The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America

The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America

by Marga Vicedo

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The notion that maternal care and love will determine a child’s emotional well-being and future personality has become ubiquitous. In countless stories and movies we find that the problems of the protagonists—anything from the fear of romantic commitment to serial killing—stem from their troubled relationships with their mothers during childhood.


The notion that maternal care and love will determine a child’s emotional well-being and future personality has become ubiquitous. In countless stories and movies we find that the problems of the protagonists—anything from the fear of romantic commitment to serial killing—stem from their troubled relationships with their mothers during childhood. How did we come to hold these views about the determinant power of mother love over an individual’s emotional development? And what does this vision of mother love entail for children and mothers?
In The Nature and Nurture of Love, Marga Vicedo examines scientific views about children’s emotional needs and mother love from World War II until the 1970s, paying particular attention to John Bowlby’s ethological theory of attachment behavior. Vicedo tracks the development of Bowlby’s work as well as the interdisciplinary research that he used to support his theory, including Konrad Lorenz’s studies of imprinting in geese, Harry Harlow’s experiments with monkeys, and Mary Ainsworth’s observations of children and mothers in Uganda and the United States. Vicedo’s historical analysis reveals that important psychoanalysts and animal researchers opposed the project of turning emotions into biological instincts. Despite those substantial criticisms, she argues that attachment theory was paramount in turning mother love into a biological need. This shift introduced a new justification for the prescriptive role of biology in human affairs and had profound—and negative—consequences for mothers and for the valuation of mother love.

Editorial Reviews

Ellen Herman
“At a moment when instinct is considered a self-evident fact of human and nonhuman existence, The Nature and Nurture of Love asks a big question about the role of biology in human affairs. How did science inform the social organization of child rearing in the United States during the early Cold War era? Vicedo’s fascinating book shows that very uncertain findings in ethology, psychoanalysis, and primatology were translated into conservative cultural certainties about human development, motherhood, and the kind of nurture that children needed and deserved. Her wonderfully blunt style and refreshing skepticism illuminate the sciences of love. I can think of few other books that bring history as boldly to bear on debates about human nature, work/family balance, and the urgent question of how we care for children as women pursue lives that stretch far beyond maternity.”
Richard W. Burkhardt
“Through her astute investigation of the history of attachment theory and the modern concept of ‘mother love,’ Marga Vicedo reminds us that scientific pronouncements on the social lessons of biology tend to be freighted with prevailing preconceptions about the proper ordering of society.  She offers an insightful and thought-provoking analysis of how attachment theory developed amidst postwar anxieties about the erosion of traditional gender roles. With its remarkable cast of scientific characters (including John Bowlby, Konrad Lorenz, and Harry Harlow) and its attention to multiple disciplines (ethology, comparative psychology, and psychoanalysis), this book is certain to appeal to a wide range of readers.”
Rebecca Jo Plant
“Angst-ridden parents who fear they may not be adequately meeting their infant’s emotional needs will gain valuable perspective from Marga Vicedo’s The Nature and Nurture of Love, which shows how recent this preoccupation actually is. This thoroughly original and deeply researched study explains how leading postwar psychologists and biologists reduced mother love and infant attachment to biological instincts that stymied healthy emotional development if thwarted or unmet. Revisiting the field’s most influential animal and human studies, Vicedo levels a brilliant and provocative critique of attachment theory—one that will challenge present-day proponents to defend its central claims more rigorously.”

“More than the story of a controversy in developmental psychology, it is a compelling interrogation of a popular scientific theory, its creators, and its critics.”
New Books in American Studies - Carla Nappi
“A fascinating and gripping transdisciplinary story and an absolute pleasure to read.”
Choice - R. B. Stewart Jr.
“An engaging exploration of the development of attachment theory within the context of the Cold War years. . . . Through this historical analysis, Vicedo raises important questions concerning the adequacy of the scientific evidence supporting attachment theory. She accomplishes this while maintaining the neutrality of a historian and encouraging readers to strive to understand a theory in its scientific and social context. Recommended.”
Journal of the History of Biology - Teri Chettiar
“A painstakingly in-depth account of the intellectual and social context within which Bowlby’s ethological theory of attachment came to prominence—and was both challenged and defended—in postwar America. Marga Vicedo’s careful examination illuminates the powerful cross-disciplinary alliances, selective readings of data, and neglect of criticism that helped to produce and sustain the ‘halo of truth’ surrounding attachment theory.”
Psychoanalysis and History
“Vicedo’s work is a polemical one, arguing that Bowlby’s work tried to frame mother love as a ‘biological instinct’, and in doing so supported a conservative social agenda of motherblaming and the maintenance (or re-establishment) of traditional gender roles – ones in which the mother’s place was (by nature) in the home, looking after the children. This critique of Bowlby’s influence is not a new one, but Vicedo’s aim is to challenge Bowlby’s ideas by showing how the scientific bases for his theories were flawed.”
Journal of the History of Medicine - Jessica Martucci
"Vicedo’s work opens up new avenues for exploring relationships between motherhood, biology, culture, and science and provides a much-needed analysis of attachment theory in the twentieth century. In doing so, she has given us a fresh historical perspective and a valuable synthesis of a fascinating subject, one that will no doubt pave the way for future works seeking to unravel these relationships in new ways."
Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
"Vicedo reminds us of the important role historians of science play in unpacking the past while also shedding light on contemporary discussions taking place at the intersection of science and society."

