Attachment and Moral Development Theory

mathias-sager-attachment-moral development


This essay evaluates whether “the fundamental problem of social psychology is the moralization of the individual by the society” (McDougall, 1908 as cited in [1], p.8). Also, how does attachment theory permeate aspects of human (and ecological) relationships [2], and how are emotional, moral, and identity development and personality theory aspects intertwined? Finally, implications are suggested regarding factors that have the potential to influence attachment style throughout the lifespan and across cultures.

Attachment Theory

According to John Bowlby’s attachment theory, a child develops a secure attachment style from experiencing availability and sensitivity from primary caregivers. In contrast, caregivers who are unavailable or insensitive cause a child developing insecure attachment, and abuse and threat lead to so-called disorganized attachment styles comprising of anxious and avoidant types [3]. Secure attachment style enables better relationships with oneself and others [3]. The preferred view of a natural need for a mother as the foundation for the traditional nuclear family that was propagated by the mid 20th-century society became challenged by Harlow’s experiments. Laboratory monkeys perished when deprived of their parents, but given a surrogate caregiver, they survived without a biological mother; they developed antisocial behavior due to the ‘machine-mother’s’ over-availability though [4]. Harlow found also that peer relationships (e.g., playmates) allowed monkey infants to survive maternal deprivation or abuse, while the absence of peer experiences left them psychologically damaged [4].

Attachment styles and their effects

Attachment style is predictive of health-promoting behavior, whereas insecure attachment increases the probability of engaging in unhealthy behavior, such as risky sexual relationships, substance abuse, and poor diet [5]. Avoidant attachment prevents an individual from effective socialization, communication, and problem-solving [6]. Individual differences in mindfulness in adolescence can be traced back to early childhood background [7]. A positive (vs. harsh, controlling, or uninvolving) parenting style is associated with lower relational aggression [8]. Secure attachment is predictive of seeking help and consequently getting support [9]. Collaboration, companionship, and support from classmates, co-workers, and family affect emotional processes that are decisive in academic success, which is especially challenging in intercultural environments with differing motivations and socio-emotional competencies. A student’s connection to the school determines school success [10]. Social and emotional learning (SEL) can strengthen self-esteem, competence, and social inclusion that is supportive of the social and emotional health of youth [10]. For adolescents, new close friendships satisfy age-appropriate attachment needs [11]. The importance of high-quality peer attachment in adolescence is reflected by its negative correlation with exposure to violence [12] and depression that often impacts later romantic relationships [11].

Adult relationships and social bonding

Both child-parent and romantic partnerships follow a process from pre-attachment to a goal-corrected partnership [13]. This bonding development towards a secure base is possible without secure attachment style of the partners. A couple defines each other as primary origin of support, whether this is effective or not [13]. Romantic relationships may compensate for insecure attachment and related adverse developmental consequences; therefore, a secure partner’s behavior may directly alleviate an avoidant or anxiously attached partner’s concerns [14]. Attachment in adulthood is also related to Hirschi’s Social Bonding Model. One’s attachment to norms as established by a workplace could be measured by job satisfaction that was found to be predictive of rule-breaking ideation and toleration [15].

Moral development

Is morality the result of socialization from child-rearing, education, and promotion of norms? Lawrence Kohlberg with his influential research on moral development from the 1960s onwards provided evidence that already young children care about the needs and suffering of others and take spontaneous action to help [16]. An indirect relationship between moral reasoning and attachment theory exists regarding secure attachment being favorable for cognitive development [17]. Early social relationships foster empathy [18], which might be important for moral behavior. A 7-month-old child’s lowered attentional bias toward fearful facial expressions and the resulting less intensive engagement with the social contact was found to be predictive for lower attachment security at the age of 14 months [19]. An infant’s egocentrism has to be seen as a cognitive inability to coordinate own and others perspectives [20]. Promisingly, instructions can positively stimulate the reaching of higher moral levels [21]. Kohlberg’s successive stages of moral development range from stage 1 that is guided by fear of punishment or seeking reward up to stage six that represents an independent and overarching orientation of moral principles [15].

Factors influencing attachment and moral development

Attachment style was reported to be modestly associated with some personality traits [22]. Lonely persons might have a less positive stance towards others, what can reinforce their insecure attachment style [23]. However, personality factors such as temperament and genetics are incapable of predicting attachment [19]. Women suffer more from avoidant attachment style than male in their romantic partnerships [24]. There is, however, no gender difference in moral perspectives evidenced [15]. Religion and culture, though, can be influential on attachment orientation [6].

Emotion regulation training proved to be positively impacting attachment when targeting self-esteem as the primary reason for insecure attachment [6]. When relationship difficulties are impeding self-worth with negative influences on secure attachment, the risk for anxiety and depression increases [22]. Social anxiety mediates attachment [25], why therapies addressing anxiety work well for insecure attachment treatment [26]. Insecure attachment has been successfully addressed by attachment-informed therapy promoting positive group relationships, e.g., in the context of substance abuse to substitute inter-personal relations [27]. Motherhood itself can strengthen a mother’s self-esteem and therefore help her improve her attachment security [28]. More than a third of people who grew up without a clear sense of belonging to a particular culture experience difficulties in establishing intimate friendships, but they use their shared transnational lifestyle to bond with others [29]. Social orientation, compliance, self-control, and self-esteem are seen as preconditions for moral development [30], which are, at the same time, factors that are necessary for the healthy growth of individuals in general too.

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[10] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

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[19] Attention to Faces Expressing Negative Emotion at 7 Months Predicts Attachment Security at 14 Months. (2015). Child Development, (5), 1321. doi:10.1111/cdev.12380

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  • Has there been an increase in either “health-promoting behavior or unhealthy behavior” since 1970? With the television often used as a babysitter along with both parents working is there any notable change? There is a lot of information to absorb in your essays Mathias.

    • Hi, Dennis. Thanks a lot for your great comment. I’m happy to try to respond to the important questions you raise. Yes, I know, the essays are often a bit dense:-).
      1) There is more emphasis today on promoting health-risk sensitivity regarding, e.g., risky sexual behavior, drug use, etc. but also more money is spent to increase consumerism that has unhealthy aspects such as unhealthy food. Despite all the preventive efforts from public health, health-risk behaviors like using tobacco, alcohol, avoiding seatbelts, etc. remain common. Socio-economic status and the health system are important factors, why it ‘s hard to generalize across cultures and countries.
      2) As a study from Lin et al. (2015) showed, television exposure (e.g., an hour every day) for very for children before or at age 2 is detrimental to their cognitive, language, and motor development. However, certain TV programs can also have high educative and even social and emotional learning value (in later childhood). Violent content (especially in video games) decreases empathy and increases acceptance of violence in social situations. Therefore, extent and choice of content are relevant. Regarding Internet usage and social media, these (according to Amichai-Hamburger, 2011) can be even positive for user’s social lives. For elderly, Internet use may be helpful for health care.