June 11th, 2010
Discover the Magic of Bonding Behaviors
While waiting for a concert to begin at our local county fair, my husband and I checked out a reptile exhibit that included an animal trainer with a live alligator resting calmly on his lap. As we stroked the gator, I asked the trainer why it was so tame. “I pet it daily. If I didn’t, it would quickly be wild again, and wouldn’t allow this,” he explained.
I was surprised. Only months earlier I had begun to grasp the power of bonding behaviors (skin-to-skin contact, gentle stroking and so forth) to evoke the desire to bond without our having to do anything more. I didn’t realize reptiles ever responded similarly.
Bonding behaviors, or attachment cues, are subconscious signals that can make emotional ties surprisingly effortless, once any initial defensiveness dissolves. (Bonding behaviors are also good medicine for easing defensiveness. Here’s a dramatic example: After three weeks of daily attachment cues an orphan with violent reactive attachment disorder finally bonded with his adoptive parents and began to form healthy peer relationships as well.)
These behaviors are effective because they are the way mammal infants attach to their caregivers. To survive, infants need regular contact with Mom’s mammaries until they are ready to be weaned. Bonding behaviors work by encouraging the release of neurochemicals (including oxytocin), which lower innate defensiveness, making a bond possible.
In short, these generous behaviors are the way we humans fall in love with our parents and children. Caregiver-infant signals include affectionate touch, grooming, soothing sounds, eye contact, and so forth.
In rare pair-bonding mammals like us, bonding cues serve a secondary function as well (known as an exaptation). They’re part of the reason we stay in love (on average) for long enough for both parents to attach to any kids. Honeymoon neurochemistry also plays a role, but it’s somewhat like a booster shot that wears off. In contrast, bonding behaviors can sustain bonds indefinitely.