Maternal Deprivation Theory, Bowlby.

February 1, 2021 - Paper 1 Introductory Topics in Psychology | Attachment

Maternal Deprivation Theory, John Bowlby (Description, AO1):

The Maternal Deprivation Theory was developed by John Bowlby (1951) and focuses on how the effects of early experiences may interfere with the usual process of attachment formation. Bowlby proposed that separation from the mother or mother-substitute has a serious effect on psychological development. Bowlby famously said that ‘mother-infant love in infancy and childhood is more important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins for physical health.’ Being separated from a mother in early childhood can have serious consequences according to Bowlby.


Definition of Maternal Deprivation:

The emotional and intellectual consequences of separation between a child and his/her mother of mother-substitute. Bowlby proposed that continuous care from a mother is essential for normal psychological development, and that prolonged separation from this adult causes serious damage to emotional and intellectual development.


Remember: Bowlby emphasised the importance of the critical period  he stated that if during the critical period (the first year of an infants life) a child was deprived of emotional care for a long period of time, this could lead to psychological damage.

Long Term Consequences of Maternal Deprivation Bowlby’s 44 Thieves Study

Aim: To examine the link between affectionless psychopathy (individuals who have a lack of guilt and empathy) and maternal deprivation.



  • Sample was 44 criminal teenagers accused of stealing.
  • All ‘thieves’ were interviewed for signs of affectionless psychopathy (characterised as a lack of guilt about their actions, lack of empathy for their victims and a lack of affection.
  • Their families were also interviewed in order to establish whether the ‘thieves’ had prolonged early separation from their mothers.
  • A control group of non-criminals but emotionally disturbed individuals was set up to see how often maternal deprivation/separation occurred in children who were not thieves.


  • 14 out of the 44 thieves could be described as affectionless psychopaths.
  • Of this 14, 12 had experienced separation from their mothers in the first 2 years of their lives.
  • In contrast, only 5 of the remaining 30 ‘thieves’ had experienced separations.
  • Of the control group, only 2 out of 44 had experienced long term separations.

Conclusion: It was concluded that prolonged early separation/deprivation caused affectionless psychopathy.

Evaluation Bowlby’s Theory Of Maternal Deprivation (Evaluation, AO3):



(1) POINT: Further research has supported Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Theory.EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Goldfarb (1955) followed up 30 war orphaned children to age 12. Of his original sample, half had been fostered by the age of 4 whilst the other half remained in the orphanage. At the age of 12, both groups of orphans IQ was tested. The group fostered had an average IQ of 96, whereas the group that wasn’t fostered by age 4 had an average IQ of 68. EVALUATION: This is a strength because, Goldfarb’s findings reiterate the main assumptions of Bowlby’s theory showing that early separation and the deprivation can lead to long lasting effects on infant development and development in later life.


(1) POINT: However, Bowlby’s findings from the 44 thieves study can be criticised for investigator bias. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, other Psychologists have suggested that Bowlby’s study had some major design flaws and most importantly bias. Bowlby himself carried out the investigation, the individual assessments for affectionless psychopathy and the family interviews knowing what he hoped to find. Developmental psychologists have suggested that Bowlby may have interpreted the findings in a bias way in order to generate support for his theory. EVALUATION: This is problematic because if Bowlby’s findings have been affected by investigator bias, this will mean that his theory is based on bias results and therefore can be criticised as being inaccurate.

(2) POINT: Research from Lewis (1954) challenges Bowlby’s findings into maternal deprivation. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Lewis partially replicated Bowlby’s 44 thieves study on a larger scale, looking at 500 young people. In her sample, a history of prolonged separation from the mother did not predict criminality or difficulty in forming close relationships. EVALUATION: This is a problem for the theory of maternal deprivation because it suggests that other factors may affect the outcome of early maternal deprivation.


Romanian Orphan Studies The Effects of Institutionalisation, (Description, AO1):

Research into Maternal Deprivation has turned to orphan studies as a means of studying the effects of deprivation. An opportunity to look at the effects of deprivation and institutionalisation arose in Romania in the 1990s. The former president of Romania (Nicolai Ceaucescu) required Romanian women to have 5 children. Many Romania parents couldn’t afford to keep the children and so the children ended up in orphanages.

Rutter’s ERA (English Romanian Adoptee) Study

Aim: To investigate the effects of early institutionalisation and deprivation on later life development.