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University of Chicago Press
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The Nature and Nurture of Love

From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02055-6



Mother Love as the Cradle of the Emotional Self

"How can we rear an emotionally healthy generation?" —Midcentury White House Conference


World War II split the century, the atom, and the family and, perhaps worst of all, destroyed the faith that a war could put an end to all wars. In search of an explanation for human destructiveness, many social scientists turned to the nonrational causes of human behavior—the emotions. As they saw it, ensuring a peaceful world order required controlling human emotions, and to do this one first needed to understand them. In seeking out the source of an individual's emotional nature, scientists soon found the mother. Their reasoning went like this: Personality is a direct result of the individual's emotions; emotions are created in childhood; and children are raised by their mothers. The mother thus became the foundation of a healthy personality. But according to many experts and to others with little expertise, American mothers were creating a problem of national proportions. They were sometimes accused of smothering their children and at other times of depriving them of love. In either case, mothers turned their children into emotional cripples and therefore put the social order in danger.

How did mothers acquire so much power? What scientific research justified this vision of mother love as determinant of individual personalities and national character? To answer these questions, this chapter explores the development during the 1940s of scientific views about children's emotional needs and about the role of mother love in shaping their personality. Concern for emotional and mental health preceded the war, as did mother blame. Kathleen W. Jones's study of the interwar period demonstrates that mother was a convenient scapegoat for children's behavioral and emotional problems in that era as well. From psychologists like John Watson to child guidance workers, children's mental problems were traced back to their alleged doting or emotionally negligent mothers. However, I suggest here that the war also played a key role by fostering widespread concern about the role of emotions in human behavior. In turn, the interest in the formation of the emotional self, I claim, was crucial to the success of child psychoanalysis around and after World War II. Both factors encouraged research on mother love and love for mother.

American historians have shown how authors like popular writer Philip Wylie and psychiatrist Edward Strecker blamed "moms" for their sons' immaturity. For Mary Jo Buhle, "momism" helped instigate a misogynist discourse in the postwar era. Rebecca Jo Plant sees momism as part of a larger move to reject an older vision of moral motherhood that had fueled maternalist discourses at the turn of the century. Plant also pays attention to some of the literature on maternal deprivation and notes the shift toward a conception of maternal love as a psychobiological drive.

Here I focus on the scientific research on child development that supported those visions of maternal care and love. I examine how discourses that blamed mothers for loving children too much and loving them too little overlapped during many years, but toward the end of the 1940s I identify stronger concern about the absence of mother love in an infant's early years. In this area, I analyze the views of prominent researchers on maternal deprivation, such as Anna Freud, Margaret Ribble, René Spitz, David Levy, Therese Benedek, Erik Erikson, and John Bowlby. These authors presented mother love not merely as something children desire or benefit from but as an instinctual need. Yet despite their constant appeal to infants' innate emotional needs, most of the authors discussed here did not clarify what they meant by instincts. By the end of the decade, in the popular version of a highly influential report for the World Health Organization, John Bowlby appealed to the work of animal researchers to support the idea that maternal deprivation has catastrophic consequences because the mother is the child's psychic organizer.

Becoming Emotional

Consider these two sets of data: During World War I, thousands of men were rejected for military duty because of their poor performance on intelligence tests; during World War II, almost three million men were rejected for being emotionally unstable. In the two periods, these results became central points of reference in discussions about what was wrong with American society. In contrast to the focus on intelligence and intellectual capacities prevalent around World War I, around World War II the alarming results about the troubled emotional character of Americans helped consolidate the perception that the country needed to care about its citizens' emotions. This concern was not wholly new, but during the war and its aftermath one can discern an increasing emphasis on emotional factors in shaping human behavior and causing social problems. Although it is beyond the scope of this book to unravel all the complex factors underlying this shift, let me point out several factors that contributed to it.

