Group Report: Social Bonding as a Biobehavioral Process

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The goal of our group was to identify common biobehavioral processes in attachment and bonding in an effort to advance our understanding of our place in the world, the nature of human relationships, the origins of some forms of psychopathology and, where possible, to inform social policy. We offer a tentative biobehavioral model of bonding and attachment that focuses on the interface of several highly conserved neural systems involved in perception, arousal, maintenance of physiological homeostasis, as well as reward and threat detection and response pathways. We propose that in the course of evolution, natural selection led to a species-specific integration of these systems producing the diversity of affiliative behaviors observable today. In our estimation, the utility of this integrative model comes in the identification of which of these biobehavioral components are active in any one of a range of adaptive and maladaptive outcomes. We encourage investigators to explore how these systems interact with each other at each level of analysis, from the genome to metacognitive representations. We believe this emerging model will provide a fruitful point of orientation for scientists from a range of disciplines to integrate their work and evaluate new experimental and therapeutic interventions as they develop this model and seek to inform social policy. In the sections that follow, we consider the behavioral and cognitive dimensions by examining the formation and maintenance of social bonds. Then we briefly consider how bonds develop over time, how they are altered by either the loss of attachment figures or the addition of new and potentially competing attachments (intra- and inter-bond dynamics). We provide a brief review of the neural pathways involved and examine the very limited information available on the role of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms in sculpting aspects of affiliative behavior. We close with a reevaluation of our model as well as a series of conclusions and as yet unanswered questions.


Presented at the 92nd Dahlem Workshop on Attachment and Bonding, Berlin, Germany, September 28 to October 3, 2003.

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