A contingency-based approach to the etiology of 'disorganized' attachment: The 'flickering switch' hypothesis

O. Koós, G. Gergely

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

34 Citations (Scopus)


The authors present a new approach to the etiology of disorganized attachment based on contingency detection theory. According to this view, the relevant common factor in parental maltreatment and unresolved loss that leads to disorganized attachment has to do with the type of "deviant contingency environment" that both of these conditions generate. In such environments, infants experience periods of being in control followed by periods of sudden loss of control over the caregiver's behavior. The authors hypothesize that this adversely affects the developmental unfolding of the infant's innate "contingency detection module" (Gergely & Watson, 1999), which normally involves a maturational shift around 3 months from an initial attention bias for perfectly contingent stimulation to an emerging preference for less-than-perfect social contingencies. The periodically changing controllability of abusive and dissociating "unresolved" attachment figures is hypothesized to block this process and to lead to the defensive fixation of a dysfunctional "flickering contingency switch" mechanism with two dominant and competing target positions (self-oriented vs. other-oriented). This results in the dissociative style of attention and behavioral organization characteristic of disorganized infant attachment. The authors summarize the preliminary results of an empirical study that provides support for this model in 6.5-month-old infants using a modified Still-Face situation (the Mirror Interaction Situation). The study demonstrates differential emotional and behavioral reactions to sudden loss of maternal contingency and a specific interest in exploring the perfectly contingent self-image in the mirror in infants who at 12 months become categorized as "disorganized" in the Strange Situation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)397-410
Number of pages14
JournalBulletin of the Menninger Clinic
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 3 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Phychiatric Mental Health
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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