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Caregiver Sensitivity vs Temperament Hypothesis

Updated: 17 August 2016

From the time of Sigmund Freud’s first major work in 1900, there has been a stream of thought in Psychology which places responsibility for the development of the child’s personality unequivocally on to the parents – especially the mother. Freud himself (1940) writes: ““The reason why the infant in arms wants to perceive the presence of the mother is only because it already knows by experience that she satisfies all its needs without delay.” He says the mother’s status is “…unique, without parallel, established unalterably for a whole lifetime as the first and strongest love-object…” As mother satisfies “all its needs”, the implication clearly is that, if the child doesn’t turn out ‘right’, then mother hasn’t satisfied all its needs.

From an Integrated SocioPsychology perspective, this makes a lot of sense. If the PURPLE vMEME doesn’t get its safety-in-belonging needs met in infancy, then the unavoidable emergence of the RED vMEME is likely to occur more forcefully and with much fewer of the socially-determined constraints PURPLE would impose on its self-expression – Id with little or no Ego, in Freudian terms. Based on the research of Joseph LeDoux (1992; 1996) into the limbic system, Jerry Coursen (2004-2005) has hypothesised that there is a potential for the co-emergence of PURPLE and RED, depending on the life conditions. Since the life conditions are largely created by the parents, this again puts responsibility on to them for the personality development of the child.

Freud (1940) says the mother-child relationship is the “…the prototype of all later love-relations.” In other words, expectations (schemas) of all future relationships depend on the quality of that first relationship. This is a theme developed by John Bowlby (1953) in his Continuity Hypothesis, terming Freud’s ‘prototype’ an internal working model of ‘self’  and the ‘self’ in relation to others – key elements in the construction of the selfplex.

However, this emphasis on parental responsibility misses out the effects on the relationship of the child’s natural temperament and where it tends to locate on Hans J Eysenck’s 3 Dimensions of Temperament (Eysenck, 1967; Hans J Eysenck & Sybil B G Eysenck, 1976).

This then gives us 2 key factors which will influence the development of the child: firstly, the way the mother (or other caregiver) attempts to meet the child’s needs and how that child’s temperament impacts upon the relationship with its mother.

Caregiver Sensitivity Hypothesis
According to Mary Ainsworth (Mary Ainsworth, Sylvia Bell & Donelda Stayton, 1974), the type and quality of attachment between mother and child is largely dependent on the mother’s behaviour towards the child. She suggests that mothers of securely attached infants tend to be more sensitive to the child’s needs – more responsive, more cooperative and more accessible than mothers of either of the insecure types she identified in her Strange Situation studies. These mothers provide a warm and close physical contact, especially when the infant is distressed. Ainsworth’s concept is called the Caregiver Sensitivity Hypothesis.

Ainsworth proposesd that the caregivers of insecure-resistant infants may be interested in them but misunderstood the infant’s behaviour. Of particular importance, these caregivers tend to be inconsistent in the way they treat their children. As a result, the infant is unable to rely on the caregiver’s emotional support and tries to control the mother – eg: by holding on to her or screaming to get attention – to make she will be there for it.

Ainsworth reports that caregivers of insecure-avoidant infants are often impatient and/or uninterested, often rejecting them and tending to be self-centred and rigid in their behaviour.  As a result, the child tries to minimise dependency on the mother. However, some caregivers of avoidant infants act in a suffocating way, interacting with their infants even when the infants do not want any interaction.

A powerful comment on the impact of the mother’s state on the formation of attachments comes from Douglas Teti et al  (1995) who showed a significant association between maternal Depression and infant attachment insecurity. They found that children without coherent attachment strategies tended to have more chronically-impaired mothers than did securely-attached children.

In a 1989 study of neglected and badly-treated infants Vicki Carlson et al found that about 80% of them matched the criteria for Type D (disorganised) which Mary Main & Judith Solomon added to Ainsworth’s original 3 types in 1986. They concluded that the highly-stressful and inconsistent regime in an abusive home may interfere with the organisation of an effective attachment system.

Supporting the criticality of caregiver sensitivity to healthy development, Michael Lamb et al (1985) surveyed research across the United States – a meta-analysis – and came to the view that sensitive and responsive mothering does indeed lead to secure attachment. Alan Sroufe & June Fleeson (1986) argue that the common factor in the lives of securely-attached infants seems to be the contingent responsiveness of the parents to the infant’s needs.

Looking at inter-generational effects, Mary Main, Nancy Kaplan & Jude Cassidy (1985) explored the relationship between the mother’s behaviour and the type of attachment displayed by the child. They found that mothers who themselves had had satisfactory attachment experiences would be more likely to foster secure attachments in their own children. Using a procedure known as the Adult Attachment Interview, Main, Kaplan & Cassidy classified parents according to their recollections of their own attachment experiences. Autonomous (secure) adults, who discussed their own childhood experiences openly, were more likely to have children identified as securely attached in a Strange Situation. Dismissing and Pre-Occupied adults, however, tended to have children identified as insecure in the Strange Situation. (See the page on the Continuity Hypothesis for more on Adult Attachment Interview categories. According to Main, Kaplan & Cassidy, a mother’s own experiences affects how she interacts with her child and the type of relationship established between the mother-child pair. This can be linked to Bowlby’s concept of the internal working model. It may also involve an element of social learning as the child models the mother and then repeats it with her own child when she becomes a mother.

The Temperament Hypothesis
Jerome Kagan (1984) puts forward an alternative explanation for the correlation between early attachment types and later development with the Temperament Hypothesis. Kagan argues that this correlation can be explained by the infant’s innate temperament. Joseph Campos et al (1983) point out that differences in maternal behaviour may be due in part to the characteristics of the child. The attachment type formed by the baby may reflect their own basic temperament rather than the sensitivity of its caregiver. In essence, some people are born good at forming relationships and some aren’t, due to their natural temperament. TheA mother may appear to be insensitive because her child is unresponsive. How long can a mother keep on pouring herself into her child if she gets nothing back – the child is extremely introverted – or , worse, the child is high in Psychoticism  and aggressive towards her? The mother’s PURPLE is frustrated which may lead to an increase in RED-driven self-protection and even aggression towards the child.

Infants can be even-tempered or irritable, responsive or withdrawn, active or inactive, soothed easily or with difficulty. Alexander Thomas & Stella Chess, in a 1977 longitudinal study of 138 infants in New York City, classified 40% of the infants as having ‘easy’ temperaments, 10% were ‘difficult’, 15% ‘slow to warm up’ and 35% were ‘mixed’. Earlier, Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess & Herbert Birch (1970), in a study of 141 children from birth to 14 years, had shown that temperamental categorisations assigned shortly after birth sustained by and large throughout their childhood. Since many aspects of temperament are evident during the first weeks of life and continue into adulthood, Thomas & Chess assume they are largely inborn or innate.

Kagan’s views build on the earlier work of Eleanor Maccoby (1980) who argues that ‘normal’ infants tend to take the initiative in inviting a maternal response but others do not. Thus, responsive mothers may be at least partly a consequence of the child’s characteristics. Maccoby speculates that a mother may become insensitive because her child is unresponsive.

An interesting cross-cultural study to support the Temperament Hypothesis comes from a study in Japan by Kazuo Miyake, S J Chen & Joseph Campos (1985) who found that newborn babies who became upset when their feeding was interrupted were more likely to be classified as insecurely attached at 12 months.

Jay Belsky & Michael Rovine (1987) also give some support to the Temperament Hypothesis in reporting that newborns who show signs of behavioural instability – eg: tremors or shaking or being startled easily – tend to be less securely attached to their mother. They also tended fall into certain sub-types associated with distress in the Strange Situation.

Kagan argues that the Caregiver Sensitivity Hypothesis places too much emphasis on the role played by the caregiver in the development of attachment and ignores the part played by the infant’s temperament.

