The Science of Attachment and Emotional Attunement


According to psychologist D. W. Winnicott (1964), humans are born to be in relationships with others. This is evidenced by infants (and, to a lesser extent, young children) being so helpless that they must rely on others for all needs to be met.

The idea that attachment can be innate is supported by Lorenz’s discovery that goslings attach to (‘imprint on’) the first moving object they see, whether goose, thing or researcher. Given the long period of human infancy, it has been argued that it is adaptive for humans to form attachments to caregivers.

The nature of this attachment was once understood as being purely utilitarian, in that the infant needed practical needs fulfilling, such as nourishment and protection. A hundred years ago, parents were even urged not to pick up their young children in order to encourage independence.

However, Harlow (1958) challenged such assumptions by proposing that infants’ need for ‘contact comfort’ is as essential, if not more so, than their need for ‘primary drives’, such as eating, to be fulfilled. In experiments with infant macaque monkeys raised in captivity and in isolation, Harlow discovered that the monkeys preferred wire frames covered in cloth to cloth-less wire frames with integrated milk feeders. In other words, when offered the choice between sustenance and the comfort of something that approximated a caregiver, the infants chose comfort.

Twenty-first century advances in neuroscience have provided evidence that humans are ‘wired to connect’ (e.g. Lieberman, 2013; Goleman, 2006), but in the mid-twentieth century, Harlow’s findings were revolutionary. They added weight to the ideas of Bowlby, who argued that children are negatively impacted by poor parenting or the loss of or separation from a parent.

Bowlby proposed that how we relate to others and ourselves, and how we experience the relationship between the two, is determined in early childhood based on our repeated experiences with caregivers. While he acknowledged this can be modified with new experiences of relating, he believed that our early lessons in attachment persist across the lifespan.

This internalised belief system he described as an ‘internal working model’ (IWM), which he regarded as templates for all relationships (Bowlby, 1969). It comprises three elements:

Self – how capable we are at getting our needs met, and how worthy we feel of this

Other – how much we can rely on significant others to comfort and care for us

Relational – how well the relationship between self and other can weather challenges and sustain effective communication

Bowlby’s theory was advanced by the work of Ainsworth (1962), who suggested four attachment types as IWMs. She found empirical support through the design of an experiment called the Strange Situation Test (SST) (Ainsworth et al, 1978).

By conducting the SST with 9-18 month olds, Ainsworth found Type B (secure attachment) infants behaved in predicted ways when reunited with their mothers after a short absence during which a stranger interacted with them. Such behaviour included being distressed at the absence of their mother and seeking and accepting comfort and emotional regulation from her when she returned.

In contrast, Type A (insecure-avoidant) infants did not appear distressed when their mothers left, and avoided interaction when they returned. Type C (insecure-resistant or ambivalent), on the other hand, sought contact with the returned mother, but then rejected her. Finally, Type D (disorganised or disoriented) exhibited contradictory behaviour and appeared apprehensive about approaching their mothers.

These researchers proposed three components of a secure attachment: emotional communication, sensitivity and mind-mindedness.

Emotional communication involves children being empowered to show a full range of emotions and learning that all emotions are valid by caregivers responding appropriately to the full spectrum of emotion states.

Sensitivity means caregivers gauge the infant’s needs and emotional states accurately and respond suitably, as opposed to over- or under-stimulating her, responding out of sync, or rejecting her.

Mind-mindedness is akin to sensitivity, in that it involves being in attunement with the infant, but it goes a step further, as to demonstrate mind-mindedness is to show accurate understanding of the child’s mental states by verbalising these. For instance, if a child is crying and the caregiver returns to comfort her, they show sensitivity, but when they also correctly recognise the child is crying because she feels distressed at their absence, and they talk to her about what’s ‘on her mind’ (e.g. “you were worried because I left the room and you wanted me to come back”), this is mind-mindedness.

Research has found that it is the number of non-attuned comments that predicts that the infant will have an insecure attachment type.

