Building on Attachment Theory:
Toward a Multimotivational and Intersubjective Model of Human Nature

Mauricio Cortina and Giovanni Liotti

[Paper presented on June 11, 2005, at the Annual Meeting of the Rapaport-Klein Study Group]


Introduction and overview

Attachment theory is the most successful attempt in the 20th century to integrate a depth psychology with an evolutionary and developmental perspective (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Attachment theory not only illuminates developmental issues and clinical phenomena, such as the formation of attachment ties, separation anxiety and loss, from new perspectives, but has also generated a research program that has confirmed fundamental premises of the theory and enriched and expanded the theory with new empirical findings and discoveries.

This essay is organized in four parts. In the first part we lay out the basic structure of attachment theory and use this structure as a benchmark to think about other motivational systems. In the second part we propose a multi-motivational model of human nature. This proposal has many similarities to Lichtenberg's (1989) multi-motivational system. We build on his contribution to propose a basic taxonomy of human motivation by adding an evolutionary perspective. Once an evolutionary perspective is adopted, it becomes clear that all the basic motivational systems that we will consider are very similar to species close to ours. If we wish to develop a comprehensive view of human motivation we must ask two key questions. What are the new characteristics of our species that make us unique and how do these emerging properties modify the basic motivational systems that unite us to other mammals and primates? 

In the third part we address these two questions by approaching language and meaning through the interlinked concepts of intersubjectivity, intentionality and Theory of Mind (ToM). Our view, based primarily on the work of Tomasello (Call & Tomasello, 2003; Tomasello, 1999; Tomasello & Call, 1997; Tomasello et al., 2005) is that that capacity to develop deeper forms of collaborative engagements with members of our own species (conspecifics) is a key to understanding why we became such a peculiar and hyper-social primate, relentlessly seeking for purpose and meaning. The evolutionary transformation that led to an advanced capacity to cooperate with others required powerful cognitive and social tools. We agree with Tomasello and Gallese that these tools are the ability to understand the goals and intentions of others and a desire to share goals, aspirations, emotions and meaning with conspecifics (Gallese, 2003; Tomasello et al., 2005). This shared intentional and intersubjective space transforms the basic motivational and emotional systems that we have in common with other primates with a qualitatively new sense of intersubjective meaning. We think that Tomasello's elegant formulation requires distinguishing between a full-blown intersubjectivity that exists in humans from a less developed form of intersubjectivity that is present in nonhuman primates and in human infants before they reach their first year of life -- nonhuman primates and infants can "read" behavior and emotions but might not be able to "read" minds. We draw on the brilliant developmental work of Jean Mandler (2004) and to some extent on Wilma Bucci's multiple code theory (Bucci, 1997) to make a fundamental distinction between perceptual and conceptual modes of categorizing and understanding the world. We use this distinction to differentiate between two different forms of intersubjectivity that Trevarthen described as primary and secondary forms of intersubjectivity (Trevarthen, 1979; Trevarthen, 1980; Trevarthen & Aitken, 1994). The primary form of intersubjectivity is procedural in form, information is processed through a massive parallel processing system that is inaccessible to consciousness (is nonconscious). A secondary and more advanced form of Intersubjectivity is declarative in form, conceptual in nature (based on the analysis of meaning derived from perception), information is selectively processed and analyzed serially (sequentially) and is accessible to consciousness. This accessible data base allows humans to retrieve information from the past and analyze our intersubjective experience for thinking and planning.

We agree with Tomasello, Trevarthen and Daniel Stern that intersubjectivity, more specifically the more advanced form of intersubjectivity, can be thought of as a basic motivational system in its own right. According to Trevarthen intersubjectivity, viewed as a basic motivation, is "dedicated to the communication of psychological states" (Trevarthen & Aitken, 1994 p. 623) and according to Stern intersubjectivity in humans has a preemptive motivational quality based on "the need to read the intentions and feelings of others" (Stern, 2004). Similarly, Michael Maccoby also sees meaning as a "value-drive" that is at the center of a wheel composed of several motivational systems, all of which are transformed through our relentless search for meaning (Maccoby, 2003). We believe, however, that this intersubjective motivational system did not emerge phylogenetically as a specialized modular function, but as a domain-general adaptation that had its roots in other social systems that we will describe in this essay. 

The neurobiological underpinning of our human capacity to share a multiplicity of states that includes actions, sensations and emotions is described by Gallese as a "manifold of shared intersubjectivity" (Gallese, 2003). The same neuronal systems that are involved in the processing of actions, goals, emotions and felt sensations have the remarkable quality of also being active when the same actions, goals, sensations and emotions are observed in others. This "mirror matching system" has been described aptly by Gallese as a form of "embodied simulation" (Gallese, 1995; Gallese, 2002; Gallese, 2003; Gallese & Metzinger, 2003). The startling discovery of mirror matching neuronal systems strongly supports an intersubjective, experientially-grounded approach to intersubjectivity and meaning. 

A full-blown intersubjectivity, acting as a means to communicate intentions, goals and psychological states, has cascading effects on development, providing the fertile ground from which the semantic world of language flourishes (Mandler, 2004 ; Tomasello, 2003; Stern, 2004). It also constitutes the basis for a new form of evolution based on the accumulation of cultural, social and technological innovations, and is coterminous with a higher-order form of consciousness (Edelman, 1987, 1989, 1992) infused with an intersubjective and existential meaning.

In the forth part of this essay we use the examples of autism and narcissism to begin examining some clinical implications of intersubjectivity. Following Stern, Gallese and Tomasello, we believe that deficits in this conceptual form of intersubjectivity, produces emergent forms of psychopathology in humans. Autism, a biologically-based disorder, can be understood as a deficit in the ability to share high-order intersubjective states and by deficits in language development which shows the devastating effects of a failure in developing these capacities (Stern, 2004; Gallese, 2003; Tomasello, 2005). Less dramatically, but still of enormous importance, severe empathic failures in the way we are recognized and valued as unique persons through development, together with attachment related trauma, can lead to narcissistic and borderline disorders that are sometimes accompanied by a temporary, trauma-induced collapse of a conceptually-based form of intersubjectivity. We will have to leave the exploration of the clinical implications of this model for the practice of psychotherapy for another occasion, but in order to give an idea of the direction we are heading, we suggest reading (Cortina & Marrone, 2003b; Liotti, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2001; Liotti & Cortina, 2005; Liotti & Intreccialagli, 2003)


Attachment theory is fundamentally a theory of development and human motivation based on a Darwinian framework (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980; Cortina & Marrone, 2003a). The basic function of attachment is to seek protection and care in moments of distress. Distress signals are based on an appraisal of danger that is mostly a nonconscious process signaling external danger, although the threshold for distress may be lowered for endogenous reasons, such as when a child is sick. Distress signals mobilize attachment behaviors that reestablish proximity to attachment figures. Under optimal conditions children are able to return to exploratory activities with confidence, knowing attachment figures will be available when needed. The use of attachment figures as a base for exploration was described and named by Mary Ainsworth, one of Bowlby's closest collaborators, as the secure base phenomenon. Many species of mammals and all primates seek attachment figures in moments of distress or danger. The need for feeling protected by attachment figures and for using them as secure bases for explorations is particularly intense during early development and is less often evoked in later phases of life. Nonetheless, it remains in force throughout the life span, a "cradle to grave" phenomenon as Bowlby noted.

One of the advantages that attachment theory offers us is its specificity. Bowlby not only emphasizes the function of attachment, but also describes specific conditions that activate and deactivate attachment behaviors. Attachment can be understood as an innate motivation whose set goal is to maintain the proximity of attachment figures.  As we develop, the need for physical proximity is transformed into a need for emotional proximity (accessibility and availability rather than just physical proximity) although behavioral systems remain ready throughout life to be activated when needed.

