Skip to Content

What Is Internal Working Model of Attachment

In Attachment Theory, John Bowlby proposed that early life experiences with the primary caregiver formed a close emotional bond, called an attachment, which became the internal working model of the child.

What Is An Internal Working Model

Infants are born programmed to seek connection and proximity to their caretakers for survival, creating an attachment. Overtime, they internalize experiences with caretakers so that the early attachment relations come to form a prototype for later relationships outside the family. This prototype is a set of mental representations of themselves and others, called the internal working models. Internal working models (IWMs) influence a person’s emotions, behavior, and interaction with others in relationships.

The working model is like an inner guidance system when it comes to relationships. In early infancy, it is available only for recognition of the attachment figure and short-term anticipation​1​. But as the child’s memory and capacity for linking together thoughts, feelings, and memories improve, this model becomes a general mental representation of themselves and others.

This model consists of how the child interprets and responds to the caregiver’s behavior. The child forms an expectation and uses it for planning and deciding their actions with others. In adulthood, this representation is carried forward to influence one’s thought, feelings, and behavior, especially in relationships​2​.

Hence, this model can have a profound impact on relationships, especially between romantic partners.

Internal working models operate outside of conscious awareness. They unconsciously direct one’s attention and behaviors in relationships. Although these models are dynamic and may change under some conditions, working models tend to remain stable over time​3​.

Mother holds baby up high and smiles at him forming a secure internal working model

Internal Working Model of Self and Others

In Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment, working models of self arise as one interacts with close others. A child can derive beliefs about how acceptable the self is in the eyes of early attachment figures, judged by how responsive those figures are.

Kids whose attachment figures response reliably develop a representation of the self as acceptable and worthwhile. These individuals have positive self-images. Kids who have inconsistent or unresponsive attachment figures develop a view of self as unacceptable and unworthy, resulting in negative self-images and low self-esteem.

At the same time, working models of others are developed in a child according to the expectations about who to turn to for safety and how accessible that person is.

Working Models and Attachment Styles

Researchers have identified four adult attachment styles according to different combinations of one’s inner working models of the self and others​4​.

Secure attachment

Possesses a positive sense of worthiness and an expectation that other people are generally accepting and responsive.

Preoccupied Attachment

Possesses a sense of unworthiness but a positive evaluation of others. The person strives for acceptance by valued others.

Fearful-avoidant Attachment

Possesses a sense of unworthiness and expectation that others are untrustworthy and rejecting. The person protects themselves from anticipated rejection by avoiding close involvement with others. Yet they have a strong dependency on others to main a positive self-image.

Dismissive-avoidant Attachment

Possesses a sense of love-worthiness but a negative disposition toward others. The person protects themselves against disappointment by avoiding close relationships and maintaining a sense of independence and invulnerability. They are detached or dismissing of the attachment.

Attachment StyleSelf-imageImage of OthersInterpersonal relationship
SecurePositivePositivecomfortable with
closeness and intimacy
PreoccupiedNegativePositivea desire for a high level
of closeness with fear of abandonment
Fearful-avoidantNegativeNegativefear of closeness and socially avoidant
Dismissing-avoidantPositiveNegativeuncomfortable with closeness and overly selfreliant

Intergenerational Transmission

Internal working models are prone to intergenerational transmission. A parent’s working model patterns, especially the insecure ones, tend to be passed on to their offspring​5​.

Researchers have found that children have a history of secure attachment at one year old have more adaptive interactions subsequently no only with parents, but also with peers and with teachers. These children behave in predictable ways, including their own kids when they become parents.

Similarly, maltreated children who form insecure attachment tend to become abusive parents themselves creating insecure attachment in their own kids​6​. This maltreated-maltreating cycle is the most striking examples of how internal working model formed in early childhood is carried forward and reenacted in subsequent relationships​7​.


  1. 1.
    Bretherton I. Updating the ‘internal working model’ construct: Some reflections. Attachment & Human Development. Published online December 1999:343-357. doi:10.1080/14616739900134191
  2. 2.
    Pietromonaco PR, Barrett LF. The Internal Working Models Concept: What do we Really know about the Self in Relation to Others? Review of General Psychology. Published online June 2000:155-175. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.4.2.155
  3. 3.
    John B. Separation, anxiety and anger. In: In Attachment and Loss: Volume II. The Hogarth press and the institute of psycho-analysis; 1973:1-429.
  4. 4.
    Bartholomew K, Horowitz LM. Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1991;61(2):226-244.
  5. 5.
    Bretherton I. Communication patterns, internal working models, and the intergenerational transmission of attachment relationships. Infant Ment Health J. Published online 1990:237-252. doi:
  6. 7.
    Zeanah CH, Zeanah PD. Intergenerational Transmission of Maltreatment: Insights from Attachment Theory and Research. Psychiatry. Published online May 1989:177-196. doi:10.1080/00332747.1989.11024442
Comments are closed.