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DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF ATTACHMENT MEASURES
by
Juan Carlos Garelli. M.D.
 
People seem to believe that Mary Ainsworth's Strange Situation Test marks a non plus ultra way of
accessing the secrets of mother-intant affectional bonds. Nothing can be further from the truth,

Mary Ainsworth's Strange Situation Test was designed to show the activartion and the deactivation of
the Attachment Behavioural System, which is exactly what it does. It shows that when an infant is
attached  to his mother, separation activates the Behavioural Attachment  System, and reunion
deactivates it, that is all. To believe that such a  procedure entails attachment patterns of behaviour is a gross mistake. If you want to probe into the intricate paths of the making of attachment bonds, you
need to get inside the mother-infant interaction dynamics a great deal  further. (See also my "Controversial aspects of the Theory of Attachment")

Even worse, Adult Attachment measures proliferate across the USA as mushrooms. Mary Main, Kim
Bartholomew. Cindy Hazan, Phil Shaver and others have devised boyish methods, mainly supported by
self-report on the reductionist assumption that attachment is such a simple trait as, say, a political
poll. But even worse, still, they take Mary Ainsworth's Strange Situation Test for granted.

Anybody committed enough with children's problems could observe that a simple videotaped play
seance of mother or father-infant interactions at ages 4-6 months proves far more telling about the
nature of the relationship than Ainsworth's SS.

But even  far worse still, is the very attempt to measure attachment, attachment is not measurable, nor should it be. Trying to measure attachment is one of the absurdest things one can think of. I t would amount to trying to measure Mozart's Requiem impact on the organization of German fascism. How on earth are you to measure the very basis of affectional bonds? This is for the birds. Perhaps for publishing in the Readers's Digest, or some sort of yellow journalism of that sort.

Mary Ainsworth and her team are partly responsible for this awful blunder. They wrote and published a perfectly exemptible book: Patterns of Attachment, where they wrongly infer that a few seconds' observation on reunion after separation during the SS is evidence enough to advance the theory that we all harbour attachment patterns intrapsychically which are bound to endure throughout our lives. Thus, if an infant is classified as AVOIDANT, he is doomed to behave rather detachedly the rest of his life, be prone to bullying and engross the files of drug-addicts, delinquents, psychopathic, asocial personalities. As I have pointed out elsewhere, using Attachment Theory to infer intrapsychic constructs impoverishes the theory, harks it back to psychoanalysis, and does away with the most valued asset the theory has: the interactionist approach. There are no such things as Attachment Patterns or Attachment Styles ingrained in anybody's personality.

Unfortunately, all subsequent studies by Cindy Hazan, Kim Bartholomew, Everett Waters, Charles Zeehah, Phil Shaver, Alan Sroufe, Byron Egeland Mary Main, Pat Crittenden, Phil Shaver, Kobak, Cassidy, Inge Bretherton, Weiss, and so on, are entirely based on Mary Ainsworth's Strange Situation Test. From time immemorial, (in fact, since Aristotle) we know that false premises lead to false conclusions. More importantly, they reverse Ainsworth's inferences and find that an "avoidant adult" must have been an avoidant infant, thus adding blunder over blunder by  falling in the retrospection-extrapolation snare Freud had set with his fixation stages and needlessly complicating psychopathology terminology, for what on earth is a "dismissive-avoidant"?, a new psychopathological category?, a condition? a character trait? a CIA agent?

These false conclusions bring out Stereotyped Approaches which do but mar the chance to advance on Infant Mental Health prevention, research and treatment.

Attachment Measures make a perfect example of Stereotyped Approaches.

Stereotyped Approaches typically show pre-scientific attempts at dealing with aspects of reality. They
are all alike regardless of the discipline they address. Bowlby's theory of attachment and particularly its
American reformulations display medieval persuasions on how to tackle human problems beyond our
present, inchoate understanding.

Thus, alchemists believed that in order to explain thermodynamics, it sufficed to make up teleological
theoretical entities or "principles" that invariably begged the question from the outset (just as in, e.g.,
Phil Shaver's "I worry about being abandoned"). Priestly (Joseph) believed that oxygen was
"dephlogisticated air", because as it spurts into the scientific observer's eye, for a physical object to
turn into flames -a process known as combustion- it must harbour a potentially flammable substance,
appropriately called "phlogiston" (from the Greek "phlogistos": flammable). So, when a wooden stick
burned, it was simply liberating phlogiston which, of course, became flames by the very liberating
process. Easy, ain't it? The same went with countless other examples in the history of science.

Therefore, typically and of fundamental importance, those who work in a stereotyped manner believe
they understand the case completely from the outset. Large-scale formulations are made very early. The
primary aim is to fit the case into the theory that forms the basis for the early formulations (e.g., Phil
Shaver's assertion that his methods and those used by his colleagues, Mary Main, Kim Bartholomew and
others are perfectly scientific, and that their conclusions are no mere hypotheses but revealed truth).
Meanings, facts, truths are assumed rather than discovered.

Specifically regarding the Attachment issues here at stake,

1. The primary aim of Attachment Theorists -particularly Shaver, Main, Bartholomew, Brennan, Fraley, Belsky, Hazan, and others- is to fit the case into the clinical theory that forms the basis for the a priori
formulations. The clinical theory being their reformulation of Bowlby's original theory of attachment.
Therefore, they assume everything, they know everything, they have nothing to discover.