The developmental model of attachment theory

The fundamental developmental task in infancy is the establishment of a secure attachment. Children use a secure base for exploring the world with confidence. Besides the establishment of a secure base, other basic functions regulated directly or indirectly through attachment relationship, include:

  • A basic feeling of confidence in relation to the world (Erikson's basic trust;  Bowlby's and Ainsworth's concept of a secure base)

  • The regulation of emotion, stimulation, tension and impulse control (Shore, 1994, 2003; Sroufe, 1996)

  • Conscious and unconscious appraisals of others and of the world (that are  interwoven with emotional content)

  • Social and emotional development. The capacity of the infant to explore the world with confidence has direct (and indirect) effects on the capacity to feel effective and competent in the interpersonal world (Sroufe et al., 2005; Weinfield et al., 1999)

The attachment relationship is constructed gradually through childhood, penetrating all the important developmental tasks during early development and serving as a template upon which future developmental tasks are constructed. For example, peer relations during childhood and romantic relationships during adolescence and adulthood are facilitated to the extent that they stem from a secure attachment relationships and become more problematic to the extent they are based on insecure relationships (Sroufe, Egeland & Carlson, 1999). Other tasks and goals during development, such as success in school, sports or the choice of trade or career, are not directly related to attachment but the attachment relationships have indirect effects, that highlight the importance of having (or not having) a secure base during development (Sroufe, 2005).

The regulation of attachment

Bowlby used a cybernetic model (a control systems model) to explain the regulation of attachment in terms of a set goal that is adjusted through cognitive and emotional appraisal processes and internal working models that match these internal representations with the set goal -- just like a thermostat that maintains a set goal through feedback systems that match the set goal via internal sensors (Bowlby, 1969). Bowlby's concept of working models and his re-conceptualization of defensive operations are based in ideas contributed by psychoanalysis and by an information-processing approach to cognitive theory.  In his first volume of the attachment trilogy, Bowlby (1969) also outlined a theory showing the role emotions play with respect to attachment in particular and to motivation in general, that unfortunately was never fully elaborated, which takes us to our next point. For an emotional theory consistent with attachment theory see Sroufe (1996).

The Role of Emotions

Emotions play an intermediary role between the evaluation of danger and the activation of attachment behavior, acting as endogenous signs that highlight and magnify salient interactions of the organism with the internal and external environment (Tomkins, 1962). Emotions can be thought of as endogenous values that bias the organism toward monitoring specific goals that have been selected during evolution because of their essential adaptive functions (Edelman, 1987, 1989, 1992). For example, in the attachment system, anxiety and fear (distress signals) function as endogenous signs that accompany evaluations of danger in a manner similar to Freud's second theory of anxiety (Freud, 1926) in which anxiety becomes mobilized in danger situations that are reminiscent of situations where a child felt helpless in the past. The perceptions of danger are processed through incoming circuits that converge in the thalamus. From there the information goes directly to the amygdala and to the motor centers. Less urgent situations are processed through circuits that, after converging in the thalamus, take an alternative route through the hippocampus and the temporal and prefrontal cortex before and then to the amygdala and motor centers. These circuits contextualize experience before the information is transmitted to the motor centers (LeDoux, 1996)

These two paths by which information are processed in danger situations, one predominantly subcortical and the other predominately cortical, explain why in dangerous situations a behavioral reaction is activated before the danger is registered as a feeling (anxiety or fear) as has been demonstrated splendidly by LeDeux in his studies with rats.  The same basic neurobiology undoubtedly applies to other species and to humans producing similar results. For example, one common experience is that we jump when an automobile that we had not seen approaches suddenly or we freeze when we see a snake. Only after having automatically acted do we feel fear.  We believe that this scheme can be generalized to a general model of emotion.  In this model, emotions function as important components of different motivational systems and have various phases of unconscious activation before emotions are felt. This brief description is oversimplified but it will do for now.

Internal Working Models

An essential concept in Bowlby's work is that of the Internal Working Model (IWM). Development proceeds toward autonomy through interpersonal regulation with attachment figures, and becomes "internalized" in the form of representations of self and others. From infancy, children form models of others and the self based on the degree of security and accessibility afforded by attachment figures. These models function as internal maps that predict in a general manner the degree of availability of the attachment figures.  The models of other and self are complementary.  To the extent that attachment figures are trusting and emotionally attentive to the needs and communications of their children, positive images of the self are formed.  On the other hand, if children feel abandoned or attachment figures are not able to attend to infant needs, an image of self as unworthy of love and others as unreliable will be gradually constructed. With time these working models of self and others not only concern attachment figures but are generalized toward all interpersonal relationships. Bowlby imagined attachment and IWM models as control systems that adjust and coordinate automatically through systems of positive and negative feedback as life objectives and goals change. Behavior strategies that are used to maintain physical or emotional contact with attachment figures change in accordance with the perceptions formed of the availability of the attachment figures, especially in times of danger and distress. We will return to the issue or representational models when we discuss the ontogeny of theory of mind.

To sum up, Bowlby gives us a theoretical model in which behavior, emotions, and cognitive evaluations (conscious and unconscious) are integrated in order to maintain a system of security that is at once interpersonal and intrapsychic. The integrative and multimotivational character of attachment theory is of enormous importance and has not received the attention it deserves. If one analyzes the structure of attachment theory carefully it answers five basic questions about attachment:

  • What are the functions of the attachment system?
  • What are the goals of the attachment system?
  • What activates and deactivates the attachment system?
  • How is it regulated?
  • How does it develop?

We use these questions as a framework to think about other motivational systems. The question about function helps us think about the evolutionary origin of different motivational systems (distal causation). The question about goals helps us understand the meaning of different behavioral and emotional systems as they become mobilized to reach specific aims. The question of activation and deactivation helps us identify internal and external conditions that explain why, at any given moment, a motivational system will appear in the foreground (when it is activated) and the next moment recede into the background (when it is deactivated) or vice versa (proximal causation). The activation/deactivation of motivational systems is based on appraisals (evaluations) that, as we noted earlier, are at once cognitive and emotional. Normally, appraisals go through different phases of processing information. Information can remain automatic and nonconscious or, with further processing, can become conscious (at which point information will also be accompanied by a felt emotion). Although most appraisal processes are normally nonconscious, some appraisal processes become excluded from reaching awareness through defensive processes. The regulation of motivation (our fourth question) allows set goals to be monitored by feedback mechanisms that take place at an interpersonal/social level and an intrapsychic level. Developmentally, the interpersonal regulation of motivational systems (such as the regulation of distress and fear by attachment figures) gradually becomes internalized (Sroufe, 1996) allowing children to begin to contain, identify and appropriately express endogenous states of arousal and emotion (intrapsychic regulation). The development of motivational systems (our fifth question) is intimately related to their regulation. In general, "good enough" regulation will lead to favorable outcomes e.g., being able to reach goals and serve functions inherent in each motivational system (Sroufe, 2005). At the risk of being repetitive, we want to reemphasize that some developmental factors are internal, such as cognitive/ emotional maturation and temperament, and some external, such as the quality of parenting and the influence of cultural values and ideals that inhibit or facilitate the expression of different goals. 

Even though Bowlby emphasized attachment, his model is multimotivational. He thought attachment is intimately coordinated with other systems of behavior and emotional systems. The other systems that Bowlby considered are:

  • The attachment system proper (seeking protection)
  • The caregiving system that is complementary to the attachment system -- activated when attachment figures respond to danger or to communications of alarm or distress of their children 
  • The system of defense or alarm (fight/flight reactions)
  • The exploratory system -- activated when the attachment system is deactivated.

Bowlby regretted that he had not considered how the sexual/mating system was interwoven with attachment and the caregiving system (personal communication with Mario Marrone). He also thought that there were affiliative systems (in addition to attachment and caregiving) that are part of the biological endowment of our species that needed to be specified and approached systematically, which takes us to the second part of our essay. For earlier attempts to expand on Bowlby's ideas of multiple behavioral and motivational systems see (Diamond & Marrone, 2003; Heard & Brian., 1997; Liotti, 1994; Liotti & Cortina, 2005; Liotti & Intreccialagli, 2003).


