Why Attachment Theory Is Wrong (And We Should Let It Die) With Dr. Jerome Kagan

Why Attachment Theory Is Wrong (And We Should Let It Die) With Dr. Jerome Kagan

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Attachment theory has received a lot of attention in education over the last 20 years - but is it just plain wrong? Are attachment interventions used in school built a foundation of sand?

In today's controversial episode, distinguished professor and author Jerome Kagan explains why we should let attachment theory die, why the evidence to support it is so poor, and what we should be doing to help our students instead.

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Show notes / transcription

Jerome Kagan  0:00  

I guess the best advice is Be gentle. Don't imply anything negative or unpleasant. And try to help each child the best you can toward their academic mastery. Stop worrying about their attachment. Let's get them reading and getting A's and B's so that they go to Oxford or Cambridge.

Simon Currigan  0:21  

Welcome to Episode 14 of school behavior secrets, your weekly deep dive into the world of smh. And behavior in schools. I should warn you, we've just had that wall painted, so I wouldn't lean there. This week, we've got something a little controversial for you. In fact, if this podcast was an episode of friends, its title would be the one where they kill attachment theory. But first I'd like to welcome my co host, Emma Shackleton to the show. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:26  

Hi there.

Simon Currigan  1:28  

And I've got a question for you. Have you ever believed in urban myths that turned out not to be true?

Emma Shackleton  1:34  

Well, the one that springs to mind is remember when everybody said that you had to drink eight glasses of water per day. And I remember at one point lining up eight glasses of water just to see how much that was and then trying to chug my way through that water throughout the day. And then it turned out that that's not actually true. You don't need to drink eight glasses of water per day because actually your food contains lots of water too.

Simon Currigan  1:59  

Well, there is a link. Today's episode is all about attachment theory, which is currently very popular here in education in the UK. And in our interview, we're going to talk to Jerome Kagan Jerome is a retired professor of psychology from Harvard University, who spent his career studying human development from birth to young adulthood. He's written numerous books on child development and psychology, and is best known for discovering to temperamental biases in influence that affect later development. He's also researched whether our early experiences affect our future personalities, talents and character.

Emma Shackleton  2:35  

So the American Psychological Association called Jerome the 22nd, most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, just above Carl Jung. And he's also been described as arguably the most revered developmental psychologist in the world. So when Jerome talks about child psychology, we should stop and listen.

Simon Currigan  2:58  

In this interview, he tells us why attachment theory is wrong, and how the pioneers of attachment Harry Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, lacked evidence to support their theories, and he tells us what we should be focusing on instead.

Emma Shackleton  3:12  

But before we get into that interview, if you enjoy the show today, or even if it's made you furious, don't forget to give us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. Every review tells Apple to recommend the podcast to all the listeners so that they can find the show and start getting the help they need to support the children in their classrooms. Now, here's Simon's interview with Jerome Kagan.

Simon Currigan  3:36  

So Jerome, welcome to the podcast. We're really excited to have you here. Okay, so today we're going to look at attachment theory. And attachment theory is getting lots of attention in the last 20 years, especially in education, where schools are spending a lot of time and money on attachment interventions to help kids with a social and emotional skills and their behavior. But is this a case of the Emperor's New Clothes? Are we just following the crowd without asking the question? Is attachment theory valid? Or is it built on a foundation of sand? Is attachment theory worth our attention at all? So let's start with the basics. Can you give us a quick primer? What is attachment theory? And what does it say about kids development and their ability to form relationships?

