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Juan Carlos Garelli


As a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst I have been involved with aggression psychology-related issues since the very beginning of my practice.

For many years I have been doing research on early parent-offspring early attachment bonds, and have found that human relationships are deeply rooted in early development in several respects.

Naturalistic and experimental prospective studies have steadily shown that early attachments are positively correlated with adults' attitudes towards one's peers, one's children, parents, friends, close kin, spouses, communities, one's environment and cultural vogues and prejudices, one's views on current educational systems, one's views on politics and friendship, one's capacity to love and be loved, with cruelty, parenthood, aggressiveness, and so on.

As a clinician and researcher, I have adopted a multidisciplinary approach to relationships generally, and to aggressiveness or aggressive relationships, in particular as that advanced by Bowlby's Theory of Attachment.

As Seymour Feshbach (1987), states, early attachments and adult political ideology, patriotism, nationalism and internationalism are deeply related in that similar mechanisms mediate early attachments to caregivers and later attachment to one's culture and nation. The tendency to equate nations with parental figures suggests that one's nation and government are often viewed in terms of parental imagery and that there is a similarity between affective attachment towards parents and affective attachments towards one's nation.

In fact, the primary question addressed in conversations with Professor Feshbach was the role of affect-related factors, particularly values, as possible mediators of individual differences in attitudes towards nuclear armament-disarmament issues. One such factor is value placed on children. Those individuals who have greater affection for children or who are more supportive of devoting national resources towards meeting children's needs being more supportive of nuclear disarmament and a nuclear test moratorium. Studying patriotic and nationalistic values, I learned that patriotism, but not nationalism, was found to be positively correlated with early paternal attachment while nationalism, but not patriotism, was found to be significantly related to pronuclear armament views. (Feshbach, 1989, 1992)

From a different vantage point -but equally related to aggression issues- I entered the field of the bully-victim problem in schools where I found that anxiously avoidant attached children were astoundingly prone to become bullies over anxiously resistant attached children (Ainsworth et al, 1978).

Several Attachment Theorists have related the phenomenon of bullying to pervasive pathological patterns of attachment enduring since the making of early affectional bonds. Using the Ainsworth Strange Situation test, administered at age 12 months, has enabled researchers to engage in prospective, longitudinal studies correlating quality of attachment at age 1 with bully/victim interactions at age 5-7. They found that anxiously attached infants equated positively with either bullies or victims 4-6 years later. Anxious-resistant children correlated with victims, whereas anxious-avoidant children correlated with bullies. Securely attached children did not correlate with either category. (Sroufe, 1988)

Four clear-cut actual interactions were found to occur: First, bullies usually victimized vulnerable, insecure children. Second, insecure children tended to become attached to their victimizers. Third, Secure children neither victimized nor were prone to be victimized. Fourth, bullies ocassionally victimized other bullies, who were found to be less cruel and less affectionately detached.

These studies have been enhanced and furthered into late childhoood and adolescence by Olweus in Scandinavia. On a large-scale study over more than 530,000 Norwegian students in elementary and secondary/junior high schools (grades 1-9; ages 7-16), about 15 % of the sample were found to be involved in bully/victim problems. Approximately 9 %, or 52,000 students were victims, and 41,000, or 7 % bullied other students regularly. About 9,000 students fell within the category of both victims and bully (1.6 %). (Olweus 1994).

Since the prospective studies mentioned above render early detection of both would-be bullies and victims possible, prevention of such phenomenal deployment of aggression and suffering in childhood is a necessary endeavour to be undertaken, insofar as the communities at large are made aware of the perils entailed by remaining passive in the face of anxiously attached infants, thus calling for government and non-government organizations to engage in preventative campaigns aimed at ensuring and strengthening parent-infant bonds.


Bowlby's Attachment Theory advances a multidisciplinary stance in which psychoanalysis is integrated with ethology and sociobiology, psychobiology, the cybernetic theory of control systems and modern structural approach to cognitive development. In spite of the fact that the integration of these disciplines was first undertaken in order to understand the origin, function and development of the child's early socio-emotional relations, Bowlby's Theory of Attachment is in actual fact deeply embedded in a general theory of behaviour which is an outgrowth of these manifold origins.

