In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Turning Points in the Assessment and Clinical Applications of Individual Differences in Attachment

  • Introduction

Psychology Turning Points in the Assessment and Clinical Applications of Individual Differences in Attachment
Patricia Crittenden, Susan J. Spieker, Steve Farnfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0271


Attachment may have reached a turning point in which two sometimes incompatible approaches to individual differences in attachment are being compared. The outcome could influence future work in attachment. This article focuses on individual differences because applications of attachment are predicated on the consequences of individual differences for adaptation and well-being. The issue is which model is better suited to future research and clinical applications. Both models augment the original Ainsworth ABC model that everyone agrees is not sufficiently differentiated to cover the range of human behavior. The two models are “ABC+D” (the model that has disorganization (D) as its fourth category) and “DMM” (the model that expands the A and C categories from two subcategories each to a total of eight each, plus A/C combinations). The current disagreement has two sources: (a) the increasing acceptance outside the United States of the DMM, particularly in clinical and forensic settings, while the US remains largely unaware of the DMM; and (b) the recent announcement by prominent ABC+D researchers from Europe and the US that D is not a suitable category for clinical or forensic use. ABC+D researchers have not proposed an alternative, and some US funding sources and courts eschew attachment altogether, believing the theory itself lacks validity and utility, thus weakening attachment’s potential to inform clinical research and decision-making. This article proposes DMM as a viable alternative to both ABC+D and psychiatric diagnoses and examines the development and contributions of each model for the purpose of creating a model of individual differences in attachment that is scientifically robust, open to change as new evidence becomes available, and applicable to troubled individuals and families. Notably, attachment theory has engendered controversy from its beginnings. When John Bowlby offered attachment as a universal human characteristic that promoted species and individual survival, he was criticized by others in his field. When Mary Ainsworth identified the ABC categories of individual differences in attachment, her ideas were attacked from outside attachment theory. While the “first generation” issue around the existence of attachment has largely died away, a second generation of attachment theorists is disputing the nature of individual differences, their focus on individuals (ABC+D) or interpersonal systems (DMM Family Functional Formulations), and their relevance to clinical work. The ABC+D and DMM models that expand Ainsworth’s work were developed by two of her students, Mary Main (ABC+D) and Patricia Crittenden (DMM). They and their colleagues have worked separately for half a century producing two large and sometimes discrepant bodies of work, which have now become the topic of open debate. This bibliography focuses on the conceptual and empirical bases for that exchange. Part I outlines the roots of the ABC+D and DMM models, together with comparative validating information. Part II presents the central research findings on individual differences in attachment from four decades of research with each model. The authors wish to thank Robbie Duschinsky, Udita Iyengar, and Andrea Landini for their helpful comments on this bibliography.

Developing Models of Individual Differences in Attachment

This article focuses on individual differences, building on the base of the history of the construct of attachment reviewed in two Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology articles, Mercer 2013 and Groh 2017 (both cited under Oxford Bibliographies). Following the publication of Ainsworth, et al. 1978 (cited under Ainsworth’s ABC Patterns of Attachment and their Validation), research in attachment theory shifted from studies of attachment as a construct to studies of individual differences in attachment. Literally thousands of studies have been published. The outcomes are universal consensus that there are important individual differences in attachment, that Ainsworth’s ABC patterns can be identified across the life span, and that other patterns exist as well. The disagreements are not just about the nature of the other patterns, but also about the meaning of “pattern” itself. The way in which Ainsworth’s ABC patterns are expanded and the meaning attributed to “pattern” have implications for defining attachment as a personal, dyadic, or family characteristic, as well as for how intervention is conceptualized and structured. The six sections of Part I address (a) the central ideas underlying the construct of attachment, (b) Ainsworth’s original ABC patterns of individual difference together with the empirical evidence for them, (c) the ABC+D and DMM expansions and empirical evidence regarding each, (d) the primary reference works on individual differences in attachment, (e) the characteristics of effective assessments of attachment at different ages, and (f) publications that compare the ABC+D and DMM methods by cross-classifying samples with the two methods. Although most people who study attachment do not consider themselves to be methodologists, the differences in the ABC+D and DMM models in fact begin with Ainsworth’s methodology and diverge around types of samples, methods of implementing the same observational procedures (primarily the Strange Situation Procedure and Adult Attachment Interview), and methods of extracting data from the procedures. For this reason, this article emphasizes methodological differences and their ties to theory and empirical outcomes. These, in turn, lead to differences in the clinical utility of the two models. There is a striking difference in the number of ABC+D versus DMM publications, the relative exclusion of the DMM from overview papers and books, and the dramatic differences in clinical implications of the two models.

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