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What Is The Internal Working Model of Attachment | Psychology

An internal working model of attachment is a mental representation formed through a child’s early experiences with their primary caregiver. This mental representation influences how the child interacts and builds relationships with others as they grow. It also explains the differences in human behavior among people.

How Is The Internal Working Model Formed

Psychiatrist John Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment asserts that infants are born programmed to seek connection and proximity to their caretakers for survival, creating a close attachment bond.

Over time, children internalize this attachment process and use these base relationships to form a prototype for later relationships outside the family.

This relationship prototype is a set of archetypes of themselves, and others called the internal working models (IWMs).

IWMs consist 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.

mother holding baby in flying position internal working model definition psychology

What Do Internal Working Models Have To Do With Child Development

Internal working models are significant in a child’s development because they form an inner guidance system for future behavior.

They influence an individual’s emotions, behavior, interaction with others and expectations of others in relationships.

These models operate outside of conscious awareness.

They unconsciously direct one’s attention and behaviors in relationships.

Although IWMs are dynamic and may change under some conditions, working models tend to remain stable over time​1​.

Hence, the quality of the parent-child relationship in early life can affect a person’s future relationships.

When Do Internal Working Models Develop

According to John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, babies start forming internal working models in early childhood, around age three. In early infancy, these models are available only to recognize the attachment figures and short-term anticipation​​.

But as the child’s memory and capacity for linking thoughts, feelings, and memories improve, these models become general mental representations of themselves and others.

This representation is carried forward in adulthood and profoundly impacts one’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, and human relationships, especially in love relationships​2​.

Internal Working Models of Self and Others

Bowlby’s internal working model of the self arises as an individual interacts with close others.

A child can derive beliefs about how acceptable the self is in the eyes of their primary caretaker, judged by how responsive they are.

A child whose caretaker responds reliably develops a representation of the self as acceptable and worthwhile. This child has a positive self-image.​3​

They view their attachment figure as a secure base they can turn to for safety.

A child with an inconsistent or unresponsive attachment figure develops a view of self as unacceptable and unworthy, resulting in a negative self-image and low self-esteem.

Their lack of attachment security means they do not believe their caretaker is accessible for safety and comfort.

Working Models and Attachment Styles

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

Secure attachment

A securely attached person possesses a positive sense of worthiness and an expectation that other people are generally accepting and responsive.

Preoccupied Attachment

A preoccupied person possesses a sense of unworthiness but a positive evaluation of others.

The person strives for acceptance by valued others.

Avoidant Attachment

A person with avoidant attachment or 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

Dismissive-avoidant individuals possess a sense of loveworthiness 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 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 attachment system, tend to be passed on to their offspring.​5​

Researchers have found that children with a history of secure attachment at one year old have more adaptive interactions with parents, peers, and teachers.

These children behave in predictable ways, including their kids, when they become parents.

Similarly, maltreated children who form insecure attachments tend to become abusive parents themselves, creating insecure attachments in their own kids​.​6​

This maltreated-maltreating cycle is the most striking example of how IWMs formed in early attachment relationships are carried forward and reenacted in subsequent relationships.​7​


  1. 1.
    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.
  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.
    Bretherton I. Updating the ‘internal working model’ construct: Some reflections. Attachment & Human Development. Published online December 1999:343-357. doi:10.1080/14616739900134191
  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


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