Beyond Attachment Theory

What do infants need in their early relationships?

Many believe this question has a definitive answer: “What an infant needs is a secure attachment.” In some contexts, this has hardened into static formulations of attachment styles and adult outcomes. While psychological research has gone way beyond these, attachment theory persists almost as an ideology. Recent proposals to train all teachers in attachment issues, and advice on detecting a date’s attachment style and articles on the importance of everyone knowing their attachment style have persuaded me that a more direct challenge to attachment theory is required.

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While predictions from infant “attachment style” to adult relationships are highly unreliable, the objection to attachment theory is not so much that it is false as that it lacks dimension and detail. The concept of mentalizing, which grew out of attachment theory, is a much richer concept [1]. Mentalizing is the crucial capacity to understand ourselves and others in terms of intentional mental states; this capacity forms within an infant’s focused, responsive interactions with an adult, allowing infants to learn that their inner world can be known, understood and modified by others. It is the capability of understanding behaviour, both our own and others’, in the context of what we, and others, are thinking and feeling and trying to achieve [2]. The concept of mentalization built on attachment theory—for close attachments are crucial to its formation—but goes beyond it to highlight the importance of mind-to-mind interaction. It is not merely love that counts. 

Dynamic interactions between infant and adult are repeated and refined, and as they become routine across relationships with other people, the infant enjoys an “epistemic match,” that “click” of feeling understood and connected [3]. Here is where trust is formed. Epistemic trust is significantly different from Erikson’s “basic trust” that rises from predictable and reliable care. Epistemic trust arises within a world that is often not safe and reliable, that often involves conflict and competition, and in which we need to rely on other people to tell us what they know and teach us to use the tools and information they, or previous generations, have developed and acquired [4].

Human infants need to learn new things from older, wiser humans, but this involves knowing who to trust. In other words, we need epistemic trust, and we also need epistemic vigilance to avoid being tricked or misinformed. What if the “teacher” is hostile, a competitor or cheater or hunter with the child as prey? A key task in early relationships is fostering awareness of where danger, and where safety lie. As Thomas Weisner writes, “The question that is important for many, if not most, parents and communities is not: “Is [this individual] child ‘securely attached’ but rather “How can I ensure that my child knows whom to trust and how to share appropriate social connections with others?”  

This suggests that the evolutionary purpose of close relationships extends way beyond physical safety and a comfortable, reliable presence; relationships offer a means by which cultural information can be passed from one generation to the next [5]. Without epistemic trust, there is uncertainty, suspicion, lack of direction and integration, with the consequence that a child simply does not know who to believe or how to form appropriate connections with others. Hence, the capacity for social learning is compromised.

Someone in a state of high epistemic vigilance and mistrust has difficulty learning about other people and about the way the world works. And here we come to the paradigm changing part: restricted social learning, whether from genetic liability or early social adversity, or both, is a common feature of psychopathology in children and adolescents.  It is associated with greater life impairment and poor development, and is pervasive across conditions as varied as depression and borderline personality disorder [6].  In short, a balance of epistemic trust versus epistemic distrust is key to psychological growth and health.

This new understanding of why close relationships matter in childhood will be enormously useful in theory and therapy. Furthermore, the concept of epistemic trust resonates with one of the crucial questions of our time: Why are so many adults poor at distinguishing trustworthy information from that which should not be trusted? Why does our “epistemic vigilance” so often fail, compromising the ability to distinguish between clear, well-presented evidence, and the untrustworthy slew of what is often called “fake news”?  Why, on the other hand, do so many people distrust evidence and experts? Do new forms of communication defeat our capacity for “epistemic trust”?  Does the current social environment pose special risks to the most basic cognitive skill of gauging others’ trustworthiness? 

Judgment often has a bad name, but judging a people, along with their information and opinions, is as crucial to our survival and our ability to thrive as love [6]. It is high time this gained wider acceptance and understanding.

A related article was published on the British Psychological Society website in February 2019.

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1.  Fonagy, P., Steele, H. & Steele, M. 1991. Maternal representations of attachment during pregnancy predict the organization of infant-mother attachment at one year of age. Child Development, 62, 891-905.

2.  Fonagy, P. & Luyten, P. 2009. A developmental, mentalization-based approach to the understanding and treatment of borderline personality disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 21, 1355-81.

3.  Fonagy, p. & Campbell, C. 2015. Bad Blood Revisited: Psychoanalysis and Attachment.  British Psychological Society. Vol. 31 (2).

4.     Sperber, D., Clement, F., Heintz, C., Mascaro, O., Mercier, H., Origgi, G. & Wilson, D. 2010. Epistemic vigilance. . Mind & Language, 25, 359-393.

5..     T.S. Weisner. 2014. The socialization of trust: Plural caretaking and plural pathways in human development across cultures. In H. Otto and H. Keller.  Eds. Different faces of attachment. Cambridge, UK: Oxford Univ. Press. 

6.    Fonagy, p. & Campbell, C. 2015.

7.    Apter, T. 2018 Passing Judgment: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life. NY: Norton.


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