The war helped spotlight emotions by making it clear that intellectual improvement was not enough to ensure peaceful social relations and, on its own, might not even be desirable. The rise of Nazism in one of the most highly educated societies, and the horrifying systematic, mechanized, and calculated murder of millions, had made that frighteningly clear. After the war, the very signs of scientific mastery—like the atomic bomb—fueled fears of a society that was becoming more and more technologically sophisticated, but also dehumanized.

In this context, many social commentators were disturbed by the perception that societies were improving their intellectual and technical capacities at the expense of their emotional and moral development. After a war that had depended heavily on machines and technical achievements, building a peaceful democratic order seemed to require balancing the advancement of society in other realms. Edward A. Strecker, in his 1944 presidential address to the American Psychiatric Association, noted that it was "unlikely that democracy will fulfill its destiny by grace of technocracy alone, even though scientific technical achievement has been truly amazing." As Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport saw it in 1947, "the outstanding malady of our time" had many expressions, but "the underlying ailment" was "the fact that man's moral sense is not able to assimilate his technology." To prevent the triumph of a dehumanized, mechanical world, Allport called for more attention to "problems of human affection and the conditions for its development."

The war also contributed to ongoing interest in understanding human nature and, specifically, clarifying whether aggression is an ineradicable part of human behavior. "War is not inevitable and not part of human nature": so said the manifesto signed by a dozen psychologists at the celebration of Armistice Day in 1937. They represented the consensus of their fellow psychologists, who had passed their verdict in democratic fashion. The American Psychological Association asked its members: "Do you as a psychologist hold that there are present in human nature ineradicable, instinctive factors that make war between nations inevitable?" Of the 528 members, 378 cast a vote, which stood as follows: no, 346; yes, 10; unclassified, 22. Most psychologists, including hard hereditarians such as H. H. Goddard and S. J. Holmes, thought war is not instinctive or inevitable. But many of them thought there are instinctive factors in human nature that often get derailed in the madness of war. World War II once again brought the question to the fore: "Is War Instinctive—And Inevitable?" asked the biologist Julian Huxley in the New York Times. Others continued a discussion that would only become more heated during the tense years of the Cold War.

This concern about human instincts also rekindled interest in the emotions. In most scientific and popular accounts up to World War II, emotions and instincts were used almost interchangeably. In his foundational text of psychology, pragmatist psychologist William James noted: "Instinctive reactions and emotional expressions shade imperceptibly into each other. Every object that excites an instinct excites an emotion as well." Many psychologists of different orientations agreed. In the words of John Watson, the father of behaviorism: "There is no sharp line of separation between emotion and instinct." Watson's nemesis, Harvard psychologist William McDougall, also correlated emotions with instincts, identifying several primary pairs of instincts-emotions. Thus the desire to understand the instinctual roots of aggression also encouraged debates about emotions.

The war and its aftermath heightened worries about the emotional life of children in particular. In England, children were taken from their families to protect them from the bombs. Although these children had all their basic physical needs met in the wartime nurseries, many suffered terrible emotional trauma. The news about children who had lost their parents in concentration camps was even bleaker. "Will the walls be here tomorrow?" asked one child refugee in an English nursery. In Europe, thousands of children were left homeless and surely heartless by the war and its aftermath. Numerous studies, including the pioneering ones by psychoanalyst Anna Freud, examined the emotional damage the war inflicted on children. Although American children were not directly affected, people in the United States were also concerned: "What has war done to the children of the world, and what can we do about it?" Discussion groups in the United States would tackle the question, announced Dr. Fremont-Smith, director of the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, at the 1947 World Mental Health Congress. One year later, the United Nations General Assembly Universal Declaration of Human Rights said that "motherhood and childhood" deserved "special care and assistance."

At home, postwar difficulties in readjusting to work and family life underscored the importance of emotions. American historians have documented the tremendous repercussions postwar readjustment had on Americans' emotional life. After confronting the brutalities of war, the GIs came home and needed to adjust to factories, corporations, and families that had undergone deep changes in their absence. As Rebecca Jo Plant has noted, the literature on helping veterans and their families "portrayed readjustment in psychological terms, as an emotionally fraught process that could result in serious difficulties if mishandled." Regarding family life, historian Nancy Cott has shown how the literature on readjustment "stressed that veterans hoped and deserved to recapture the traditional marital constellation, with the father/husband the provider and protector, and the wife/mother the sympathizer and nurturer." However, the domestic bliss that many men had dreamed of in battle could turn into a nightmare as they returned to families that were not quite the same as when they left.