The concept of attachment as conceived by Bowlby differs deeply from other theoretical approaches in a number of important respects. For instance, attachment behaviour is seen as belonging to a behavioural system (Bowlby (1969-1982): A & L, vol. 1: Attachment) and not in terms of a particular discrete behaviour. The expression "behavioural system" has been borrowed by Bowlby from the ethologists who use it instead of the term 'instinct', insofar as this term is viewed as nonexplanatory and furthermore leading to simplistic theorization.

The term "behavioural system" stands for the underlying organizational structure mediating a variety of observable discrete behaviours. Even though this underlying structure is thought to be neuroendocrine in nature, no claim is forwarded as to extant isomorphic mechanisms within the CNS with the proposed behavioural systems. The hypothesis Bowlby advances is akin to a software programme whereby computerized application performs certain tasks withouth tight references to the kind of circuitry the computer is equipped with.

Behavioural systems are assisted by feedback mechanisms allowing the individual to correct the ongoing behaviour which may show certain degrees of discrepancy with the behaviour which is necessary to attain the desired goal.

The attachment behavioural system in human infants is mediated by discrete observable behaviours: smiling, crying, following, approaching, clinging, etc. Each and every behaviour has the predictable outcome of increasing proximity with the caregiver. The attachment behavioural systems is also mediated by feelings in concordance with the state of the relationship. The advantage of counting with a behavioural system of this kind lies in that it is unnecessary and redundant to postulate discrete behavioural systems for each category of an attachment relationship, such as loving, rejoicing, mourning, yearning, and so on. (Cf. "newer" approaches by Kevin MacDonald, Phil Shaver, Mary Main, Kim Bartholomew, Inge Bretherton, Joy Osofsky, etc.)

Pride of place is given in Bowlby's Theory of Attachment to the biological function of behaviour (Bowlby, A & L, vols 1-3). According to contemporary evolutionary thinking, structures and behavioural systems are now present in the population because they contributed to the reproductive success of the bearers in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (which is the environment in which the species emerged). What is then the biological function of attachment, that which gives survival advantage to the individuals genetically biased to seek and keep proximity between infant and caregiver?: protection of the infant from harm.

Under certain ecological conditions, Natural Selection favours individuals who invest heavily on childcare and upbringing. These parents protect (they actually protect their own genes) their offspring from predatory and parasitic animals.

During evolutionary time, strong selection pressures have led individuals to discriminatebetween their own and other young (Bateson, PPG, 1979). Filial imprinting is a phenomenon whereby the young quickly learn to recognize their parents thereby following them everywhere, keeping proximity to them and avoiding contact with any other but close kin. The young need to discriminate between the parent that cares for them and other member of their species because parents discriminate between their own offspring and other young of the same species and may actually attack young which are not their own.

Both selective pressures, protection from predation and filial imprinting contribute in important ways to the formation and strengthening of attachment bonds, serving the purpose of obtaining and maintaining an optimal proximity between young and parents.

In a paper entitled "The Nature of the Child's Tie to His Mother" (1958, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-73) Bowlby proposes that the infant's bond with his mother is mediated by just such species-characteristic behaviour patterns and not by the mother's role in feeding or otherwise satisfying the infant's biological needs. Thus attachment behaviour is held to be a kind of social behaviour tantamount to that of mating or parental behaviour and is deemed to have a function specific to itself.

A human infant's attachment behavioural system becomes apparent through discrete observable such as smiling and crying, which are deemed to possess a signalling function that serves to activate maternal behaviour and bring the adult into proximity to the child.

Rooting, grasping, sucking, following, approaching, clinging are behaviours whereby the infant plays an active role in seeking proximity and contact. As from birth these behaviours become coordinated and focused on the mother (or attachment figure) to form the basis of attachment. In any case, the infant becomes attached to the caregiver with whom he has had more interaction, generally his mother. As the infant develops, he becomes increasingly effective in seeking and maintaining proximity to his preferred figure.

When the child achieves locomotion a new behavioural system becomes activated, that of exploratory behaviour. Exploration of the environment is antithetical to attachment. It is of the utmost importance to focus the relationship of the infant to his mother as keeping a balance in the interplay between both systems.