Jerome Kagan  4:18  

Well, this will be my longest answer, because it is the reason why attachment theory at the moment is our weak basis. First, the idea that the infants bond to the caretaker, the mother in the first year or so will affect that child's future is in fact a new idea that was born in the 16th century following the Protestant Reformation, which gave more power to women. And in the United States and some parts of England, Puritan and Protestant ministers told their 17th and 18th century audiences that what mothers did with their infants from the moment They brought them home from the hospital affected their future. Now no other culture ever made that suggestion just Puritan culture. I suspect that one reason is that Puritans as you know, valued work in order to gain salvation. And a woman's work was obviously raising a child. So that was her way to ensure salvation for herself. It is also relevant. Notice that the word love in English is used for the love of God, the love of a spouse and the love of a child. So that makes it very easy to equate the love of God with the love of a child. And I should point out that most languages don't do that. Most languages use a different verb when you're talking about the love of God versus the love of your child. Now, this idea caught hold in America in the 19th century, and also in parts of England. And notice that Freud simply accepted that early premise, he didn't question it because he talked about the oral and anal phase of development. And of course, it's the mother who nurses the child or weans it, too early and who toiletries the child. So Freud made a big deal of what the mother does in the first year herself. And not surprisingly, John Bowlby was trained in Freudian theory and believed that, incidentally, I did too, in graduate school in 1950. And it took me several years to get over. It is also important that your listeners know that Bowlby was closely attached to his governess, who left when he was four years old, and he became deeply despondent. That was a very important influence on his life. And he felt he lost his bond to this love object. So here we have John Bowlby in the 50s, wanting to believe these ideas. Now he's working at a London hospital, and his colleague, John Robertson, who's on the wards, tells him a peculiar fact he says, you know, if you leave a one year old on the ward, he or she cries, but not a six month old, or a two year old, Bowlby immediately forgot about the exceptions and said, well, that is because he or she missed his mother. Of course, that's not the reason at all. It's a discrepant, unfamiliar environment that one year olds are susceptible to. Then Bowlby visits Harry Harlow, at the University of Wisconsin and Harlow had separated infant monkeys from their mothers. And some he put on wire objects and others he put on a terry cloth covered wire objects. The ones on the wire object became very disturbed monkeys, the ones raised on a terry cloth did not and Bowlby interpreted that as meaning you see, the infant needs skin contact, he was interpreting the terry cloth and skin. And then he made his major hypothesis that the baby's interactions with the mother in the first year forms and attachment bonds. Now, John Bowlby was a very intelligent man. And he knew he needed proof of this very bold idea. And he knew he needed a way to get the respect of scientists how to measure the security of the attachment bond, Mary Ainsworth had been a student in London, she was now a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. And he gives her this assignment he says, Mary, go prove them right. That's essentially what he said

Simon Currigan  8:37  

Find my evidence.

Jerome Kagan  8:39  

So now what is Mary do, she finds a small number of middle class Baltimore infants less than 40, a very tiny group. And she sends her graduate students to the homes of these infants four or five times a year in the first year to observe what is this mother doing? She has to invent now a laboratory procedure, because she's going to measure the attachment bond of those babies that are being observed. And because Bowlby and she were certain that the baby's reaction to separation from the mother was the primary threat. She sets up what everyone knows is the strange situation. Now, in a strange situation, the mother and the baby are in a room that a stranger enters and she leaves comes back three minutes later, and later on, there's no one in the room. She leaves in the child's all alone. And what does she find? Incidentally, I should say that babies who are one year old are susceptible to the unfamiliarity of being left alone or your mother says nothing she suddenly gets up at leaps

Simon Currigan  9:45  

Is that because they becoming more aware of the world?

Unknown Speaker  9:48  

Many people have shown many people not just me, that around the world, babies cry where their mother leaves them maximally at one year. So what she finds is about 60 percent of the babies cry. But when the mother comes back, they are easily soothed 15% can't be soothed, they just keep on crying. And 15% never cried at all. Notice, Ainsworth never ever considered the possibility that the results were temporary. Because I have shown in my career, some babies are very susceptible to any kind of novelty, not just your mother leaving, and a clown comes in and these babies cry, their mothers are kissing them hugging him and they cry for several minutes. They can't be quieted, very important.

Simon Currigan  10:34  

So that's not about the connection with a mom, that's just their natural temperament, just their natural emotional setup.

Unknown Speaker  10:41  

Exactly. Incidentally, Ainsworth ignored what she observed several years earlier, several years earlier, she was in Uganda. And she noted just what I said and wrote it in a book called Infancy in Uganda. And I invite your listeners to read that book. She says, you know, some babies are very susceptible to crying when their mother leaves them independent of how loving the mother is. So she tests these infants. Now, here is the critical point. I'm going to say it slowly. No one - no investigator - has shown that the babies who are called insecure in the strange situation grow up to have more psychological problems than the secure group. Because your social class is the best predictor of every psychological problem, independent of what your behavior in the strange situation is.

Simon Currigan  11:38  

Why do you think that idea spread?

Jerome Kagan  11:40  

The idea is far less popular today than it was in the 50s and 60s, the number of papers on attachment has been linearly decreasing over the last 50 years. And now it's rare. I've read every month, the major journals, I might read one or two papers on attachment 50 years ago, I would have read it doesn't. Oh, I should say that some of your listeners may know that Mary main invented the attachment interview of adults, and then you go to infer your attachment from the interview, it turns out that it's a function of your verbal skills. And of course, people from better educated higher social class families have better coherence in your answers. So the adult attachment interview is no substitute for a measure of attachment. Now, why is this belief still popular in England? Incidentally, it's not popular on the continent. And I have said to you that it's much less popular in the United States. So here is my speculation, teachers, and therapists are the main people who believe in attachment theory. Now we know a teacher or a therapist can be more effective. If they have a theory if they believe I know what's going on here. If you don't have a theory, you're less effective teacher or therapist. So the reason I suggest to you that it lives on is that it makes teachers and therapists in England more effective. And I should point out, that's why shamans still exist in Africa. If teachers and therapists in England believe this theory is correct, which it isn't, then you're more effective. And show maybe little harm is done, unless they imply that the mother was not a loving mother. And if they do that, then they're doing harm to the family. Now, that's my long answer. Now you can ask your other questions.

Simon Currigan  13:38  

Just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in that inner circle program. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behavior. It's a comprehensive platform, filled with videos, resources, and behavior inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behavior. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behavior management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success. Resetting behavior with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions, step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to. With no minimum contract, follow us. You can now get your first seven days of inner circle for just one pound. Get the behavior answers and you've been looking forward today with inner circle visit to beaconschoolsupport.co.uk  and click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information.

So if attachment theory is wrong, what replaces it or do we need anything to replace it?

Jerome Kagan  15:00  

Well, what do you want to predict a theory? If you want to predict psychological problems, then you need three elements. One, what is your temperament? Without temperament? You can't predict psychological problems. Second, what is the history of childhood experiences? Not just in the first year, but you know, throughout the app friends? Do you have siblings? Are you a firstborn or a later born? And then finally, in what situation? Are you living? Are you living in a poor neighborhood in London? Are you living in rural Scotland? Where are you living? Where you're living is really important, because for example, anxiety is higher in the city than in the rural areas, because people know you. So those three temperament, the history of childhood, and what are your local circumstances at the time?

Simon Currigan  15:50  

Can you talk a little bit about how social class might affect your ability as a child to regulate your emotions and form relationships?

Jerome Kagan  15:59  

Yes, if you're poor, first, you have a less adequate diet. Second, you have more infections that aren't cured. And so you're vulnerable to feeling lousy a lot of the time. By the time you're six years old, those who are poor recognize that they're less potent, they have poorer schools, they have dirty your schools, their homes, owners nice. They live in neighborhoods with crime and drugs, so they feel less worthy. And that impairs you. Plus, as they grow, they're going to be have financial difficulties, harder to get a job. And so that's enough to make you anxious and or depress, you don't have to have insecure attachment.

Simon Currigan  16:43  

It sounds like all of those factors would increase your stress levels, which might impact on your regulation, your ability to get sleep, your ability just to cope with life.

Unknown Speaker  16:53  

Absolutely. You live in noisier neighborhoods. So it's harder to sleep, right, cars and sirens go by compared to someone living in a nice, quiet neighborhood. I mean, there are many papers on this - class is powerful, powerful,

Simon Currigan  17:08  

if you're a school leader listening to this interview right now. And in the UK, at the moment, there are attachment interventions to support kids that are struggling with their behavior and their emotions and their social interaction.

Jerome Kagan  17:19  

What's an attachment intervention?

Simon Currigan  17:21  

They're trying to teach kids how to interact socially and form reciprocal relationships?

Unknown Speaker  17:28  

Well, that's good. That's good, independent of attachment theory, right? It's nice to be better at forming reciprocal relationships.

Simon Currigan  17:35  

What would you advise them to do in terms of supporting those kids moving forwards? In your experience? What kind of strategies and approaches are the most effective at helping kids overcome these kinds of difficulties.

Jerome Kagan  17:50  

What kinds of difficulties?

Simon Currigan  17:52  

Problems around being hyper-vigilant, not trusting other people not being able to cope with demands, emotional dysregulation? Those kind of issues?

