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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.

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 undoubtedly affect a person’s future relationships.

When Do Internal Working Models Develop

According to Bowlby in the Attachment Theory, babies start forming internal working models in early childhood around the age of three. In early infancy, these models are available only for recognition of the attachment figures and short-term anticipation​2​. But as the child’s memory and capacity for linking together thoughts, feelings, and memories improve, these models become general mental representations of themselves and others.

In adulthood, this representation is carried forward and profoundly impacts one’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, and human relationships, especially in love relationships​3​.

internal working models: Mother holds baby up high and smiles at him forming a secure internal working model definition psychology

Internal Working Models of Self and Others

An internal working model of the self arises as one 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. They view their attachment figure as a secure base that they can turn to for safety.

A child who has 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.

Mother carries infant close to her building working model example with each other

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.

Fearful-avoidant Attachment

A person with 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 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
Mother carrying sleeping infant creates secure attachment models

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.

Researchers have found that children have a history of secure attachment at one year old have more adaptive interactions subsequently not 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​5​. This maltreated-maltreating cycle is the most striking examples of how IWMs formed in early attachment relationships is carried forward and reenacted in subsequent relationships.

Father and son laugh together


  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.
    Bretherton I. Updating the ‘internal working model’ construct: Some reflections. Attachment & Human Development. Published online December 1999:343-357. doi:10.1080/14616739900134191
  3. 3.
    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
  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.
    Macfie J, Mcelwain NL, Houts RM, Cox MJ. Intergenerational transmission of role reversal between parent and child: Dyadic and family systems internal working models. Attachment & Human Development. Published online March 2005:51-65. doi:10.1080/14616730500039663

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


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