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Behavioural systems: attachment (care seeking), care giving, exploration, sex, & power

This post is also available as a Word format download.

I have written several blog posts about attachment in the last couple of months - "Attachment, compassion & relationships", "A couple of fine, recent books on attachment", "Some great attachment websites", and "Assessing attachment in adults".  In my post on attachment websites I commented on Professor Phil Shaver's site saying how much I appreciated the access given to full text articles and book chapters - several still in draft form.  These publications provide fascinating insights into how research on attachment theory and related areas is deepening and expanding.  Examples include Mario Mikulincer and Phil Shaver's recent article "An attachment and behavioral systems perspective on social support", their paper with Pehr Granqvist on "Religion as attachment: normative processes and individual differences", a chapter (in press) on "A behavioral systems perspective on power and aggression" in their forthcoming edited book "Aggression violence and their consequences", and two draft book chapters "Adult attachment and caregiving: individual differences in providing a safe haven and secure base to others" and "Attachment theory expanded: a behavioral systems approach to personality".  More details of all these publications are, as I've mentioned, available on Shaver's "Adult attachment lab" website. 

In the last of these publications, on expanding attachment theory, Shaver & Mikulincer make the point that "One of Bowlby's (1982) insights, based on ethology, was that motivation might be better framed in terms of innate behavioral systems guided by cognitively monitored goals than in terms of the innate fluid "drives" imagined by Freud.  By conceptualizing behavior in terms of innate goals and the cognitive regulation of goal-oriented behavior, Bowlby (1982) was able to divide motivation into natural categories, such as attachment, exploration, and caregiving, and then to conceptualize motivated behavior in each of these domains as the product of an evolved 'behavioral system.'" Shaver & Mikulincer go on to comment "Researchers have had more than a quarter century to conduct hundreds of studies based on Bowlby's attachment theory, but during that time his overarching conception of motivation, anchored in the behavioral system construct, has not been reconsidered in light of new measures and evidence. ... The aim of the present chapter is to move forward from the current form of attachment theory and its research base to a more comprehensive behavioral systems theory of motivation and personality." They then discuss the five behavioral systems that they have studied so far - attachment (care seeking), care giving, exploration, sex and power.  They argue that each of these systems is activated by appropriate external (or internal) circumstances.  It's a bit like using different computer software programmes depending on the specific task one is facing - for example word processing, slide preparation, database management, and so on.  In a similar way, the care seeking attachment system is activated by threats to safety, the care giving system comes on line when one is drawn to provide support and encouragement, the exploration system acts to learn about external and internal experiences, the sexual system is orientated to promote sexual activity with a desirable other, and the power system competes for and protects valued resources.  Bowlby argued that behaviours are best defined functionally in terms of their goals.

Although these behavioural systems are genetic and already present at birth, they are also sensitive to learning experiences (of success or failure).  We're born with these various behavioural system programmes pre-installed.  The environments in which we grow up, our relationships with primary caregivers, subsequent key relationships, and other important situations we encounter then lead to these basic programmes being adapted and individualized.  Bowlby argued that important experiences are stored in " ... episodic memories and if-then scripts or schemas, which he called 'internal working models'.  These models, which operate partly at a conscious and partly at an unconscious level, become parts of a behavioral system's programming and are responsible for both individual differences and within-person continuity over time.  In other words, these well-rehearsed scripts and schemas are the heart of a person's personality, especially its social aspects ... each behavioral system, once it has been repeatedly activated in particular social contexts, includes representations of responses of other people to one's attempts to attain a goal (working models of others) as well as representations of one's own efficacy and social value or lack thereof (working models of self)."

When a behavioural system's standard primary strategy for attaining the system's goal (care seeking, care giving, exploration, sex or power) is repeatedly successful, an individual becomes confident about their ability to respond to the relevant challenges, and confident about other people's or the environment's responses. So for the attachment (care seeking) system, this successful, so-called, "secure-base script" runs something like "If I come across difficulties, I can seek comfort and support from significant others, this will be provided, I'll feel better and be able to go back to other activities soothed and confident."  Sadly many people will experience key attachment relationships (parents, close friends, marriage partners, etc) where this primary attachment strategy is repeatedly unsuccessful in eliciting understanding, care and encouragement.  They then develop internal working-models of self and others that are much less confident or trusting.  They will increasingly be likely to develop so-called secondary strategies involving hyperactivation (fight) or hypoactivation (flight) of the basic programme.  With the care seeking attachment system, hyperactivation leads to unproductive worry, vigilance to signs of rejection, and excessive demands (anxiously attached), while hypoactivation involves strong emotional inhibition, self-reliance and emotional distancing (avoidantly attached).

Mikulincer & Shaver propose that all five of the behavioural systems they have studied have primary strategies for attaining their key goals of security, safety provision, exploration, sexual activity, and power.  They further propose that when these primary strategies have been repeatedly thwarted during an individual's early development and subsequent life experience, then there is a tendency to switch to secondary strategies.  Again for all five systems these secondary strategies are likely to involve either hyperactivation (intensify the system's primary strategy) or hypoactivation (suppress or down-regulate the primary strategy).  The authors have developed and tested assessment questionnaires for all five behavioural systems and are continuing their expanding research programme.  It's fascinating to consider the relevance of these ideas to so many areas - for example, burnout/compassion fatigue, overintrusive caring, agoraphobia/phobic avoidance, procrastination/perfectionism, sex addiction/promiscuity, hypoactive sexual desire, lack of assertiveness, and bullying/domestic violence/aggression.  As has been said about basic attachment theory, these ideas don't dictate therapy, but they can certainly usefully inform therapy. 

 

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