One of the most important functions of the attachment behavioural system is to intervene in the baby's excursions into the environment, in response to a variety of potentially dangerous events, thereby deactivating the exploratory system and activating the attachment system thus seeking proximity to his mother.

Several studies show that children approach their caregivers not only in response to dangerous external stimuli but also they do so to check the availability and attentiveness of the caregiver, in a sort of permanent monitoring activity. After such checking the childwanders off to play again; after a while he returns again, and so on. This kind of of behavioural pattern is referred to in the literature as the baby using his mother as a Secure Base (Ainsworth, 1978, Patterns of Attachment).

Affectional bonds are formed as a result of interactions with the attachment figure, that is to say, between child and parent. Emotional life is seen as dependent on the formation, maintenance, disruption or renewal of attachment relationships. Consequently, the psychology and psychopathology of emotion is deemed to be largely the psychology and psychopathology of affectional bonds.

Psychopathology is regarded as due to a person having suffered or still be suffering the consequences of disturbed patterns of attachment, leading the person to have followed a deviant pathway of development. Infancy, chilhood and adolescence are seen as sensitive periods during which attachment behaviour develops -normally or deviously- according to the experience the individual has with his attachment figures.

Finally, loss or threat of loss of the attachment figure is seen as the principal pathogenic agent in the development of psychopathology.

As regards the development of anti-social, aggressive behaviour, it has been found that psychopathy generally, and felony, in particular, are deeply rooted in early histories of deserting,threatening, violent parents. Furthermore, confirmed psychopaths such as criminals, murderers and other systematic social offenders; delinquents, in a word, usually report histories of early adverse parental attitudes and disrupted relationships, particularly mother threats of desertion as a means of discipline. Moreover, a vicious spiral seems to arise from the mixed feeling of anxiety and anger aroused by threats of this kind. For, while on the one hand a child is made furiously angry by a parent's threat to desert, on the other. he dare not express that anger in case it makes the parent actually do so. This is the main reason why in these cases anger at a parent usually turns repressed and is then redirected to other targets: spouses, siblings, children, friends, profession, institutions, armies, or even more vulnerable targets: feeble schoolmates, feeble couples, feeble friends, parents, relatives, institutions, nations, and so on.

Preventative interventions should be the natural outcome of research on early mother-infant relationships. It is an undebatable issue that it proves far more fruitful to prevent a condition from becoming established than attmpt to erradicate it once settled in. For instance, it would be much better to try to prevent mother-child separation at early stages of development -if humanly possible- than trying to cure an adult from the emotional derangement the said separation brings about.



-Ainsworth, Waters, Blehar & Wall (1978). Patterns of Attachment. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

-Bateson, PPG (1979), "How do sensitive periods arise and what are they for?", Animal Behaviour, 27, 470-86

-Bowlby, John, 1982 (1969), Attachment and Loss, Vol 1: Attachment. London: The Hogarth Press.

-Bowlby, John, (1973), Attachment and Loss, Vol 2: Separation. London: The Hogarth Press.

-Bowlby, John, (1980), Attachment and Loss, Vol 3: Loss. London: The Hogarth Press.

-Feshbach, Seymour, (1987), Individual Aggression, National Attachment, and the Search for Peace: Psychological Perspectives,Aggressive Behavior, Vol 13, pp.315/25

-Feshbach, Seymour (1992), Parental Attachments, National Attachments and Attitudes Towards War: Some Further Explorations and Thoughts. In: A. Fraczek and H. Zumkley (Eds.), Socialization and Aggression. NY: Springer-Verlag

-Garelli, Juan C. (1992). Ethological Roots of the Theory of Attachment. In: E. Waczda and H. Trumpet (Eds.), Early Development Today. New York: Basic Books

-Garelli, Juan C. (1992). Amodal Perception. International Journal of Personal Relationships 4, 7, 456-489

-Olweus (1994), Annotation: Bullying at School, J. Child Psychol. Psychiat. Vol 35, No. 7, pp 1171/90.

-Sroufe, Alan (1988), The Coherence of Family Relationships. In: R.A. Hinde and J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds.), Relationships Within Families. Oxford: Clarendon Press.