Attachment describes a strong, emotional bond that endures over time between an infant and their caregiver. It is an important bond that results in desire to stay strong physically. One of the theories how attachment works and forms is called the learning theory. This theory focuses on how the bond of attachment forms through an infant’s psychological needs and how the caregiver responds to those needs on a survival basis. Learning theory suggests that attachments are learned through a satisfaction of drives.
They are learned through classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning. Classical conditioning refers to involuntary responses and how the transfer to new situations. The procedure involves a pairing of stimulus and response, with a subject that comes to represent the given response. For example, if an infant were happy after being fed by its caregiver, it would soon learn so associate through food and soon the caregiver will produce a learned or conditioned response of pleasure and relief.
Operant conditioning is a process by which humans and animals learn to behave in such a way as to obtain rewards and avoid punishments. The procedure involves the infant getting pleasure from the presence of the caregiver and therefore engages in behaviour that encourages it. The caregiver gets pleasure from infant’s reinforcing behaviour and therefore engages in behaviour that encourages it. The reinforcement process is reciprocal – the infant and caregiver reinforce the behaviour of theirs and strengthen the bond.
Social learning is where we imitate behaviours of a model, usually the primary caregiver. Infants watch the caring behaviour of models (parents) and then imitate. So the learning happens through observation of those people around us. However, evidence suggests that infants can become attached to adults who are not involved in feeding or basic care-giving. Harlow’s theory proves this with a study on monkeys – he found out that infant monkeys seek attachment with the comforting mother rather than with the one providing food.