Marianne De Wolff & Marinus Van IJdendoorn (1997) show that, no matter what other factors are involved in the development of a child’s attachment, caregiver sensitivity has a role to play. From a meta-analysis of 66 studies covering 4000 families, they found a correlation of 0.24 between sensitivity and attachment. Although this positive correlation is relatively weak, the size of the sample means it is statistically significant and, therefore, caregiver sensitivity is demonstrated to be important.

The problem with ‘personality’
In spite of research findings such as those of Belsky & Rovine, Kevin Durkin (1995) contests that infants’ temperament, as assessed by their parents, is not usually associated with their attachment type, as determined by the Strange Situation. In other words, it is difficult to establish a direct link, consistently and clearly, between a child’s temperament and how its attachment type develops. Earlier Brian Vaughn et al (1989) had come to a similar conclusion.

So how to reconcile these 2 approaches to the attachment process and difficulties in it, when empirical evidence seems to support both Ainsworth and Kagan?

The answer may be, in part at least, lie in trying to define more clearly just what is under discussion. A key part of the problem may lie in the application of the term ‘personality’. Arthur Reber & Emily Reber (2001, p525) say it is “a term so resistant to definition and so broad in scope that no simple statement about it can be made….” Thus, it almost certainly better to talk about personal, social and temporal characteristics which may come under the umbrella term of ‘personality’. Temperament, as laid out in Eysenck’s model has already been discussed and is mostly unchanging – though epigenetic modification can lead to significant change within a lifetime. Motivation, as best modelled through the Gravesian approach, is a completely  different personal factor and can change very quickly indeed as circumstances (life conditions) change – see vMEME Stacks for more on this. Don Beck (2000a; 2002a) holds that motivation is ‘vertical’ – ie: that it morphs and grows in complexity as someone ‘ascends’ the Spiral – whereas temperament is ‘horizontal’, being essentially the same at whatever level of the Spiral someone is currently working at.

From this, it appears that we need to consider both the motivation of the mother in displaying caregiver sensitivity at any one time and the individual temperament of the child. It also should be borne in mind that the mother’s temperament can have an  impact on the relationship.

Belsky & Rovine postulate that it is the interaction between relationship (caregiver sensitivity) and temperament which influences the development of attachment. Certainly Gottfried Spangler & Michael Schieche (1990), in a study of German mothers, found that their perceptions of their infant’s temperament influenced their responsiveness. This is an example of labelling being part of the process of Reciprocal Determinism.

The Bigger Picture
Inevitably, considering just motivation and temperament in the formation of attachments is too simplistic. There are many other factors which impact upon an attachment relationship to a greater or lesser degree.

For example, changes in family circumstances – such as the mother taking a job outside the home – can also affect the development and stability of attachment types. Ross Thompson, Michael Lamb & David Estes (1982) found 47% of middle-class mothers and infants in their sample changed their type of attachment relationship between 12 and 19 months due to changes in family circumstances. According to sociologists Michael Haralambos & Martin Holborn (2000), changes such as unemployment, illness and marital break-up are more common in low income families. Brian Vaughn, Byron Egeland, Alan Sroufe & Everett Waters (1979) studied low income single single parent mother-infant pairs living in poverty and experiencing frequent changes of accommodation. At 12 months 55% of the infants were classified as securely attached, with the rest being evenly distributed between insecure-avoidant and insecure-resistant. At 18 months 66% were securely attached. 38%, however, were classified differently on the 2 occasions and these appeared to be related to changes in the family’s circumstances. Eg: those who had gone from secure to insecure attachments had the most stressed mothers while those who had gone from insecure to secure or who were anxious on both occasions had mothers with an intermediate amount of stress.

Attachment InfluencesBelsky (1984) criticised Ainsworth’s ideas for overemphasising the importance of the mother’s sensitivity and neglecting wider influences on the attachment process. He suggested a broader set of considerations, as per the graphic left.


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