Lichtenberg's multimotivational model

Lichtenberg's use of systems theory, affect theory and infant research was a ground breaking approach to understanding and conceptualizing motivation (Lichtenberg, 1989). Based on this integration, Lichtenberg proposed a multimotivational system that experientially can be seen as fulfilling five basic needs:

  • The need for psychic regulation pf physiologic requirements
  • The need for attachment-affiliation
  • The need for exploration and assertion
  • The need to act aversively through antagonism or withdrawal
  • The need for sensual enjoyment and sexual excitement

Lichtenberg's approach to motivation is based on a central assumption that we share, namely conceiving of the self as a center of "initiating, organizing and integrating". This assumption aligns his approach with contemporary "organizational" models of development (Sroufe, 1990; Sroufe, 1997) and avoids the problems of previous psychoanalytic models of the mind that tend to reify psychic structures (Id, ego, superego). The main difference between Lichtenberg's and our model is that Lichtenberg uses developmental research (and more particularly infant research) to propose a taxonomy of basic motivational systems, while we have combined a life-span developmental approach with an evolutionary approach toward the same end.

MacLean's model of the triune brain

We think that MacLean's model of the triune brain (MacLean, 1985) is a way to extend attachment theory in keeping with Bowlby's evolutionary approach. MacLean's model allows us to begin to conceptualize, in a rudimentary way, the organization of the human brain at three different phylogenetic levels. We use this model to relate these different levels of brain organization to different systems of regulation and motivation. According to MacLean, during the course of millions of years of evolution, the brain evolved in three phases. Each phase contains a brain system with its own particular anatomy, and to some extent, its particular neurobiology. The three different brain systems are integrated and differentiated in different degrees among mammalian and primate species.

The oldest brain (the R Complex) evolved among reptiles and amphibians and contains anatomical structures such as the brain stem and the basal nuclei. The functions of the R complex include regulation of essential physiological functions, and primitive instincts that involve minimal social interaction, sexuality, fight-flight and rage reactions and exploration--which corresponds to the seeking system in Panksepp's terms (Panksepp, 1998). The second brain, the paleocortex (or the limbic system) emerges with the evolution of mammals. This system contains structures such as the amygdala, the hypothalamus, temporal lobe cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex. Shore considers the orbitofrontal cortex an essential part of the limbic system integrating cortical and subcortical information (Shore, 1994). The mammalian midbrain (the limbic system) regulates all systems of social interaction, namely the attachment system, the caregiving system, and two other social forms of affiliation based on hierarchy and on equality that we will discuss shortly, as well as the capacity to recognize conspecifics (members of one's own species) and the sexual mating system.

The enormous expansion of the prefrontal cortex and its connections with the rest of the brain is an essential part of the story of primate evolution. More advanced cognitive functions observed in primates correspond to the evolution of the neo-mammalian brain. As we will discuss later, in the human species the neocortex and its complex and rich connections with the rest of the brain is involved with the intersubjective capacity to share mental states and intentions with conspecifics and with the capacity to symbolize experience through language.

MacLean's model of the triune brain has received many criticisms. Perhaps the most important is that it vastly oversimplifies the organization of the brain. For example, there is not such a neat distinction between the paleocortex or limbic system (the center for emotions) and the neocortex (the center for advanced cognitive processes). According to LeDoux, the limbic system, the most important and well known contribution of MacLean, is more a concept than a functional or anatomical reality. In spite of these and other valid critiques, even severe detractors like LeDoux (1996) accept that MacLean's model synthesized for its time vast amounts of information about the human brain and remains useful as a heuristic model. It is as a heuristic model that we propose to use MacLean's triune brain. Here is the taxonomy of basic motivational systems that we propose:

First level of organization based on the R complex (primitive brain)

  • Systems of physiological regulation.

  • Systems of defense of a non-social type. Aggression and escape in situations of danger (fight/flight)

  • Exploration of the environment that is not linked to using attachment as a secure  base from which to explore

  • Sexual reproduction that does not involve pair bonding.

Second level of organization: Systems of motivation associated with the mammalian brain (the social limbic system)

  • The attachment system (with exploratory and defensive systems organized around attachment figures)

  • The caregiving system

  • The competitive/ranking system (hierarchical systems with dominant and submissive rituals)

  • The egalitarian/cooperative system 

  • The sexual-mating system with different degrees of pair bonding

Third level of organization. Systems of motivation associated with neocortical brain: The intersubjective meaning system

The third level of organization in humans creates emergent (new) phenomena that are not present at the lower level. As we will show in the third section of this essay, an advanced form of intersubjectivity based on the capacity to share intentions and mental states between members of our own species (conspecifics) can be considered as a motivational system in its own right and had cascading effects on human evolution and development.

The R Complex: the first level regulation and motivation 

As mentioned, the main functions of the R Complex are the regulation of basic homeostatic systems such as hunger, thirst etc. In addition, the R Complex is the seat of primitive (non social) instincts. Since we are mostly concerned with systems of motivation that are social and with systems of meaning, we will not discuss this first level of regulation and motivation any further. We just want to note that the transformation from non-social instincts to environmentally labile social instincts (motivational systems) controlling social behavior represents an evolutionary continuity as well as an evolutionary discontinuity. The continuity is obvious. As is true of evolution at all levels, new and emerging characteristics build on and co-opt older phylogenetic structures. The discontinuity consists of the re-organization of basic instincts that are primarily nonsocial in nature in the R Complex toward social systems in the neo-mammalian brain. For instance, danger situations in the R Complex are managed through a fight/flight mechanism. Once the attachment and caregiving systems evolved in mammals, danger is organized around the protection offered by an attachment figure. The flight reaction is toward an attachment figure. It is only in the absence of an attachment figure that fight/flight reaction typical of the R Complex will take precedence. Sexuality is primarily instrumental among reptiles and amphibians. Sexuality in some mammals and among primates is also reorganized at a new level, with different degrees of pair bonding and different types of mating patterns–monogamous, polygamous etc.

The second level of motivation: the social mammalian brain

In order to keep this essay within the limits imposed by space, in this section we will not comment on the attachment system, which we have already described, or with the exploratory, defensive and caregiving systems that are linked to attachment, nor with the sexual mating system.  We will concentrate instead on the two affiliative systems that, with few exceptions such as Gilbert's work (Gilbert, 1989), have not been conceptualized within psychology along the lines we suggest: a social system based on hierarchy (the ranking competitive system) and a social system based on equality (the egalitarian cooperative system). 

The competitive ranking system

The ranking system (based on competition within dominance hierarchies) is found in most species of mammals and primates (Boehm, 1999; de Wall, 1982, 1989; Goodall, 1986) and probably emerged in primates (together with attachment and caregiving systems) approximately 35 million years ago (Tattersall, 1998, 2001; Tattersall & Schwartz, 2000) although it has a much more ancient origin in the territorial, ritualized aggression toward conspecifics in reptiles and amphibians. The social organization based on rank is characterized by a type of ritualized aggression that has the function of regulating individuals' competitive bids for dominance in order to minimize violence and fatalities. While dominance and submission (or yielding behaviors) are essential elements of the ranking system (also described in the evolutionary psychology literature as dominance/submissive subroutines) many forms of social cooperation are also present in mammals and primates. Primatologists have described many types of cooperation, ranging from cooperation between mothers and their offspring, between female groups who form alliances for various socially motivated reasons, and alliances among males that support, or that may occasionally challenge alpha males (Byrne & Whitten, 1988; de Wall, 1982; de Wall, 1989; Goodall, 1986). Despite these, and many other forms of cooperation observed in many mammals and nonhuman primates with rich social lives, the ranking system remains the basic form of social organization. Nonhuman primates never lose sight of their place within social hierarchies. Cooperation is always subordinated to hierarchy. In fact, nonhuman primates function at their cognitive and social best when they are involved in competitive rather that cooperative activities (Tomasello, 2005). For instance, in a food finding task structured to be either competitive or cooperative, chimpanzees performed much better in the competitive version (Hare & Tomasello, 2004).

