Biography of Psychologist John Bowlby

The Founder of Attachment Theory

mother smiling while holding infant child outdoors

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John Bowlby (February 26, 1907 - September 2, 1990) was a British psychologist and psychoanalyst who believed that early childhood attachments played a critical role in later development and mental functioning. His work, along with the work of psychologist Mary Ainsworth, contributed to the development of attachment theory.

Bowlby believed that children are born with a biologically-programmed tendency to seek and remain close to attachment figures. This provides nurturance and comfort, but it also aids in the child’s survival. Sticking close to a caregiver ensures that the child’s needs are met and that he or she is protected from dangers in the environment.

Known For

  • Being the originator of attachment theory
  • Researching child development
  • Influencing modern-day psychology, education, child care, and parenting

Early Life

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was born in London to an upper-middle-class family. Believing that too much parental affection and attention would spoil a child, his parents spent only a small amount of time with him each day. At the age of seven, he was sent to boarding school, which he would later describe as a traumatic experience.

Bowlby went on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied psychology and spent time working with delinquent children. After graduating from Cambridge, Bowlby volunteered at two schools for maladjusted and delinquent children to gain experience and consider his career goals. This set the course of his future and inspired him to become a child psychiatrist.

He then studied medicine at University College Hospital, followed by studying psychiatry at Maudsley Hospital. During this time, Bowlby also studied at the British Psychoanalytic Institute and was initially influenced by the work of Melanie Klein, a psychologist who created the play therapy technique. He eventually became dissatisfied with Klein’s approach, believing that it focused too much on children’s fantasies and not enough on events in the environment, including the influence of parents and caregivers.

After becoming a psychoanalyst in 1937, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II.

In 1938, he married a woman named Ursula Longstaff and together they had four children. Once the war was over, Bowlby became Director of the Tavistock Clinic, and in 1950 he became a mental health consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Career and Theory

Bowlby’s early work with children led him to develop a strong interest in the subject of child development. He became particularly interested in how separation from caregivers impacted children. After studying the subject for some time, he began to develop his ideas on the importance of attachment on child development.

In 1949, WHO commissioned Bowlby to write a report on the mental health of homeless children in Europe. In 1951, the resulting work Maternal Care and Mental Health was published. In it, he wrote, “…the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute – one person who steadily ‘mothers’ him) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment."

After the publication of the influential report, Bowlby continued to develop his attachment theory.

Bowlby drew on a variety of subjects, including cognitive science, developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, and ethology (the science of animal behavior). His resulting theory suggested that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life.

Bowlby had trained as a psychoanalyst and, much like Sigmund Freud, believed that the earliest experiences in life have a lasting impact on development. According to Bowlby, attachment also serves to keep the infant close to the mother, thus improving the child's chances of survival. He suggested that both mothers and infants had evolved to develop an innate need for proximity. By maintaining this closeness, infants are more likely to receive the care and protection that they need to ensure their survival.

Bowlby was also influenced by the work of Konrad Lorenz, a zoologist and ethologist who demonstrated that attachment was both innate and aided in survival. In Lorenz’s well-known 1935 study on imprinting, he was able to show that young geese would imprint on attachment figures in the environment within a certain critical period after hatching.

Lorenz was even able to get newly-hatched geese to imprint on him and view him as a “mother” figure. This revealed that not only is attachment innate but that there is also a critical period during which the formation of attachment relationships is possible. Lorenz’s research found that after a certain period (approximately 32 hours for geese), an attachment was not likely to occur.

The central theme of Bowlby’s attachment theory is that mothers who are available and responsive to their infant's needs establish a sense of security. The baby knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to feel safe to explore the world.

Attachment Theory

Bowlby defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." His ethological theory of attachment suggests that infants have an innate need to form an attachment bond with a caregiver. This is an evolved response that increases a child's chances of survival; babies are born with a number of behaviors, such as crying and cooing, and caregivers are biologically programmed to respond to these signals and attend to the baby's needs.

While mothers are often associated with this role as primary caregivers and attachment figures, Bowlby did believe that infants could form such bonds with others. The formation of the attachment bond offers comfort, security, and nourishment, but Bowlby noted that feeding was not the basis or purpose of this attachment, allowing bonds to be formed with fathers and other significant caregivers.

Bowlby also suggested that attachment forms in a series of stages:

  • During the first part of the pre-attachment phase, babies recognize their primary caregiver but do not yet have an attachment. Their crying and fussing draw the attention and care of the parent, which is rewarding to both the child and the caregiver. As this stage progresses through about three months, infants begin to recognize the parent more and develop a sense of trust.
  • During the indiscriminate attachment phase, infants show a distinct preference for the primary caregivers, as well as certain secondary caregivers, in their lives.
  • During the discriminate attachment period, children form a strong attachment to one individual and will experience separation distress and anxiety when parted from that person.
  • Finally, during the multiple attachment phases, children begin to develop strong attachments to people beyond the primary caregivers.

Contributions to Psychology

John Bowlby’s research on attachment and child development left a lasting impression on psychology, education, child care, and parenting. Researchers extended his research to develop clinical treatment techniques and prevention strategies. His work also influenced other eminent psychologists, including his colleague Mary Ainsworth, who also made significant contributions to attachment theory by expanding on Bowlby's research to develop a method for observing a child's attachment to a caregiver.

In a 2002 survey of psychologists published in the Review of General Psychology, Bowlby was ranked as the 49th most frequently cited psychologist of the 20th century.

Key Publications

Bowlby J. Maternal care and mental health. Bull World Health Organ. 1951;3(3):355-533.

Bowlby J. The nature of the child's tie to his mother. Int J Psychoanal. 1958;39(5):350-73.

Bowlby, J. (1968). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 2: Separation, Anxiety, and Anger. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Slade A, Holmes J. Attachment and psychotherapy. Curr Opin Psychol. 2019;25:152-156. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.06.008

  2. Sable P. Attachment, ethology and adult psychotherapy. Attach Hum Dev. 2004;6(1):3-19. doi:10.1080/14616730410001663498

  3. Stevenson-hinde J. Attachment theory and John Bowlby: some reflections. Attach Hum Dev. 2007;9(4):337-342. doi:10.1080/14616730701711540

  4. Barett H. Parents and children: facts and fallacies about attachment theory. J Fam Health Care. 2006;16(1):3-4. PMID: 16550805

Additional Reading
  • Bowlby, J. The Nature of the Childs Tie to His Mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 1958; 39: 350-371.
  • Bowlby J. Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books; 1969.
  • Bretheron, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.Developmental Psychology. 1992; 28: 759-775.
  • Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, J.E., Jones, V.K., Yarbrough, G.L., Russell, T.M., Borecky, C.M., McGahhey, R....Monte, E. The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology. 2002; 6(2): 139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139.
  • Holmes, J. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London: Routledge; 1993.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."