Emotional Attunement

An ‘emotion’ has five components:

1. Physiological (e.g. increased heart rate when hearing a noise in the night)

2. Behaviour (e.g. freezing or escaping)

3. Cognition (e.g. perceiving a threat)

4. Affect (e.g. fear)

5. Context (e.g. camping alone in bear country; culture’s and/or family’s attitude toward bears)

These five aspects represent the systemic nature of emotions and explains why emotional triggers, appraisal and expression are highly mediated by culture and personal interpretation.

Emotional experience emerges from the interplay between these five facets of emotion and the complex social environments we exist in (Smith and Thelen, 2003). The dynamic and interpersonal nature of emotional experience is demonstrated in Lavelli and Fogel’s (2005) study in which infants not only responded to caregivers but actively elicited interaction, so that the pairs entered a cycle of “mutual amplification”.

Tronick et al’s (1978) Still Face Paradigm (SFP) showed what happens when this dynamic interplay is interrupted. SFP involves an initial stage where infant and caregiver interact warmly, followed by a period when the carer ceases to interact and adopts a still face, followed by a return to the interaction. The findings revealed that when the interaction was disrupted, the infants were distressed, tried to reengage the carer, and managed their emotions by turning their gaze away. Once interaction resumed, the infants reengaged but with less positive affect.

The implications of this are substantial. It is evidence that infants’ emotional experience is mediated by others, which means this can be shaped – for better or for worse. In a review of the key literature, Morris et al. (2007) proposed that it is in terms of emotional regulation (ER) that caregivers affect infants’ emotional development.

Emotional regulation consists of internal and external processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating the occurrence, intensity, and expression of emotion” (Thompson, 1994, cited in Morris et al., 2007, p. 363).

There are three mechanisms by which caregivers influence infants’ emotional regulation: modelling, parenting practices, and the emotional climate of the family (Morris et al., 2007). Other factors do undoubtedly play a role, such as peers, culture and the bidirectional nature of the carer-infant relationship, but caregiver influences remain important.

Firstly, children learn through observation, and so modelling appropriate emotional responses is a means of positively influencing their development.

Secondly, parenting practices – that is, parents’ behaviour and discourse around emotions, what strategies they teach, and what their meta-emotion philosophy is – are key influencers.

Finally, the emotional climate of the family is shown to play a powerful role in children’s emotional formation, and so ensuring that this promotes emotional regulation and emotional security is essential. Emotions are contagious, and so the (dis)harmony of the familial relationships is absorbed by the child, as is the ‘family expressiveness’ (i.e. the levels of positive/negative emotions exhibited). When negativity reigns, or there is simmering unease or outright animosity between family members, or the parenting style is such that the caregivers are overly demanding or under-responsive, the child experiences emotional insecurity (because they cannot be sure their needs will be met) and emotional dysregulation (because they are overwhelmed by emotions they have not learned to regulate).


Ainsworth, M. D. (1962) ‘The effects of material deprivation: a review of findings and controversy in the context of research strategy’, Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of Its Effects, (Public Health Papers, No. 14), Geneva, World Health Organisation.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E. and Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss: Volume 1. Attachment, New York, Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (2006) Social Intelligence: The new science of human relationships, London, Arrow Books.

Harlow, H. F. (1958) ‘The nature of love’, American Psychologist, vol. 13, pp. 673-85.

Lavelli, M. and Fogel, A. (2005) ‘Developmental changes in the relationship between the infant’s attention and emotion during early face-to-face communication: the 2-month transition’, Developmental Psychology, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 265-80.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, New York, Crown Publishers.

Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., Myers, S. S., and Robinson, L. R. (2007) ‘The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation’, Social Development, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 361-388

Smith, L. B. and Thelen, E. (2003) ‘Development as a dynamic system’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 7, no. 8, pp.343-8.

Tronick, E. Z., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S. and Brazelton, T. B. (1978) ‘The infant’s response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction’, Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, vol. 17. no. 1, pp. 1-13.

Winnicott, D. W. (1964) The Child, the Family and the Outside World, London, Pelican Books.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash