Cultural variations in attachment

How do different cultures vary in attachment styles? What is the most common type of attachment? Are there any countries where insecure attachment is more common than secure attachment?

Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenburg (1988)
Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonendurg (1988) carried out a meta-analysis (a research method that collects the results of many studies together and reanalyses them) of 32 studies in which the strange situation had been used to measure attachment types in different cultures. They found that overall the most common type of attachment is secure. However there were a couple of surprises in that there was a significantly high proportion of Japanese infants with insecure-resistant attachment, and a significantly high proportion of German children with insecure-avoidant attachment.
Van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenburg (1988)

How can we explain cultural variations in attachment type?
According to Ainsworth & Bell (1970), attachment types are strongly associated with the mother’s behaviour towards the infant. If this were the case then it would suggest that Japanese and German mothers are less sensitive or caring than mothers from other countries. However, research by Takahashi (1990) and Grossman & Grossman (1991) has shown that the values a culture places on social behaviour within that culture affects the way infants react in social situations. It may be that behaviour Ainsworth & Bell classed as avoidant could actually be normal within German culture, and resistant behaviour could be normal within Japanese culture. It is more likely therefore that the strange situation does not reliably measure attachment in non-American type cultures. Psychologists refer to tests that try to measure cultural values by basing them on the values another culture has as having an imposed etic. In this case American culture does not judge Japanese and German cultures as ’normal’, yet they are perfectly normal within their own definitions.

Takahashi (1990)
Takahashi (1990) compared attachment types in 60 middle class Japanese infants aged under 12 months with American infants using the strange situation. The findings were that 68% of Japanese infants were securely attached, 32% were insecure-resistant, and no infants were insecure-avoidant. When the Japanese infants were left alone they were so distressed that the ‘leaving the infant alone’ stage of the strange situation had to be abandoned, however if they had not been so distressed then as many as 80% of Japanese infants would have been classed as securely attached.

One question that Takahashi’s study raises is why there were no insecure-avoidant children. Japanese cultural values make it extremely impolite to avoid interacting with other people and children are taught this from a very early age, which could account for the lack of insecure-avoidant infants in the study. A second question is why infants were so extremely distressed when left alone. Japanese infants spend almost 100% of their time in contact with their mothers for the first 2 years of their lives. They are carried around on the mother’s back, and usually sleep and bathe with their parents. The strange situation measure separation distress, but as Japanese children are hardly ever separated from they mothers then being left alone is extremely unusual for them and leads to extreme distress that the strange situation incorrectly judges as insecure-resistant behaviour.

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA1 AQA A specification)
What has research told us about cultural variations in attachment types? (6 marks)
2 AO1 marks: describe one or more research studies into cultural variations in attachment types, for example Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenburg (1988) and Takahashi (1990). Highlight that overall attachment is secure, but in Japan there is a high level of insecure-resistant and in Germany there is a high level of insecure-avoidant.

4 AO2 marks: explain why the strange situation is not a good tool for measuring attachment in cultures outside the USA. Japanese children rarely experience separation from their mothers and so appear to be insecure-resistant. German children are taught to be independent from an early age and so may appear to be insecure-avoidant.

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