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In the strange situation, 12-month-old infants and their parents are brought to the laboratory and, systematically, separated from and reunited with one another.
Bowlby argued that, over the course of evolutionary history, infants who were able to maintain proximity to an attachment figure via attachment behaviors would be more likely to survive to a reproductive age.
At the time of Bowlby's initial writings, psychoanalytic writers held that these expressions were manifestations of immature defense mechanisms that were operating to repress emotional pain, but Bowlby noted that such expressions are common to a wide variety of mammalian species, and speculated that these behaviors may serve an evolutionary function.
Drawing on ethological theory, Bowlby postulated that these attachment behaviors, such as crying and searching, were adaptive responses to separation from a primary attachment figure--someone who provides support, protection, and care.
According to Bowlby, the attachment system essentially "asks" the following fundamental question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive?
If the child perceives the answer to this question to be "yes," he or she feels loved, secure, and confident, and, behaviorally, is likely to explore his or her environment, play with others, and be sociable.