorders.  "Temperament refers to an inborn predisposition to experience certain feelings and display particular behavior during the early years," he explains. 

The intial work on innate differences in infants in qualities such as activity levels and reactivity was done by child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas.  The temperament issue represents the "nature" side of the nature-nurture debate.

The "nurture" side of this debate centers around the thesis that the emotional quality of our earliest attachments is a far most important influence on human development than inborn temperament.  Attachment theorists pay particular attention to something they call attunement, which they believe is more important in creating the quality of the infant's attachment than, say, the mother's general traits such as maternal warmth.

Sroufe and Siegal explain, "Attunement, or sensitivity, requires that the caregiver perceive, make sense of, and respond in a timely and effective manner to the actual moment-to-moment signals sent by the child."  The parent has to figure out, for example, how much emotional stimulation a baby needs at any given time.  Too much or too little can disturb the baby, and the baby's need is not a constant but varies widely over even brief periods of time.

I think this whole debate is somewhat silly and depends for its existence on an assumption about attachment that really does not make a lot of sense to me, as I will describe shortly. 

So what do I think is more important in human development, inborn temperament or attachment relationships?  Well first of all, both of these variables always contribute to development.  Second, inborn temperament itself affects and alters attachment patterns.   For example, a colicky infant with an insecure  and anxious mother is a bad combination, while the same mother with a quiet child may do a lot better parenting job in regards to attunement.

The answer to the question as to whether temperament or attachment patterns has the greater effect on ultimate development is, as with almost any question in psychology, it depends.  If the family is accepting and validates the innate predispositions of the child, you get one result.  If they invalidate and denigrate them, you get an entire different result.  The way the child acts also can elicit invalidating reactions from peers and teachers, leading to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, as Kagan points out.

Neither side talks about the importance of the choices a person makes, the reasoning they use, or their problem solving strategies in the determination of how a person ultimately acts.

Furthermore, the attunement of the parent to the baby, and what behaviors the parents validate or invalidate, can be quite different at different times. Plus,  there are literally hundreds of other influences on the child which also vary in time. 

With all these factors at work, there is also an effect from what scientists refer to as chaos, in which small changes in initial conditions can lead to big differences in complex phenomena like human behavior later on. This is known as the butterfly effect: the presence or absence of a butterfly flapping its wings could lead to creation or absence of a hurricane. 

It is interesting that the debaters do seem to agree on some points.  Both agree that serious neglect or abuse of infants during their first year or two of life can harm the child's future psychological development. 

I actually disagree somewhat and think that infants are more resilient than they seem to think.  For example, say the mother had an untreated post-partum depression during a baby's early life, but then got treated and became far more attuned to the child.  Chances are, any ill effects of the child's experience during the first two years of life would then be reversed.
In this vein, both sides also agree that human psychology can change depending on later experience.  If it could not, then they would both have to think that psychotherapy would be a complete waste of time.  They agree that neither biology nor parenting experience is destiny.  I should certainly hope so.  If we could not adapt to changing environments, our species would have died out eons ago.

Kagan also says another important thing which sometimes gets lost in nature versus nurture debates. Genetic influences on behavior do not determine later personality variables so much as limit them.  This is easier to see with physical traits.  No matter how much Danny DeVito might have trained as a young man, he would never have been able to swim as fast as Michael Phelps did.  Wrong constitution!  This does not mean, however, that training would not have improved DeVito's lap times.
A hidden assumption in the whole debate that drives me bonkers is that the most salient patterns in the primary relationship between children and their parents somehow no longer influence a child past the age of two.  Or if you are a psychoanalyst, past the age of five.  Attunement, invalidation, the interactions between the temperaments of parents and children - in short, all of the most salient aspects of their relationship - often continue on and on in slightly altered forms, almost until somebody dies. 
If you study the "persistence" of temperament and the security of attachment from childhood to adulthood, and draw conclusions based on just what happened in the first two years of life, you ignore this fact.  If a two year old has an insecure attachment with an unattuned mother, but is taken away from that mother and raised by someone else, you would get a very different view of this "persistence."  Similarly, if you limit the effects of attachment to only early attachment, you are ignoring the effects of extremely important family dynamics all through childhood and early adulthood. 
Both sides in the "debate" define attachment the same way.  Since controlling for all the variables is impossible, findings in the research literature will often conflict with each other.  Depending on how studies were structured, it is easy to find studies that over-estimate the importance of attachment in the first two years, and others that under-estimate it.   If on the other hand you assume that the early influences might continue on in time, and determine what they actually were, the "debate" all but disappears.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree (about the artificial emphasis on early childhood as a determining factor in later development); my personal hypothesis is that it is a hangover of Freudian thinking which the profession has yet to eradicate (if it's even trying).

    I also think it can have iatrogenic consequences, as for most adults talking about their childhood can have a (negative) regressive effect (at least it does for me); for me most of the impactful negative events of my life happened in late adolescence/early adulthood (of course you can say that the roots of those crises were in early childhood but then you're veering into non-falsifiability).

    (I do think there's something perhaps about Jewish culture [which defines so much of the mental health profession] in which people are very comfortable [perhaps too much] talking about themselves as children maybe as a result of historic marginalization the parents overindulge their kids before they go out into the [presumably anti-Semitic] "real" world? Just a thought.)