Attachment theory through a cultural lens


In an article titled “Attachment and Culture (citation below),” Heidi Keller exposes attachment theory’s Western, middle-class assumptions. She argues:

“… the definition of attachment in mainstream attachment research are in line with the conception of psychological autonomy, adaptive for Western middle-class, but deviate from the cultural values of many non-Western and mainly rural ecosocial environments.”

Keller shows how attachment theory, particularly research that follows on the heels of John Bowlby’s original theory and Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure, assumes the most formative attachment relationship occurs between a mother and her infant. (For a further discussion of Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s work, see my post, Let There Be Love!) But Keller points out that the primacy of the mother-infant bond for attachment may only be the norm “in Western middle-class families which compose less than 5% of the world’s population.”

In most cultures and socioeconomic groups, limited resources and daily survival needs require distributing caregiving responsibilities across a network of relatives, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, and siblings (technically called alloparenting). And although Keller doesn’t include in her study daycare centers and other forms of hired childcare workers, they also play significant roles in rearing infants for many working parents.

Even when attachment is narrowly defined and studied as occurring primarily between mother and infant, the distribution of Ainsworth’s core attachment styles differ widely across cultures. According to Ainsworth, there are three dominant attachment styles:

  • Securely attached: The infant has a sensitively attuned mother, which supports the infant in feeling safe exploring the environment as well as seeking solace and safety from mother.
  • Insecurely avoidant: The infant has experienced a loss of attachment, or mother is misattuned to the infant’s needs and expressions, which leads the infant to respond as if efforts at seeking safety or solace will go unheeded. One common consequence is inhibited emotional and physical expression.
  • Insecurely ambivalent: The mother is often inconsistent in her parenting style. These infants showed the greatest distress when mother would leave, and were also unable to explore freely when mom was present. Infants may alternatively cling to mom and push her away after she returns (resistant), or react passively as if overwhelmed by distress (passive).

Although Ainsworth’s results showed a relatively stable distribution of these three attachment styles, Keller shares research that reveals a different picture of both the proportion of each style within populations as well as alternative explanations for the different styles:

“In Northern Germany [some researchers] … replicated the Ainsworth Strange Situation with 46 mother-infant pairs and found a different distributions of attachment classifications with a higher number of avoidant infants: 52% avoidant, 34% secure, and 13% resistant. … The Japanese case is another example. [Researchers] … studied 60 pairs of Japanese mother-infant pairs and compared the Japanese distribution with Ainsworth’s distributional pattern. There were no significant differences in proportions of securely attached (68%) and insecurely attached (32%) infants [like Ainsworth’s results]. However, the Japanese insecure group consisted of only resistant children, with no avoidant ones… . Finally, there is the Israeli case with the … study that also revealed a high frequency of the ambivalent pattern. [The Northern Germany researchers] … interpreted their findings as expressing a greater parental push toward children’s independence, whereas the Israeli kibbutzim and the Japanese data were interpreted in terms of underexposure to strangers.”

Bowlby’s theory of attachment was originally lauded for its evolutionary approach to infant development and its focus on the significance of the attachment bond for creating a safe base in potentially dangerous environments. His work has also been foundational for understanding the nature of grief and loss, and has been expanded to look at neurobiological aspects of these experiences, including their impact on heart rate and cortisol release. Furthermore, Ainsworth’s attachment styles have been correlated with later adult attachment patterns.

Nevertheless, as Keller stresses, from a Neo-Darwinian perspective, context is a determining factor for what constitutes an adaptive attachment style, but this crucial component has often been ignored by researchers of attachment theory. Keller wrote:

“Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory … claims that contextual information is crucial for defining adaptation, thus putting variability in the very centre of evolutionary theorizing. The core assumption is that individuals need to select the behavioral alternatives that promise the highest reproductive outcomes in a particular ecological situation.”

With this interpretation of evolutionary adaptation, Keller explains:

“Therefore, secure attachment is not ‘better’ than insecure attachment but a different way to maximize reproductive success.”

This is essentially the attitude taken by trauma-informed approaches to psychotherapy such as sensorimotor psychotherapy, which supports clients in both honoring how they survived maladaptive circumstances while also developing more secure patterns of attachment/relationships.

Furthermore, as anyone who has had to overcome early childhood abuse or neglect can attest, the impact of early attachment extends beyond adaptation to include one’s value system and core sense of self. And when the culture maintains models for ‘ideal’ attachment, such as preferencing the mother-child bond, these models can inadvertently be pathologizing if your childhood was less that ideal. As Keller noted,

“Indeed, security of attachment is not simply a behavioral category; it is also a moral ideal in as much as it provides a pathway to the development of culturally valued qualities, such as self-confidence, curiosity, and psychological independence.”

I would also add that the fantasies and images we hold about attachment, such as preference for the maternal-child bond, can contribute to undervaluing other avenues to meeting attachment needs that are just as beneficial to infant development. These other relationships are obviously important to developing infants, but they are also significant for healing from histories of childhood abuse and neglect for which identifying positive relationships in one’s past can become internal models for building future capacities and relationships.


Keller, Heidi. “Attachment and Culture.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 2013, 44(2):175-194.

Wallin, David J. 2007. Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).