Women's lives had undergone dramatic changes as well, and for them readjustment also proved difficult. During the war, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Afterward many families moved to the suburbs, also in unprecedented numbers. Women were expected to leave their jobs and focus on being supportive wives and nurturing mothers. At least for educated middle-class women, these developments exacerbated the conflicting feelings and anxieties they were already experiencing during the war years. As sociologist Mirra Komarovsky showed in a 1946 study of college women, seniors commonly faced contradictory expectations about their adult roles: homemaker and "career girl." Confronted with these competing ideals, they suffered "from the uncertainty and insecurity that are the personal manifestations of cultural conflict." Because these roles required different personality traits, the conflict left young women in "bewilderment and confusion." Over the next decade, numerous studies by sociologists as well as women's narratives documented their emotional turmoil. A 1947 issue of Life magazine identified the problem as "The American Woman's Dilemma." According to the editors, a growing number of women were confused and frustrated. They felt conflicted about the new emphasis on women's duties in the home and the reality of their involvement in public activities.

Even fiction showcased the emotional problems of readjustment. William Wyler's 1947 Oscar-winning movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, explored the problems of going from soldier to citizen in a country with new economic and social expectations. One of the returning veterans comes back to an estranged wife and can only get a job selling cosmetics. Another one returns to a high position in a bank, but he is forced to deny loans to veterans who have no collateral. And a handless veteran feels frustrated because he is dependent on his family. All three men suffer emotional problems owing to the strains of readjustment.

Besides coping with new aspects of family life, men and women had to adjust to new expectations in the workplace. Here too, social commentary centered on the significance of personality traits and emotional maturity. In 1949, the Report of the Study for the Ford Foundation on Policy and Program presented an alarming picture:

No census can show how many persons in our society labor under the disabling effect of inadequate emotional adjustment. The estimates vary widely; some authorities regard emotional maladjustment as the most characteristic and widespread ill of our civilization. In a small percentage of instances this maladjustment takes the form of violent social disorders such as crime, delinquency, and insanity. In the great majority of cases it is revealed in illness, in unstable family life, in erratic and unproductive work habits, and in inability to participate effectively in community life. This maladjustment makes people unable to have satisfactory relations with their fellows, unwilling to cooperate adequately, and unable to compete successfully.

Thus emotional maladjustment seemed to threaten the survival of the patriarchal family, the cohesiveness of the social fabric, and the success of American capitalism. Emotional maturity probably had long been considered important for satisfactory personal relations, but many commentators now also emphasized its significance for social and political stability. This trend fits well with the tendency to psychologize social and cultural reality that Richard Pells identified as a characteristic of the 1940s and 1950s and the postwar "romance with psychology" examined by Ellen Herman.

During this period, emotional and psychological problems such as anxiety, insecurity, immaturity, and imbalance were taken to contribute to major social ills. The spectacular growth of the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis attests to the increasing perceived need to attend to the mental health and emotional problems of the American people. In response to such grave problems, the federal government took action. It made the citizen's mental health a major priority by passing the 1946 National Mental Health Act, then created the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1949. In 1949 the NIMH budget was $9 million, in 1959, $50 million, and in 1964, $189 million.

Even the survival of democracy came to be seen as an emotional problem. "The real difficulties with democracy ... are emotional," Franz Alexander, founder of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute, stated in 1942. Contemplating a suicidal third world war enabled by the advent of the atomic bomb, British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby concluded his reflections on psychology and democracy with these words: "The hope for the future lies in a far more profound understanding of the nature of the emotional forces involved and the development of scientific social techniques for modifying them."

His fellow Americans agreed that the construction of a good society and a sound world order depended not only on economic resources, technological progress, and military might but also on emotional maturity. When experts from different fields and tendencies met in 1950 at the Midcentury White House Conference to address the key problems of the day, they raised one central question: "How can we rear an emotionally healthy generation?" Well, who rears every generation?

Between Overprotection and Deprivation: The Mother-Child Dyad Takes Center Stage

Both in the scientific literature and in popular culture, there has been a long-standing tendency to see emotions as the realm of women and, specifically, to view mothers as the emotional providers in child rearing and mother love as the source of the social sentiments. Nineteenth-century evolutionary thinkers like Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer said mother love is the original and primary source of altruism in the natural and social worlds. Prominent early twentieth-century psychologists William James, Stanley G. Hall, and William McDougall selected mother love as the cradle of all good sentiments. Some anthropologists followed suit. For example, in his massive work The Mothers: A Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions, Robert Briffault proposed that all social feelings derived from the maternal instinct.

Excerpted from The Nature and Nurture of Love by MARGA VICEDO. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Marga Vicedo is associate professor in the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto.

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