Tuesday, March 10, 2020

P.C. Feminism and the Misinterpretation of Attachment Theory

Some feminists hate attachment theory. Their influence may be part of the reason so many psychotherapists ignore its important implications. Attachment theory is a set of ideas based on the theories of psychoanalyst John Bowlby and strong experimental evidence created by Canadian psychologist Mary Ainworth. Ainsworth was of course herself a working woman, although she was divorced and never had children of her own.

Ainsworth sat behind a two-way mirror for years and watched one-year-olds playing with their mothers. She noted what happened when the mother left the room for a few minutes and how the child responded when she returned. She then took the study a stage further and studied what happened when, instead of the mother, a stranger entered the room and tried to engage with the child. Ainsworth's "Strange Situation" study, together with Bowlby's theory, showed that how a child developed their social response patterns was the direct result of the way the child's main carer responded to and engaged with them. 

A neglectful, stressed or inconsistent parent tended to create an anxious, insecure or avoidant children. These patterns were later found to accurately predict how those children behaved between the ages of five and eight.

Feminists argued: watching babies - what kind of proof is that? How can anyone know what a baby is thinking and feeling? Isn't it all just woolly liberal conjecture? Gee, actually observing what is going on and seeing the same patterns over and over again. Why, isn’t that anecdotal? Unlike, I suppose asking research subjects to tell you what they are thinking. Now that’s objective data!

They accused attachment theorists of being against working women and wanting to shackle women to the home. I guess that they thought the implications of the theory were that women needed to be home 24/7 or they would destroy their children. Shades of evolutionary psychologists attacking anyone who dared study or even talk about kin selection, the tendency of human individuals to sacrifice themselves if their kin group or tribe seemed to require it, because it might be used to justify social Darwinism. Well, I guess it could be used that way, but it certainly does not have to be.

Even if the attachment science actually did prove that it is far better for children to have stay-at-home mothers, that would not mean inconvenient realities should be ignored. But luckily, it doesn’t that at all! Unfortunately, even the purveyors of attachment theory often misinterpret the data from Ainsworth’s experiments, due to a logical error and a phony assumption. Ainsworth herself was skeptical about the viability of working motherhood, but, unlike Bowlby, admitted the possibility that supplemental mothering could be arranged without harm to the child.

The logical error is equating quality with quantity. Just because a little of something is a good thing, this hardly means that a whole lot of it is even better. Sometimes a lot is worse! The dose makes the difference between a nutrient a poison. It is not how often the mothers in the experiments interact with their babies, it’s the type of interactions. Maybe the kids also need to start having time by themselves as well as time with other children learning how to deal with them.

The false assumption is that the data that shows that the early patterns predicted the later patterns must mean than any “damage” done to the child’s brain must be permanent. That would of course mean that human beings could never adapt to new social contingencies, something that is clearly nonsense. Our species would not have survived if adaptation were not possible after the age of two!

This interpretation of the experimental findings ignores the fact that the five to eight year olds are continuing to be exposed to the exact same problematic parenting behavior which had triggered and reinforced the earlier behavior. Shades of the bullshit about cognitive development I posted about in my review of the book The Myth of the First Three Years.

What about the “strange situation” phenomenon? Well, the limits of the data are clearly implied in its name. This is what happens when a complete stranger enters the picture, not a familiar adult from, say, a day care center or a Kibbutz in Israel.

Many (but hardly all) children from abusive homes who are adopted out to loving families do indeed continue to show the effects of the earlier trauma, but that does not mean that earlier physiological changes are irreversible. The fact that some children do in fact get much better while others continue to have problems is most likely due to the behavior of the adoptive parents. 

They may not know how to deal well with the obviously difficult behavior of these children and so may inadvertently continue to feed into these children’s problematic behavior. It is not at all obvious how to respond to disturbed kids, and even if you know how, doing so consistently in the face of frequent child misbehavior (which is key) is tremendously challenging. Others may have learned what to do about it and stuck with it – maybe just from watching the TV show Supernanny – and voila, the kids become well adjusted.

In fact, children benefit tremendously from having a happy, fulfilled mother who isn’t feeling guilty. I’ve written extensively about my contrary-to-the-popular-wisdom understanding about how children learn to read their parents' behavior. (Speaking of Supernanny, there was a recent episode in which a father wondered why his son said he thought his Dad liked to clean the toilets at home. The son answered, “Because you do it all the time.” That’s what I’m talking about!).

Human babies are born wired for survival. We are wired to learn how to survive through interacting with other people. Throughout life.