The learning theory of attachment is a behaviourist explanation that suggests that attachment is developed through classical or operant conditioning. It is sometimes referred to as a cupboard love theory, as the infant attaches to the caregiver who provides the food. Classical conditioning is learnt through association and occurs when a response is produced naturally by a certain stimulus. This is then associated with another stimulus that is not normally linked with that particular response. Whereas operant conditioning is based on the ideas of reward and punishment. This is learning through reinforcement of certain behaviour. This increases the chances of the behaviour occurring again. However, there are other factors within attachment that aren’t covered as there is evidence that infants can form attachments with a person who is not the primary care giver.
The learning theory offers many different ideas on how attachments could be formed, one study supporting the learning theory is by Ivan Pavlov (1902). He observed and recorded information about dogs and their salivation rates. Pavlov said the dogs were demonstrating classical conditioning as he used an unconditional stimulus of food to get an unconditional response of salivating. He used the process of conditioning where There’s a neutral stimulus being a bell, which by itself will not produce a response, like drooling. There’s also an unconditioned stimulus which is the food, which will cause the dogs to salivate which is an unconditioned response. This supports the idea of the learning theory being an explanation of attachment however, this may not be valid for humans. Although classic conditioning has now been explored with young infants. For example, the infant will be happy when given food which is an unconditioned response given from an unconditioned stimulus. When the unconditioned stimulus is given with a natural stimulus being the mother it also gives the unconditioned response of the baby being happy. Now when the mother is on her own which is the conditioned stimulus, the baby is happy which is the conditioned response.
On the other hand, there are studies that oppose the learning theory and the ideas it proposes. Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found that in 39 per cent of cases, the mother was not the baby’s primary care giver. This suggests that feeding is not the main explanation of attachment which goes against the learning theory. This evidence can also be supported by Harlow’s Rhesus monkey study (1959). He used infant monkeys to see if attachments are primarily formed through food as explained by the learning theory. A wire surrogate mother and a towelling surrogate mother were created and placed in four different conditions. The baby monkeys most often chose the soft towelling mother whenever she was available. He even found that some of the monkeys would cling to the comfort of the towelling mother whilst leaning over to feed from the wire mother. This goes against the learning theory as it suggests that attachment concerns contact comfort more than food.
Another study that supports the learning theory is Dollard and Miller (1950) which proposed the idea that attachment is a learned behaviour that is acquired through both classical and operant conditioning. They argued that in their first year, babies are fed up to 2000 times, generally by their primary care giver. This creates an opportunity for the carer to become associated with the removal of unpleasant feeling of hunger. The removal of that unpleasant feeling of hunger is a form of negative reinforcement so that the caregiver becomes a source of reinforcement (reward) themselves. This supports learning theory because it shows the idea that attachments and learnt through operant conditioning.