Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Insecurity Is Not Pathology (cf. Linus and Woody Allen)

 For a very long time, before attachment became a religion, Americans have been worried about “insecurity”. People who value independence and individualism can get nervous about insecurity, with its suggestions of emotional dependence and social engagement. I remember overhearing a conversation years ago, about a child who had a “security blanket”. “How come he carries that blanket around all the time?” “I guess he’s insecure.” “Oh. Well, I guess then we’d better take it away from him.” (Here we have not only the belief that everyone must at least behave as if they are independent, but a common error of logic--  if A causes B, then removing B must also remove A!) Like many other somewhat frightening things, insecurity has been a topic of humor from Linus right on to Woody Allen.

Today, we see the concern with insecurity reflected in journalism and discussions that equate  insecure attachment, as measured by methods like the Strange Situation, with “attachment disorders”. Insecure attachment, originally defined as a pattern or quality of attachment, may now be touted as an emotional disorder (e.g.,
According to a number of studies, among children with normal family experiences, about 65% are evaluated as securely attached. About 30% are insecurely attached in one or another of the possible categories, and a small percentage are assessed as disorganized in their attachment behavior. Disorganized attachment is associated with early maltreatment and also with later externalizing problems (e.g., aggressive behavior). Insecure attachment is not ideal, but on the other hand is not particularly associated with serious psychopathology.

If insecure attachment does not cause serious problems, how did it come about that people are so concerned with it--  indeed, that they are concerned about it at all? How did “security” come into the study of attachment? There is a history here.

It’s easy to assume that secure and insecure attachment behaviors are so different that they jumped right out at Mary Salter Ainsworth as she observed young children. Actually, though, Ainsworth went looking for them and developed the Strange Situation as an instrument that would differentiate them. She has told part of the story herself (

Ainsworth was a student of William Blatz of the University of Toronto in the 1930s. Blatz developed a “security theory” that was a welcome alternative to Freudian theory in an anti-psychoanalytic intellectual environment. Blatz did not publish widely or sponsor a great deal of research on security theory, and Ainsworth’s recollections and comments are probably the most accessible source of his ideas. As Ainsworth noted about Blatz, “He was a brilliant hypothesizer, but I believe he did not think of research so much as a way of testing hypotheses as a way of reformulating old hypotheses and discovering new ones. He did not attempt to spin a theory to encompass all of personality and its development. He did, however, think that the concept of security could guide the exploration of this rich and confusing field.”

What was security, from Blatz’s viewpoint? According to Ainsworth, it was “feeling confident or effective, even though one’s feeling of efficacy might stem from reliance on something or someone other than oneself.”
Blatz felt that people want to be comfortable and secure, but they were also motivated by an “appetite for change”, which in itself can create insecurity. When very young, they experienced an “immature dependent security”, in which they needed to be able to retreat to a protective parent when frightened by the consequences of their exploration. Subsequently, as children became more knowledgeable, they could achieve an “independent security” that allowed them to explore without constantly checking back with adults. In fact, Ainsworth noted, Blatz thought that by the time they reached maturity, “they should be fully emancipated from parents and not dependent on them any more… any substantial continuation of ‘immature dependent security’ was to be viewed as undesirable”--   a far cry from the current preoccupation with maintaining early attachment behavior through the teens! Having achieved independence, however, the individual was now ready to enter into a partnership of “mature independent security”, in which each partner provided support and protection for the other as needed.

If steps in the development of security did not progress properly, Blatz considered, a variety of processes like intolerance of disagreement and blaming of others might come into the picture as ways to achieve a sense of comfort and effectiveness. However, as Ainsworth pointed out, “Blatz arrived at his list [of processes] in a purely ad hoc fashion in the course of his clinical experience, and never claimed it was complete.”
Ainsworth’s early research involved attempts to evaluate the security of adults. In pursuing this work, and in her later efforts to assess children’s attachment, she followed an important concept contributed by Blatz. As she wrote, “Blatz’s theory does not hold with a simplistic dichotomy between secure and insecure. The degree to which children are secure can be assessed through an examination of their confidence in others, especially parents, to provide comfort, reassurance, and protection when needed, and [my italics—JM] their confidence in being able to cope with the world on the basis of their own skills and knowledge… One cannot arrive at a single security/insecurity score, but should instead consider the patterning in a comprehensive assessment.” Such patterns, of course, are what Ainsworth and her colleagues attempted to assess by means of the Strange Situation, and that much-valued measurement seems unfortunately to have encouraged not only a dichotomy of secure vs. insecure, but an overvaluing of the former and a pathologizing of the latter. (Not all students of attachment agree with the typology of secure and insecure attachment, and some authors have proposed that attachment security actually lies on a continuum.)

As you can see, Blatz’s view of security seems to have been a major factor causing Ainsworth to look for “secure” and insecure” patterns in young children’s attachment behavior. She did not first look for patterns, and then label them as secure or insecure. (Disorganized/disoriented attachment behavior, on the other hand, was first noticed as a pattern and later named.) Ainsworth continued, very appropriately, to focus on patterns of attachment behavior, but unfortunately popular and journalistic views have come to identify secure attachment as a good category and all other types of attachment behavior--  insecure patterns, disorganized/disoriented attachment, even Reactive Attachment Disorder--  as belonging to an equally bad category. This is comparable to assuming that there is only one acceptable pattern of early language development or of pubescence, and that all others --  not just the truly problematic---are to be deplored or subjected to treatment.

It is a curious pursuit, the examination of the journalistic theory of attachment. In some cases, like the one just discussed, the media have re-worked earlier views in order to achieve a simple way of defining the good and the bad, and in order to abandon the complicating idea of developmental change in attachment.  In other cases, some of Bowlby’s old tenets, now long abandoned, are maintained. For example, the statement that “you don’t attach in a group home” ( may well be a result of assuming that Bowlby’s original monotropy theory (attachment to a single caregiver only) still holds, although in fact this idea was abandoned long ago, and it is clear that a young child may be attached to several adults, not all necessarily with equal security.

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