Jerome Kagan  18:03  

You mean, these are the children, American clinician school emotionally disturbed, conduct disorder, depression, it is a heterogeneous group, with heterogeneous causes some neglecting parents, some temperament, some not establishing peer relations, I can't make a general statement, because the causes of this group which is about 15 20% of population, it's like saying, what is the question? Hey, it's too diverse,

Simon Currigan  18:31  

Would the general statement be, actually, we need to treat these kids as individuals, right? And look at their individual needs and what's going on in their individual backgrounds. And there isn't a magic wand or magic bullet that will just work with great segments of society, however tempting that might be. We all want a simple solution,

Unknown Speaker  18:47  

Correct. Yes. Well, there is no simple solution. Because education is so critical to a more secure financial environment. A very good thing to do is to focus more on their academic skills. Are they reading a grade, do they do mathematics a grade, and find them a skill, a musical skill and artistic skill, that will be very valuable, because in this century, not 500 years ago, if you can get good grades and get into a good university, then that even if you're troubled, I would use the history of TS Eliot, who was a an extremely anxious child and anxious Man, what a Nobel Prize in Literature because he was well educated. So that shows the setup you have at the start of your life doesn't dictate for the rest of your life. What your opportunities and chances and oh, no, I mean, look at all the great people we respect to were legitimate and worried about their legitimacy. You know, Leonardo da Vinci, Jeff Bezos, Napoleon. You Can Overcome your problems. All the people who do.

Simon Currigan  20:01  

So if our listeners are coming across this idea for the first time that there's a very small evidence base for this, what can they do to find out more about what we've talked about today to get into the research and sort of dig deeper into this? What would you advise them to do? What's their first step?

Jerome Kagan  20:16  

Unfortunately, not much. Because, I mean, even psychiatrists, and clinical psychologists have a hard problem figuring it out. And teachers aren't trained in psychiatry, I guess the best advice is, be gentle, don't imply anything negative or unpleasant. And try to help each child the best you can toward their academic mastery, stop worrying about their attachment. Let's get them reading and getting A's and B's so that the Ballade to Oxford or Cambridge.

Simon Currigan  20:50  

And my last question, and we asked this of all our guests, who's the key figure that's influenced you, or the key book that you've read or the mentor that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with children and psychology?

Unknown Speaker  21:03  

I would say to people, my mentor, Frank Beech, who studied animals, but he was a big coning. And he said, Forget about theory, we don't know enough. What are we going to discover this afternoon that had a profound influence on my whole career, because that's how I ran my laboratory, look for a puzzle and try to solve it. And the other was Alfred North Whitehead, who understood the dangers of words. Long before Virginia Woolf made her statement about worlds other wildest things. He understood that you go to the phenomena in a way that Russell did. And Whitehead is one of my heroes, so wonderful. I remember reading his biography, a wonderful man, I guess those two

Simon Currigan  21:47  

Jerome Kagan, thank you for joining us. I'm sure you've given our listeners a lot of food for thought. And it's been a pleasure speaking to you.

Jerome Kagan  21:55  

Thank you very much.

Emma Shackleton  21:57  

Very, very interesting.

Simon Currigan  22:00  

I know and controversial, certainly in education over here in the UK,

Emma Shackleton  22:04  

definite food for thought.

Simon Currigan  22:06  

If you work with kids with challenging behavior, and you're not sure why they're acting the way they are, we've got a download that can help is called the SEN handbook. And it will help you link behaviors you've seen in the classroom with possible causes like autism. The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis, we're not qualified. But if we link behaviors to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place. It's a free download, go to the website beaconschoolsupport co.uk, click on the free resources tab near the top. I'll also put a link in the episode description.

Emma Shackleton  22:41  

And in the next episode, we're going to be looking at prioritizing interventions. So when you start to support a student who has a lot of behavior difficulties, what are the behaviors that you focus on first, to get the best results for the student themselves and the rest of the class.

Simon Currigan  22:59  

So to make sure you catch that episode, open your podcast app now, hit the subscribe button and your podcast app will automatically download each and every episode of school behavior secret so you never miss a thing. And then maybe say thank you to the button by giving it some flowers. It's small, so even some daisies are going to look impressive from its perspective.

Emma Shackleton  23:17  

And finally, if you find today's episode useful, please leave us an honest rating and review on Apple podcasts. This really does make a huge difference because when you rate and reviewers, it makes it more likely that school behavior secrets will be recommended to other listeners, and then other teachers and school leaders can find the show and start getting the help they need to support the children in their classrooms.

Simon Currigan  23:41  

That's all for this week's episode of school behavior secrets. Have a great week and we look forward to seeing you next time. Bye for now.

Emma Shackleton  23:48  

Bye now.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)