2. The measures process they carry out, mostly in the guise of crude interviews, is viewed as an
attempt to get the interviewee fit into the initial formulation. To carry this out, data presented are
merely filtered and forced or collapsed into the formulation. (Those interested in more detail about the
kind of coarse questions  interviewees are submitted to, take a look at Phil Shaver's site:
http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/shaver.lab.html).

3. A tendentious approach is taken, and alternative approaches are neglected, debased or not even
recognized. The measures procedure is then erected as a paradigm, tantamount to a process of
indoctrination.

4. There is a striking tendency for these measures-makers to believe they possess an understanding
of the "truth", that they have a  privileged awareness of the nature of people's affectional bonds.
Tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity is not a hallmark of their work.
They tend to present formulations dogmatically. Although some of them will often say that their
conclusions are little more than hypotheses and that the clinical theory they ground their assertions on
is likewise only a body of general hypotheses, in actual practice, their results are all too often treated as
facts and clinical theory is all too often treated as unequivocal truth, as scientifically established
clinical law. (BTW, anyway, they deny they use a clinical theory).

5. These measures-makers tend to think and write, not in terms of  children and parents's
experiences, but in highly intellectualized jargon, in clichés based on supposedly true clinical facts. I
refer here to their endlessly repeated "Separation Anxiety", "Attachment Figure", "Anxious
Attachment", "Attachment Styles", "Self-report Attachment Measures", "Romantic Attachment",
"Dismissive Avoidance", and the like; all concepts deriving directly from the clinical theories
of Bowlby and his followers. The tendency to think in clichés is associated with a reductionism:
simplistic, limited, cliché-ridden meanings are attributed to highly complex phenomena which may
have multiple meanings or that change over time. Responses to the tendentious
measures are viewed essentially as exemplifying attachment theory, or their version of attachment
theory. The full richness and vividness of individual experiences are lost.

Heuristic vs. Algorithmic Strategies

Heuristic strategies are used when we face highly complex unpredictable processes because they direct
thinking along paths more likely to lead us to a desired goal, less promising avenues being left
unexplored.

Heuristic strategies guide the rearing of children with the goal that they have emotionally healthy lives;
no strategies exist that automatically guarantee success in this area. Interpersonal relationships (which
may have various goals) are all conducted by heuristic strategies. Fortunately, we can revise our
heuristic strategies -by means of error-correcting feedback- depending on the
success or failure in attaining our desired goal.

Two categories of strategies are available to us -algorithmic and heuristic. Algorithmic strategies are
plans for prescribed step-by-step procedures, which, if slavishly followed, guarantee
solution; they inevitably lead to the desired goal. We use such strategies when the number of variables is small and complexity is comparatively not great. Cooking according to a recipe is to use an algorithm.
Algorithmic methods are used to solve algebraic problems. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is performed
algorithmically.

Attachment measures are algorithms; the methodology measure-makers use to create avoidance and
anxiety dimensions, attachment-style categories, attachment-dimension scales, etc., is algorithmic.
They  practice prophecy and oracular psychology.

But because so many aspects of our lives are complex, uncertain, and unpredictable, algorithmic
strategies are not always adequate. Heuristic strategies are used instead. Heuristic strategies are rules
of thumb, or guidelines that may or may not be successful in attaining a desired goal. Webster reads: 1.
Of an educational method in which students learn through investigation and discovery. 2. Computer
Science. Of a problem-solving technique in which the best solution is selected at successive stages of a
program. [From Greek heuriskein, find.]

In distinct contrast to the heuristic approach I am advocating, Attachment measures-makers use
an algorithmic approach. They seem to feel happy with statements emanating directly from the theory
they adhere to and have their clinical interviews confirm the theory, nay, not only confirm, but also
predict patterns of attachment for generations to come.

A nontrivial system of great complexity which has been studied extensively in recent years is the game of chess. It has been estimated that there are 10 to the power of 120 (a 1 followed by 120 zeros) different
possible sequences of moves from the beginning of a standard chess game. And if proceeding
algorithmically even the fastest supercomputers would require years to scan all the possible sequences of moves and their consequences before deciding what to do. To play a winning game, human beings
employ special heuristic strategies which select what are likely to be the best moves from the
astronomical number of possible ones. These strategies guide the moves in the local immediate situation
at any moment (To work out heuristic chess-playing computer programs, much time is spent
interviewing good chess players to find out the nature of their individual strategies. They are asked to do the equivalent of free association as they play, thus revealing their strategies and general thinking).

References

Ainsworth, Mary, et. al. (1977) Patterns of Attachment. New York: Basic Books

Bowlby, John (1958) The Nature of The Child's Tie to His Mother, International Journal of
Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-73.

Bowlby, John (1960a) Separation Anxiety, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 89-113.

Bowlby, John (1960b) Grief and Mourning in Infancy and Early Childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of The
Child, 15, 9-52.

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

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

Freud, Sigmund (1938) An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Standard Edition, 23, pp. 163-4.

Garelli, JC (1989) Critique of Psychoanalytic Reason. (In Spanish: Crítica de la Razón Psicoanalítica.
Buenos Aires: Troquel).

Garelli, JC (1989) Early separations. (In Spanish: Separaciones Tempranas. Buenos Aires: Archivos de la Sociedad Argentina de Pediatría).

Garelli. JC (1989) Controversial Aspects of Bowlby's Attachment Theory. This site

Peterfreund, E. (1985) Strategies in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

Rapaport and Gill (1959) Beyond Metapsychology, New York:  Psychological Issues.