Procedure: Rutter et al (2011) followed a group of 165 Romanian orphans adopted in Britain to test to what extent good care could make up for poor early experiences in institutions. Physical, Cognitive and Emotional development was assessed at ages 4, 6, 11 and 15 years old. A group of 15 English children adopted around the same time served as a control group.

Findings: When they first arrived in the UK, half the adoptees showed signs of mental retardation and were undernourished. At the age of 11, the children showed differential rates of recovery that were linked to their age of adoption.

Age of AdoptionIQ Score
Before 6 months102
6 months-2 years86
After 2 years77

Those children who were adopted after 6 months showed signs of disinhibited attachment (attention seeking, clinginess and social behaviour directed indiscriminately towards all adults (familiar and unfamiliar). Those infants adopted before the age of 6 months rarely displayed this type of attachment.

Conclusion: This study concludes that early maternal deprivation and a failure to form an attachment within the critical period can lead to long lasting effects on development in later life (long term effects).


The Effects Of Institutionalisation, (Description, AO1):

  • Poor Parenting:  A child who has experienced a lack of emotional care may grow up to be a poor parent.  Quinton et al (1984) compared a group of 50 women who had been reared in institutions (children’s homes) with a control group of 50 women reared at home in a ‘normal’ environment.  When the women were in their 20’s it was found that the ex-institutionalised women were experiencing extreme difficulties acting as parents.  For example, more of the ex-institutionalised women had children who had spent time in care. Harlow witnessed the effects of poor parenting with the monkeys who had been placed with a surrogate during the first few months of their life. Harlow followed the monkeys into their adult life and found that when they became parents quite often they rejected their offspring and, in some extreme cases they killed their offspring.
  • Deprivation DwarfismGardner (1972) showed that children who have experienced a lack of emotional care may show physical underdevelopment as well as emotional problems e.g. they may be physically small.  It is thought that the lack of emotional care itself (rather than poor nourishment) may be the cause of this.  The production of hormones such as growth hormones are affected by the severe emotional disturbance resulting in physical underdevelopment (or dwarfism). The case study of Genie illustrates the possibility of deprivation dwarfism as a result of a lack of emotional care during the critical period.
  • Attachment Disorder: This has recently been recognised as a ‘psychiatric condition’ and effects a child’s social and emotional development.  Children show 3 things:
  1. No preferred attachment figure
  2. An inability to interact and relate to others shown before the age of 5
  3. Experience of severe neglect or frequent change of caregivers.

There are two kinds of attachment disorder Reactive/Inhibited: a child will be shy and withdrawn, unable to cope with most social situations. Disinhibited  a child with this disorder will be over-friendly and attention seeking

Evaluation Of Research Into The Effects Of Institutionalisation (Evaluation, AO3):


(1) POINT: A strength of this research is that studying the Romanian orphans has enhanced psychologist’s understanding of the effects of institutionalisation.EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE:  Langton (2006) has suggested that such knowledge developed through this research has changed the way children in institutions are cared for. For example, orphanages and children’s homes now avoid having large numbers of caregivers for each child and instead ensure that a much smaller number of people, (perhaps only one or two people/keyworkers) play a central role for the child. EVALUATION: This is a strength because, having a key worker means that children have the chance to develop normal attachments and helps to avoid disinhibited attachment types. This shows that research into institutionalisation has been immensely valuable in practical terms.

(2) POINT: Another strength of this study is that there were fewer extraneous variables in the Romanian orphan studies in comparison to other orphan studies where infants involved had experienced a lot of trauma before they were institutionalised. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, the children may have experienced neglect, abuse of bereavement. These children were often traumatised by their experiences. It was very hard for psychologists to observe the effects of institutionalisation in isolation because the children were dealing with multiple factors which functioned as confounding participant variables. EVALUATION: This is a strength because, in the case of the Romanian orphan study institutionalisation without these confounding variables, which means that the findings have high internal validity and a cause and effect relationship can be established.



(1) POINT: However, a problem with the Romanian orphans is that they were not typical. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Romanian orphanages had particular poor standards of care, especially when it came to forming any new relationships with the children, and extremely low levels of intellectual stimulation. EVALUATION: This is a limitation of the Romanian orphans study because the unusual situational variables means that studies may lack generalisability and therefore, the findings cannot be applied to the understanding of the impact of better quality care institutions

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search

%d bloggers like this: