Learning theory, which is also known as behaviourist theory, suggests that attachment is a by-product of feeding infants and that behaviour is not innate but learned. This learning can be an outcome of an association being made between different stimuli or behaviour that can be altered via reinforcement. These two basic forms of learning are classical conditioning and operant conditioning
Classical conditioning can be used as an explanation of how a reciprocal bond can be formed between a primary caregiver and an infant. As a general rule, food produces a feeling of pleasure. The feeder who feeds the infant would be paired with food and thus becomes a conditioned stimulus. Once the process of the feeding process has been repeated, pleasure soon becomes the conditioned response which leads to an attachment bond to the feeder. Often the feeder would be the infant's biological mother so learns to generalise the feeling of pleasure with being around the mother as she is the one who on most cases provides and delivers the food.
However, operant conditioning has also been used to explain the formation of attachment between infant and its caregiver; Dollard and Miller (1950) suggested that drive reduction leads to attachment. a hungry infant has a natural drive to lessen hunger as it feels uncomfortable. Once it is given food which is a primary reinforcer as it is essential for survival and is linked to avoiding discomfort, the drive is reduced and would therefore act as positive reinforcement. Food also acts as negative reinforcement as a negative stimulus is removed- hunger.
When the infant is cold or hungry it cries which is a social release. The caregiver would find this unpleasant like it was punishment so would likely respond appropriately to the child via feeding or physical contact comfort. As the infant's crying stops, this would act as negative reinforcement for the caregiver and would make the chance of their behaviour in the future more likely to occur.
Unconditioned Stimulus Unconditioned Response Food PleasureNeutral Stimulus Paired repeatedly with Feeder FoodConditioned Stimulus Conditioned Response Feeder Pleasure