ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2024, Vol. 32 ›› Issue (4): 627-638.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2024.00627

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The effect of maternal attachment styles on the cognitive processes of maternal sensitivity

YUE Jiaying, LIU Xinyi, ZHANG Mengke, CHEN Xu()   

  1. Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing 400715, China
  • Received:2022-12-11 Online:2024-04-15 Published:2024-02-29
  • Contact: CHEN Xu


A central hypothesis of attachment theory is that mothers' own attachment styles influence their sensitivity to children in ways that are important for their well-being and development. Previous studies based on the attachment theory have proved the influence of attachment on maternal sensitivity. However, these influences mainly manifest in maternal parenting behaviors, ignoring the relationship between attachment styles and cognitive processes in maternal sensitivity. That is, it remains unclear whether attachment styles exhibit different mechanisms and characteristics during the various cognitive stages of maternal sensitivity. Thus, the mechanism underlying the associations between attachment style and the cognitive processes of maternal sensitivity should be further elucidated to help clarify how attachment style affects maternal sensitivity. The social information processing model of maternal sensitivity integrates crucial cognitive structures and cognitive processes related to maternal sensitivity and divides the cognitive processes of maternal sensitivity into four stages. From the perspective of the social information processing model, we reviewed individual differences related to attachment styles at all four stages of maternal sensitivity: emotional perception, maternal attribution, motivational response, and response selection. Specifically, in the emotional perception stage, the influence of attachment style on maternal sensitivity was primarily manifested in the patterns of attention to the infant's face. Mothers with secure attachments prefer security-based strategies that are related to higher attention sensitivity. At the same time, both anxious and avoidant attachment in mothers were related to lower attention sensitivity. Considering that mothers with anxiety and avoidance attachments prefer different strategies (such as hyperactivating or deactivating), they tend to exhibit distinct attention patterns toward their infants' faces. At the maternal attribution stage, mothers with different attachment style had varying internal working models that subsequently influenced their expectations of others. Secure-attachment mothers with positive internal working models were more likely to make appropriate attributions, whereas insecure-attachment mothers with negative internal working models were more likely to make inappropriate attributions. During the motivational response stage, mothers with different attachment styles had different internal working models and gradually developed caregiving representations for themselves and their infants. Secure-attachment mothers have positive caregiving representations associated with higher levels of caregiving motivation and infant-oriented goals. Compared to mothers with secure attachment, mothers with anxious and avoidant attachment had negative caregiving representations, which resulted in lower levels of caring motivation and more self-oriented goals. However, one study suggested that individuals with anxious attachment may have mixed craving goals. In other words, individuals with anxious attachment not only care about others' welfare but also desire to receive love and dependency in intimate relationships. In the response selection stage, Mothers with different attachment styles have varying parenting behavior preferences. Most studies have found that mothers with secure attachment tend to prefer positive parenting behaviors, whereas mothers with insecure attachment tend to prefer negative parenting behaviors such as intrusive or monitoring behaviors. In general, attachment influences many factors in the processes of maternal sensitivity. The Social Information Processing of maternal sensitivity provides a theoretical framework for integrating pivotal cognitive structures and processes related to maternal sensitivity. This framework may help to clarify how internal working models affect the cognitive processes of maternal sensitivity. However, several key issues remain to be resolved. Future research should further investigate the influence of attachment styles on the cognitive processes of maternal sensitivity from a temporal perspective. Additionally, research should explore the joint influence of multiple cognitive structures on cognitive processes related to maternal sensitivity. Furthermore, attention should be paid to the role of environmental factors in attachment styles and the cognitive processes of maternal sensitivity. Finally, future research should explore the dual influence of attachment style on the cognitive and emotional processes of maternal sensitivity.

Key words: attachment style, maternal sensitivity, the social information processing, emotional perception, maternal attribution

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