The competitive ranking system serves several biological and social functions:

  • To keep high ranking male individuals in a position where they have preferential or exclusive sexual access to the group's females.

  • To allow high ranking individuals (females and males) to dominate the distribution of economic resources, thereby minimizing the risk of continued conflict between group members.

  • To intervene in situations of conflict between low ranking members in order to decrease serious injuries and fatalities due to the escalation of violence.

  • To ensure that the group members act cohesively under the control of a limited number of high rank individuals during threatening situations or during the collective exploration for new resources.

In our species competition based on rank among siblings and peers (e.g., which peer or sibling exercises more or less power and/or influence and where do other siblings/peers fit in the pecking order) begins to manifest from the age of three, but most clearly by the age of four or five, and continues unabated across the life span. During middle childhood and particularly during adolescence, peer relationships (based as much in competition as in cooperation) begin to have equal or sometimes greater importance than family attachment relationships. Of course, the particular mixture of competitive and cooperative behaviors and attitudes are enormously influenced by emotional development and by family, cultural and social environments.

Attachment relationships have a complex relationship with the competitive/ranking and cooperative/egalitarian social systems.  The longitudinal study of social and emotional development carried out at the University of Minnesota (Troy & Sroufe, 1987) shows some of the complexity of the relationship between the attachment history that each child brings to social interactions and the type of relationships that unfold among peers. In the Troy & Sroufe study, forty children, all age 5, were asked to participate in a 3 week summer camp. These children had been studied intensively since their mothers' were pregnant, using various methods and research tools with the goal of understanding social and emotional development as it unfolds. Among other measures used to assess and capture emotional development, the children's attachment relationships were classified at 12 and 18 months according to Ainsworth's three categories of secure, avoidant, and resistant attachment.  During the camp, the children were observed and taped as they spontaneously developed relationships and friendships with their peers. All the observations were made blind to attachment history and to previous measures of emotional development. The results of the study are very interesting. Children with secure histories do not victimize nor did they allow themselves to be victimized by other children. In other words, children with a secure history tend to gravitate toward peer relationships that are based on equality and cooperation.  In contrast, children with avoidant or resistant attachment histories gravitate toward dominance and control, in which the dominant peers are bullies and  tend to have histories of an avoidant attachment (that minimizes attachment needs) while the more submissive (victimized) children, tend to have histories of resistant attachment (that amplifies attachment needs).

The social system based on equality and cooperation

A dramatic shift in social organization took place during the course of primate evolution among human nomadic hunter-gatherers (foragers) from a social system based primarily on hierarchy and competition to a social organization based primarily on equality and cooperation, with men and woman having distinct but equally valued contributions to make to their group. Without exception, all anthropological documentation of hunter-gatherer nomads observed during the past 150 years are consistent in showing that the prevailing form of social organization is based on equality among its members. Kroeber was the first to describe this system as an "equity based ethic" (Kroeger, 1941) The essential elements of this social ethic are mutual help and the prescription of sharing among group members the fruits of hunting and scavenging activities.

All extrapolation from modern to Paleolithic hunter-gatherers -- when this form or organization probably made its first appearance among humans -- must be made with extreme caution. Yet there is general agreement the hunter-gatherers with a distinct human sensibility and characteristics appear in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic (35,000 to 10,000 years ago). Upper Paleolithic and modern foragers show some of the same technological, ecological and demographic patterns as modern foragers e.g., an expanded tool kit ("gadget technologies" known as the Aurignacian technology), an increase in the variety and source of their diets, and the same patterns of population radiation (Kuhn & Stiner, 2001). Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers also show some of the same symbolic and cognitive abilities as modern humans, such as exquisite art, sculpture as well as musical instruments found in several caves in France and Germany. Over the distance of many thousands of years we can still experience a deep kinship with the human sensibility and symbolism expressed in the cave art of these Paleolithic foragers (Tattersall & Schwartz, 2000).

A social organization based on equality might have existed among hominids (a term used for humans and their relatives) before the Upper Paleolithic with the advent of anatomically modern humans (approximately 150,000 years ago) or even earlier with ancient hominids such as Homo ergaster (approximately 200,000 years ago). For all we know, this type of social organization might even have more ancient roots that date back to Homo erectus 1.9 million years ago. Homo erectus was the first proto-human that left Africa during that time period (Knouft, 2000; Tattersall, 2001; Tattersall & Schwartz, 2000). It is not far fetched to think that in addition to a dramatic increase in brain size (from 350 to 400 cc observed in previous Australopithecus species to 900 cc in Homo erectus) and anatomic changes that allowed H. erectus to travel long distances, a more cooperative type of social system might explain the spectacular success of H. erectus that led to the African Diaspora approximately 1.9 million years ago. This is all speculation. Even if more egalitarian forms of social organization may have been present among these hominids, none of the ancestral humans show any evidence that they possessed the advanced Aurignacian technology of Upper Paleolithic foragers nor are there any indications that they shared the human sensibility that would have infused these groups with the symbolic, cognitive and sophisticated moral systems of the Upper Paleolithic foragers.

The egalitarian ethic observed in modern foragers is supported by moral systems that use a variety of methods to create social conformity to the prevailing egalitarian ethos. Some of the forms of social control are based on threats in the form of social ostracism, the use of shame, humiliation and/or ridicule for members of the band that deviate from the egalitarian norm (Boehm, 1999). We think it is also the case that pro-social values and genuine altruistic motives shared by rank and file members is also a very significant force in sustaining the egalitarian ethos (Fodor, 1994; Sober & Wilson, 1998). These values and attitudes are socially selected adaptations that help groups survive within specific economic, ecological and social environments and are examples of what Erich Fromm called social character (Fromm & Maccoby, 1973). Social character is the psychological glue that holds groups together and is based on an internalization of social norms shared by members of groups. The emergence of an equality-based ethic is perhaps the most ancient form of social character and an extraordinary event. For the first time in the history of biological evolution, a social organization is regulated through a system of moral imperatives and sanctions. This statement needs to be qualified. As Flack and deWall point out (Flack & de Wall, 2002), several rudimentary aspects of moral systems (a type of proto-morality) already exist among the apes and new world monkeys that have been extensively observed, such as the existence of prosocial behaviors, reciprocal exchanges and coalition building. What seems to be distinctively human is that these characteristics can be consciously perceived and deliberately (and politically) manipulated to achieve social aims (Moore, 2002). For a fascinating cross-disciplinary analysis on the evolutionary emergence of moral systems see the book edited by Katz (Katz, 2002).

How did this new form of social organization arise? As Sober and Wilson point out in their masterful book on the biological origins of altruism (Sober & Wilson, 1998), foraging groups with a large number of altruistic individuals would have significant advantages over groups with more "selfish" individuals and more rigid social organizations (this assumes, as in all processes based on natural selection, phenotypic variation, in this case phenotypic variation among selfish and altruistic individuals). These advantages translated into greater survival rates of cooperative groups with members exhibiting altruistic behaviors over groups with a more hierarchical and individualistic organizations dominated by a few alpha members. Natural selection, operating at a group level not only counteracts the powerful effects of selection operating at an individual level (which favors "selfish" individuals) but supersedes this effect, favoring the survival of groups with larger numbers of altruistic individuals.

We believe that we have to add a theory of intentionality and collaborative engagements along the lines offered by Tomasello (1999, 2005) to Sober's and Wilson's group selection theory in order to explain more fully the origins of human altruism. According to Tomasello, the development of a more advanced form of intentionality (the ability to read the intentions of others, together with the emergence of a shared intentionality or second-order form of intentionality) may have been one of the fundamental adaptations that led humans to become hyper-social primates capable of a broad and deep capacity for collaborative activities which is what we see among hunter-gatherers. We will return to this issue at length in the third part of this essay. Once the capacity for shared intentionality and shared mental states was fully present, it produced the capacity to identify and empathize with others as well as to cooperate as equals in planning hunting and foraging activities. It also supported learning new skills from each other such as tool making, thus strongly reinforcing a social character and group identity based on egalitarian forms of social organization. All of these forces strengthened selection at the level of groups over individual selection. Another factor that might have tipped the balance toward egalitarianism may be psychological. Once a full-fledged intersubjectivity and egalitarian ethos emerged among our human ancestors, a resistance to be ruled by despotic individuals begins to play an important role. Other things being equal, having a choice between despotic control or shared responsibilities based on equality and reciprocity, human beings, under must conditions, prefer the latter. A giant step must have taken place among humans with the emergence of language toward greater capacity to cooperate and plan activities and language must have co-evolved with the development of a cooperative social system based on equality, but at present we have no way of knowing when language first made its appearance among Paleolithic foragers (Tattersall & Schwartz, 2000).

We were pleased to note that in his recent book Daniel Stern (2005) reaches a similar conclusion:

"In brief, intersubjectivity contributes to group survival. It promotes group formation and coherence. It permits more efficient, rapid, flexible, and coordinated group functioning. And it provides the morality to act in maintaining group cohesion and language to act in group communication" (p. 105).

One last point before we leave this section on basic forms of social organization. One of Gilbert's and Boehm's main theses (that we share) is that the competitive/ranking system and the cooperative/egalitarian system are both part of human nature (Boehm, 1999; Gilbert}. Whether one or the other type of social organization predominates depends on a myriad of ecological, economic, social and cultural factors. A major shift from the egalitarian form of social organization of hunter-gatherers took place when the first sedentary human populations began to emerge 10,000 years ago {Boehm, 1999). The change from a hunting and gathering economy toward an economy based on domestication of plants and animals opened the possibility of a surplus of resources beyond the basic needs of survival. Early agricultural practices led to the first sedentary populations. The balance was now tipped in favor of hierarchical forms of social organization. But this time social domination is not based in aggressive rituals and social competencies exhibited by alpha dominant individuals, but on the ability of a few individual members or social groups to gather political and economical power, which in turn generates religious and social ranks -- together with the ideologies that support and reflect these new power relations {Bahrick, 2002 #173; Fromm, 1973 #73}. Needless to say, there is also an enormous variety and complexity of social organizations that can develop from mixtures and developments of these two basic types of affiliation and social organization.

We thus conclude the first two parts of this essay after having laid out a multimotivational model, emphasizing particularly two basic social systems that bias social affiliation toward competition and/or cooperation. We know return to the second question of our essay. What are the main characteristics or our species that as make us the unique, and how did these emerging (new) characteristics that make us unique transform the motivational systems we have in common with other primates and mammals?

We look for an answer to this question throw the lens of intersubjectivity and theory of mind -- albeit, an intersubjective version of theory of mind..


Overview of the section

We begin the third part of our essay by spelling-out some basic definitions and assumptions. We then examine intersubjectivity as a motivational system in its own right and then present evidence that supports Tomasello's et al. bold hypothesis that the ability to share goals and intentions with others and collaborate in joint activities (that  corresponds to Trevarthen's secondary form of intersubjectivity), is a uniquely human adaptation. We then examine the ontogeny of intersubjectivity and intentionality using Tomasello's , proposal of three phases in the development of collaborative engagements:

  • dyadic engagements

  • a triadic understanding of goals

  • collaborative engagements based on the understanding of plans of action (a joint form of understanding intentionality).

We go next to the neurobiology of intersubjectivity by summarizing Gallese's, Rizzolatti's work with mirror matching system. Finally we review Mandler's work of perceptual meaning analysis to explain the transitions along these three phases of intersubjectivity, and distinguish between procedural and declarative modes of understanding goal and intentions from a conceptual understanding of goals and intentions (Mandler, 2004) and we examine how language might have developed from a conceptual, imagistic form of intersubjectivity.

Definitions and basic assumptions

Based on a tradition that goes back to Brentano, the concept of intentionality was meant to convey the idea that the mind is always about something and is directed toward the world or to an imagined world (Brentano, 1874/1971). Searle calls this quality of the mind, the "aboutness" of intentionality. Following in the footsteps of Bratman and Tomasello, we operationalize the concept of intentionality noting that intentionality has two components, a goal, and a plan of action to reach the goal (Bratman, 1989; Tomasello et al., 2005). This operational definition of intentionality aligns itself nicely with Bowlby's control systems model of motivation that we described earlier, where the pursuit of an external goal is adjusted by feedback mechanisms to match the internal representation of the goal. This matching process can lead to a plan of action that can be conscious or nonconscious.

By intersubjectivity we mean the sharing of intentions, goals, emotions and sensations. This definition follows Gallese (2002), who coined the phrase "the manifold of shared intersubjectivity" to refer to the phenomenological fact that intersubjectivity includes the idea of a joint intentionality as well as a sharing of emotions, sensations and goals.

The emphasis on what is shared, however, does not minimize the importance of recognizing that some goals and states of minds are not always shared and that understanding that others have goals and states of mind different from  one's own is an important developmental achievement. We agree with Benjamin that we cannot speak of a mature form of intersubjectivity that does not include the capacity to understand similarities as well as differences in other peoples' states of mind (Benjamin, 1992).

We approach theory of mind with the assumption that human minds develop within a rich intersubjective matrix. Our approach contrasts with a highly individualistic approach to mind and consciousness that originate in Descartes, and that separates the immaterial substance of the mind (res cogitans) from the physical substance of the material world and the body (res extensa). For Descartes, consciousness is equated with thinking, and thinking is conceived as free, indivisible, indestructible, and is accessed by introspection, whereas the physical world and the body are conceived as determined, divisible, destructible (Searle, 2004). Having equated consciousness with thinking, Descartes formulated his famous dictum "I think therefore I exist'. To this dictum the intersubjective approach retorts "I feel therefore I exist" or more precisely "I feel, sense, experience and delight with others, therefore I exist". As Diamond and Marrone (2003) point out, the intersubjective approach is based on a phenomenological tradition that includes Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (to which we would add Habermas), that explicitly attempts to provide a philosophical corrective to Descartes' methodological individualism and mind-body dualism. 

In contrast to Descartes mind-body dualism, many of the infant researchers such as Trevarthen, Stern, Meltzoff and Beebe, whose work we will draw from, assume that from the start, infants' minds are born within an intersubjective matrix and that the mind is constructed in dialogue. This does not mean that infants are merged psychologically with others. Infants' sense of agency is present soon after birth, although the sense of a core self is pre-reflective (Stern 1985; Mandler 1988), or that infants have introspective access to emotional states as Fonagy et al., assume (2002) in their critique of the intersubjective approach [Footnote 1: It is important o distinguish between a phenomenological form of consciousness that is pre-reflective and allows organism to experience pain and basic affective states, from an introspective capacity to reflect on these states. Infants before nine months are experientially immersed in their interactions with others even though they do not have access to introspective knowledge of these interactions (Mandler, 2004; Stern, 2004)].  What this does mean, is that we are born in an intersubjective world that is profoundly sensual, emotional and "inter-corporeal" to use Meltzoff's term (Meltzoff & Moore, 1998). The French philosopher, Merleau-Ponty strikes a similar note by saying that from the beginning there is a "pre-reflective pairing of bodies" (quoted by Diamond and Marrone 2003, p 2l0).

A critique of modular approaches to theory of mind

The main contender to the intersubjective approach to the question of how we come to understand the minds of others (theory of mind), are modular approaches. These approaches believe that innate, domain specific adaptations, that are somewhat segregated from other mind/brain functions (which is what is meant by modularity), emerged ready-made to understand the minds of others (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Fodor, 1994; Leslie, 1987). Modular approaches as well as the child-as-scientist approach to theory of mind (collectively known as theory-theory approaches) are empirically based on the false belief tests that probe whether preschoolers have the capacity to make appearance-reality distinctions and grasp that people can operate under a false belief. For instance, if a child has taken surreptitiously a toy from a playmate, and the playmate begins to look for the toy in its usual place, the only way to make sense of the playmate's behavior is to assume she is operating on a false belief. We think there is a much simpler way of framing the situation that is not based on what children believe, but on what they perceive from their perspective and the perspective of others, but first it is important to understand the experimental design that is used to test for false belief.

The "real" truth about false-belief

The classic "false belief" test consists in presenting children with different variations of the following story. A preschooler, that we will call Maxi, puts a chocolate in the kitchen cupboard and leaves the room to play. While Maxi is away (and cannot see) his mother moves the chocolate from the counter to a drawer. The question posed to preschool children is where will Maxi look for the chocolate upon his return?  Three-year olds almost invariably say that Maxi will look in the drawer, whereas most 4 and 5-year olds answer correctly by saying the Maxi would look in the counter. For a meta-analysis confirming these findings see Wellman (Wellman, Cross & Watson, 2001)

The usual ToM way to frame the challenge that the Maxi story presents for preschoolers is based on the assumption that 4 and 5 year-olds understand that Maxi is operating on the false belief that the chocolate is still on the counter. Consequently, they understand that Maxi will look for the chocolate were he last put it. Three year-olds do not have an understanding of false belief so they say Maxi will look in the drawer. According to this view of ToM, only when children develop metarepresentational capacities can they differentiate appearance from reality. This is a rather odd and convoluted way of presenting the problem. It assumes that the solution to the problem is based on the ability of preschoolers to translate Maxi's perspective into a metarepresentation about what Maxi believes. Accordingly, preschoolers must necessarily translate the sensory information about observed behavior into a series of mental metarepresentations: a metarepresentation of Maxi's desire to retrieve the chocolate and a metarepresentation of Maxi's false belief that the chocolate is sitting on the counter.

We think that there is a simpler way to understand young children's difficulty with the Maxi story. Preschoolers only have to put themselves in Maxi's shoes, a simpler representational capacity to look at the situation from Maxi's perspective, rather than to have to form a metarepresentation about Maxi's belief.  The research design requires the preschoolers to verbalize their knowledge of what Maxi perceives, and this might be the real problem they are faced with as we will see shortly [Footnote 2: The meta-representational and individualistic of modular approaches to ToM reveal more about the philosophical assumptions of ToM than what preschoolers actually understand about intentionality. This philosophic tradition, often refereed to as internalism, assumes that the mind--what is inside the head--sets conditions that an object must meet in order to be considered an expression of thought. For a discussion of these issues see Searle (2004). Perhaps these unarticulated philosophical assumptions in regard to false belief may have led many cognitive researchers to view the development of the mind entirely as a question of inner maturation and to postulate an encapsulated and domain specific module, whose metarepresentational functions are segregated from perceptual capacities (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Fodor, 1994; Leslie, 1987).Whatever its origin, we think it is incoherent to think that organisms’ representational capacities are segregated from their perceptual capacities. Mandler’s concept of a “perceptual meaning analysis” cuts through many of the convoluted ToM assumptions by looking at development from an integrated, domain general view that is simultaneously conceptual and perceptual].

We think recent empirical findings support the idea that 3 year-olds are capable of looking at events from others' point of view, that is, they can see the situation from Maxi's perspective, but fail when they have to put this knowledge into words. False belief stories put an enormous burden on language capabilities of young children that are still very weak relative to their representational and perceptual capabilities. Faced with this challenge, 3 year-olds might revert to a first person perspective, drawn by the immediacy of what they saw last (that Maxi's mother put the chocolate in the drawer), rather than answer the question from Maxi's perspective. The difficulty of younger children to express their understanding of the situation might simply be that their language capacity is less developed.

If ToM false belief questions are asked differently, and the emphasis is put on what younger children might be able to understand implicitly from the perspective of others, rather that what they can verbalize about it, in turns out that 3 years olds and even 2 years olds can get the Maxi story right. In these experiments a similar version of the Maxi story is listened to and enacted, but instead of asking the 3 and 2 year olds where Maxi will look for the candy, the experimenter simply says " I wonder where Maxi will look?"  Most children look, where Maxi would look, that is on the counter (Clements & Perner, 1994; Garnham & Ruffman, 2001). Another recent study that eliminated the use of language completely, found that even 1½ year olds were successful in a "false belief" test. In this test, infants were familiarized with an adult actor hiding and then retrieving a toy, either in a yellow or a green box. Infants are allowed to see that the toy's location was changed from one box to another, but they also can see that the adult actor is unaware of this change. The looking time for the infants is then computed based on the fact that if something strikes infants as unusual and violates their expectations, they will look longer at the event than at an event that does not violate their expectations. In a series of trials that tested whether the actor had a "true or a false belief" of the toy's location, the infants looking time fit the hypothesis that they were able to understand "false belief" implicitly (Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005).

Intersubjectivity as a motivational system

As we mentioned earlier, Colwyn Trevarthen, Michael Tomasello and Daniel Stern independently reached (as far as we can tell), identical conclusions in regard to the motivational dimension of intersubjectivity: namely, that an advanced form of intersubjectivity in humans creates an emergent (new) motivation based on the need to "communicate psychological states" (Trevarthen, 1994, p. 623} or the need to "read the intentions and feelings of others" (Stern, 2004). We will use our earlier analysis of five questions that we think should be asked about any motivational system to approach intersubjectivity as a motivational system more systematically

  • The goal of intersubjectivity as a motivational system is to communicate goals, intentions and psychological states between conspecifics.

  • The function (based on group selection theory) is to enhance cooperation and collaboration in order to compete more favorable with group that are less cooperative and collaborative.

  • The activation and deactivation of the system. Unlike other motivational system that evolved to meet domain specific functions (like attachment, whose function is to seek protection, and the parental caregiving system, whose function is to provide protection) the function of intersubjectivity evolved as a domain general adaptation that affected our species as whole. Given its ubiquity and omnipresence, intersubjectivity can never be activated or deactivated. It is always active. This characteristic of being omnipresent and active, might be one of the reasons why intersubjectivity had not been thought of as a motivational system in its own right before.

  • The regulation of intersubjectivity is complex, and changes with the development from a primary to a secondary form of intersubjectivity. As Trevarthen, Stern and Beebe have shown us, there is an exquisite regulation in the protoconversations between infants and their caregivers, based on the rhythmicity, the intensity and the form in which these exchanges take place (see below).  Beebe's at al., have added to our understanding of the regulation of intersubjectivity having discovered that there is an optimal level of interactive regulation between infant and caregivers having to with the flexibility to move from looser or tighter forms of tracking and coordinating of the interactive dialogue between infants and their caregivers. Excessively loose or excessively tighter forms of tracking of interactive exchanges predict insecure types of attachment. A balanced form or tacking predicts a secure attachment. The optimally balanced forms of interactions, however, are not characterized by perfect affective attunement on the part of the caregivers, but by the fact that when minor forms of mis-attunements inevitably occur, they are followed by cycles of "reparation and repair" (Beebe et al., 2003a; Beebe et al., 2003b; Beebe et al., 2003c). Sroufe (1996) has also put self and mutual regulation front and center of the developmental process. His theorizing shares many similarities with Beebe's work, but his emphasis is quite different. Sroufe thinks that one of the main characteristic of human development as based on a movement from mutual regulation of parent-infant interactions (placing particular attention  to the importance to the regulation of arousal and tension levels of the infant, as well as the regulation of emotions) toward the children being able to self-regulate. Another difference in emphasis between Beebe and Sroufe is that Beebe's attention on mutual regulation does not particularly privilege the caregivers role, while Sroufe, following in the footsteps of Mary Ainsworth, sees caregivers as having the main responsibility for the regulatory process.

  • We  will discuss shortly the development of intersubjectivity. Here we will just summarize. Intersubjectivity develops along a direction of increased collaboration and engagement and shifts from a primary form of intersubjectivity that is procedural in nature and is processed by a massive parallel information processing system, to a secondary form of intersubjectivity that is conceptual in nature and is processed serially. Both forms of processing remain present throughout life.

We now turn to the basic question of whether the ability to understand intentions and goals of others is a uniquely human characteristic

Is the ability to share an understand intentions and psychological states of others a unique human adaptation?

According to Tomasello, one of the key abilities that distinguish humans from nonhuman primates is the capacity of humans to: 

"participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions: shared intentionality. Participation in such activities requires not only especially powerful forms of intention reading and cultural learning, but also a unique motivation to share psychological states with others and unique forms of cognitive representation for doing so" (Tomasello et al., 2005 p. 1).

Recent studies suggest that apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) may also have mental capacities that allow them to grasp intentionality at some rudimentary level, but in comparison with humans their conceptual capacity is much more limited (Call & Tomasello, 2003; Tomasello et al., 2005).Tomasello and Call (1997) note that in their natural habitat, apes (the group of primates that are phylogenetically are more closely related to us) live in a more constrained intersubjective world in comparison with the rich intersubjective world of humans. Apes in their natural habitat:

  • Don't signal, point, or gesture toward objects so that others will see them

  • Don't intentionally help others learn new behaviors

  • Don't show objects to other members of their group

  • Don't try to bring other members of the their group to new situations to show them things of interest

  • Don't pick up objects to offer them to others

Yet, as Tomasello and Call indicate (1997), primates have impressive cognitive abilities:

  • They categorize objects on the basis of their similarities

  • They remember where objects in the surrounding environment are (like fruit trees)

  • They skillfully navigate in the surrounding environment (mental mapping)

  • They look for objects that have been hidden from them and therefore pass  Piaget's object permanency test

  • They use intelligent solutions to solve problems

In addition to these cognitive capacities for understanding their material world, nonhuman primates display impressive social skills (Tomasello, 1999):

  • They recognize other individuals within their social group

  • They are able to create relationships and alliances with individuals based on degree of familiarity, friendship and position in the social rank

  • They use communicative and social strategies to cooperate and compete with members of the same species. However even group hunting activities, perhaps the most advanced example of social cooperation, is limited to two or more individuals playing different roles in corralling a prey, but these activities are done without any discernable plan (unlike human group hunting) and is not different from group hunting of other social species like lions (Chaney, 1990).

  • They are able to learn vicariously from other members of the same species

  • They are able to predict, to some extent, the behavior of other members of the social group based on attributes such as the capacity to detect emotional states of members of the same species, the capacity to understand social relationships between different members of the same social group, and the capacity to learn from the experiences of other members of the social group (although this learning is vicarious rather than deliberate as in humans).

Although there is no dispute as to whether human infants by their first year of life begin to develop a much richer intersubjective world of shared intentions and goals than nonhuman primates, there is a great deal of controversy as to whether nonhuman primates have developed the capacities to "read" the intentions of conspecifics. At one end of the spectrum are primatologists like Povinelli and his colleagues (Bering & Povinelli, 2003) that believe that the remarkable social skills demonstrated by nonhuman primates can be explained on the bases of the ability of nonhuman primates to read behavioral cues and gestures, be able to track social contingencies and respond to cues and gestures based on contingent interactions. These abilities allow nonhuman primates to develop sophisticated strategies to cope with their social world, but do not, according to Povinelli, presuppose conceptual abilities.

At another end of the spectrum are primatologists, who after extensive observations of chimpanzees in captivity, reach the conclusion that the ability to form coalitions and to engage in deceptive behaviors suggest a Machiavellian type of intelligence capable of reading  intentions of conspecifics (Byrne & Whitten, 1988). Still other primatologists, having taught chimpanzees to communicate through non verbal symbols -- a capacity that is thought to be an exclusive human prerogative -- believe that apes have much greater cognitive abilities than we give them credit for (Rumbaugh, Beran & Savage-Rumbaugh, 2003).

It is clear that nonhuman primates have remarkable cognitive and social abilities and that they are intentional beings that live in a world that is lawful and causal, yet they don't seem to conceive their social world in terms of shared intentionality and have little capacity to understand and coordinate plans of action {Call, 2003). Perhaps most notoriously, they are not as intensely motivated as humans to engage and share in collaborative tasks and activities:

"The overall conclusion would seem to be that although apes interact with one another in myriad complex ways, they are not motivated in the same way as humans to share emotions, experiences, and activities with other of their kind. They do not look at others and smile in order to share experience triadically, they do not invite others to share interest and attention via declarative gestures, they do not inform others of things or help them in their efforts, and they do not engage them in shared goals and joint activities" (Tomasello, 2005, p 20).

The ontogeny of intersubjectivity and of collaborative engagements

Tomasello and his colleagues (2005), while not using the word intersubjectivity, provide a very useful summary and interpretation of the growing literature on the ontogeny of understanding goals, intentions and shared psychological states. Tomasello sees a progression of collaborative engagements developing in three phases, dyadic, triadic and more advanced forms of collaborative engagements involving a joint understanding of intentions. We will add to this framework by making comparisons to the work of infant researchers. We start with Tomasello's model of collaborative engagements:

Dyadic engagements (birth to nine months, however dyadic forms of engagement based on procedural or implicit knowledge are present throughout life). According to Tomasello, the salient characteristic of dyadic interactions, is that infants come to understand caregivers as animate agents and have the capacity to "read" their emotions and behavior and share their experience with caregivers within an emotional, bi-directional field.

The dyadic phase of engagement corresponds to what Trevarthen calls primary intersubjectivity. Infant researchers looking at interactions between parents and infants by using detailed observations and microanalysis of film and videotapes, reached the conclusion several decades ago that infants were prepared from the first few weeks of life to engage in face-to-face interchanges with their caregivers. These interchanges were described as "proto-conversations" a term coined originally by Catherine Bateson and adopted by Colwyn Trevarthen and many other infant researchers (for an excellent review of the whole field on intersubjectivity from the perspective of infant research and psychoanalysis see {Beebe, 2003 #7, 2003 #9, 2003 #111}. Colwyn Trevarthen, one of the pioneers, using this micro-analytic technology, has studied face-to-face vocal, oral and gestural exchanges between infants and caregivers extensively and has broken down the coordination of these exchanges to three variables: time, form and intensity. Exchanges are coordinated in time through an intrinsic rhythmicity (a common beat), are matched in form (an equivalence of movement between caregiver and infants) and brought into register by the emotional intensity of their interchange. The inter-coordination of internal states between individuals allows each individual to resonate with the other and achieve a primary form of intersubjectivity (Trevarthen, 1979, 1980; Trevarthen & Aitken, 1994).

Following Bucci (1999) and Mandler (2004) we think this type of exchange, based on rhythmicity, turn taking and the modulation of intensity and arousal levels (Sroufe, 1996), is processed procedurally and implicitly by means of a massive parallel processing system that operates at preverbal and pre-symbolic levels. Procedural information is nonconscious and inaccessible for conscious recall or reflective thinking. Nonetheless, the implicit understanding in these exchanges with caregivers can give rise to powerful expectations. A dramatic example of the power of these unconscious expectations is shown in the strange situation, where 12 months-old infants respond to attachment figures return (a distressing situation that strongly activates the attachment system) with different secure, avoidant and resistant "strategies" used to cope with their distress. These strategies are constructed based on the history of previous interactions with their caregivers. Infants represent these interactions at procedural levels, and build expectations about the availability and emotional sensitivity of attachment figures based on their experience with caregivers (Ainsworth, 1978).

Triadic engagement of shared goals and perceptions (nine months and beyond). Tomasello believes that the major development. Infants understand others as goal-directed agents. This understanding allows infants to share and partake in goal-directed activities with caregivers. Their social orbit is expanded to include shared learning and playful activities with the object world, expanding the social orbit beyond dyadic engagements.

This form of interaction and engagement corresponds to Trevarthen's secondary form of intersubjectivity which is characterized by a coordination of infant-caregiver dyads with the external world. Infants and caregivers jointly focus on an object that is external to the dyad. Daniel Stern reserves the term intersubjectivity for interactions between infants and caregivers that begin around nine months and become much more evident by twelve months. Stern defines three different forms that intersubjectivity can take: joint attention, joint intention and joint affect or affect attunement. He believes that cross modal correspondences that share the same representational format is the central mechanism that allows partners to capture the inner world of others. What is shared between infant-caregiver dyads is interattentionality, interintentionality (a joint form of intentionality) and interaffectivity (based on affect attunement). Of these three forms of intersubjectivity, Stern pays special attention to affect attunement, believing that the sharing of affect is the most important way of sharing subjective experience (Stern, 1985).

Collaborative engagements.  Fourteen months-old and beyond (a joint form of intentionality). As we noted earlier, understanding intentionality has two components, understanding of goals and understanding the plans of action used to reach common goals. Tomasello et al., (2005) suggest that a new level of collaborative engagement is reached when infants begin to have a deeper understanding of the plans of action that are used to reach different goals and can engage others in implementing these plans of action, creating a joint form of intentionality. For instance, in building a tower with blocks, toddlers understand the intention of an adult or of an older child in holding the base of the tower to steady it, and 14 month-olds may even take turns steadying the tower. This ability to exchange roles with others in joint activities has been named by Tomasello as role reversal imitation (Tomasello 1999, 2005). It allows children to begin to identify with goals, and collaborate with others in developing plans to reach these goals.

We think that understanding of plans of action used to reach common goals implies a deeper understanding of causality that goes way beyond a superficial understanding of causality based on contingency detection. As yet, however, we do not know of any experimental design that has tried to test this hypothesis, although we suspect that this new level of understanding plans of actions and a deeper understanding of causality are based on what Mandler describes as perceptual meaning analysis (see below).

Based on the work of Bucci and Mandler, we think that more advanced forms of collaboration based on secondary forms of intersubjectivity are processed serially and are declarative and conceptual in nature(Bucci, 1997; Mandler, 2004).

The neurobiology of intersubjectivity

An important assumption shared by all major infant researchers is that the exquisite coordination and correspondence of face-to face exchanges between infants and caregivers are made possible because we are equipped with the capacity to cross-modally transfer visual, tactile, auditory and kinesthetic information into a common representational platform. For instance, visual information about human facial expressions is automatically transferred into proprioceptive information arising from facial muscle tone and is expressed through corresponding feeling states. A common representational platform allows us to automatically experience an emotion just by observing the facial expressions of others. Or a tactile sensation can be transferred automatically to a visual modality, such that if an infant is blindfolded and given two different kinds of suckers, one that is rough and has protrusions and one that is smooth, when shown both suckers, infants will immediately look at the sucker that was given to him while blindfolded (Stern 1985).

Recent research on the mirror matching system provides the neural correlates for the cross modality of functions observed by infant researchers. A network of mirror neurons have the  remarkable quality of being fired when we execute goal-directed actions, experience sensations or emotions or when we just observe the same goal-directed actions, sensations and emotions in others. The remarkable discovery of mirror neurons occurred 10 years ago when by accident  a group of researchers noted that the same group of premotor neurons in macaque monkeys fire when they execute an action or when just observing the same action in others (Rizzolatti et al., 1996). As noted by Gallese (2002, 2003), the capacity to attribute intentions to others and show empathy have their origin in a process of embodied simulation that is mediated by a neurological network of mirror neurons (the word simulation derives from the Latin ‘similis' that means ‘the same'). When we imitate another person or when we imagine imitating an action or behavior of another person, a group of neurons located in the superior temporal sulcus is activated. The same group of neurons fires when the behavior is merely observed in conspecifics. When we imagine performing a physical exercise, we breathe harder and our heart rate accelerates (Gallese, 2002).  Preliminary data indicate that a neuronal circuit composed of the premotor cortex, the amygdala, and the temporal isle lobe are also activated when we experience a painful condition and when we imagine that someone has suffered a painful condition. In either case, the same mirror neurons are activated when we prick a finger with a needle, or when we see someone pricked with a needle, or simply when someone tells us that the finger of a person was pricked with a needle (Gallese, 2002, 2003).  In summary, the mirror neuron matching system enables us to use our experience to penetrate the world of others by means of a direct and automatic process of embodied simulation (Gallese, 1995).

How can we explain the transformation from dyadic forms of collaborative engagement to more advanced forms of collaborative engagement?

We now turn to the work of Mandler and others, who have tried to understand the nature of these developmental transformations. Our view is a combination of representational and the developmental approaches we will immediately describe. We agree with interpretative approach in establishing the fact that the capacity to understand goals and intentions conceptually develops by the end of the first year of life, but we disagree with their view that this capacity as innate function.(Byrne & Whitten, 1988; de Wall, 1982).

A representational analysis

There is a clear consensus that by the end of the first year of life a dramatic shift occurs in human infants' cognitive and social development that allows for new forms of collaborative engagement and a qualitatively new form of intersubjectivity. There have been several explanations given to this quantum leap in social and cognitive development. Drawing from the work of Barresi and Moore (1996) Tomasello et al., (2005) hypothesize that a higher level of representation is achieved when the analysis of interactions with others is conceptualized simultaneously from a first person and a third person perspective, allowing infants to develop a "birds eye view" on their interaction and collaboration with others. According to Barresi and Moore, this "birds eye view" of the intentionality relation is captured and comprehended within a single representational format (Barresi & Moore, 1996). This explanation has many elements in common with the representationalist and phenomenal analysis put forward by Gallese and Metzinger (2003). According to this analysis, the simultaneous coding of actions, goals and intentions from a first and third person perspective allows for a single unified representational format. Intentionality is intrinsically relational, and the representation of this relationship is instantiated through a mirror matching system. According to this analysis, a relational, simultaneous, global, second-order conscious representation of goals and actions leads to a full-blown intersubjectivity that allows humans to explicitly empathize and understand the goals of others and acknowledge each other as persons and functions as a building block for an advanced form of social cognition in humans ,(Gallese & Metzinger, 2003; Metzinger, 2003).

An interpretive analysis based on the an innate bias toward understanding actions as goal-directed

A series of studies by Gergely and Csibra and their colleagues (Csibra et al., 1999; Fonagy et al., 2002; Gergely et al., 1995) developed elegant experiments using computer displays that show moving geometrical figures that give a powerful impression of goal-directed actions. A display may consist of two circles "A" and "B" with a short vertical bar between them. Circle "A" approaches the bar and returns. Then A approaches the bar even faster, jumping the bar to reach circle B. Another display shows the same jumping movement without a bar so that A's behavior appears unmotivated. By exposing infants to different variations of these displays, Gergely, Csibra and their team determined that 9 month-olds, but not 6 month-olds can interpret these movements in terms of rational goal-directed movement. In other words, older infants understand the intentionality of the behavior displayed in these computer games, and can distinguish intentional behavior that "makes sense" from behavior that doesn't make sense. Gergely and Csibra believe that this capacity is based on an innate ability that emerges around the age of nine months. It allows older infants to interpret the behavior of the computer displays as if they had a conceptual understanding of goal directed behavior. They call this innate bias toward understanding events as goal-directed and rational an "Interpretive Teleological System".

We think that children's grasp of these computer displays might be a genuine developmental achievement rather than an innate function that emerges at nine months ready-made. To understand how this developmental achievement might take place we to turn to Jean Mandler's work

A developmental analysis of how children come to understand goals and intentions

Mandler's work, based on a research program that spans over two decades, is based on the premise that infants develop the capacity to understand events in their life by extracting from these events a simplified, skeletal representation based on an analysis of spatial relations that are contained in these events. She calls these skeletal spatial representations "image-schemas". An image schema is a highly schematic representation of spatial relations. One way to think of image-schemas is that they are what is left once you take all the figural information (the details) out of a representation: a skeletal representation based on spatial relation of events or objects that we perceive. Image-schemas are spatial representations that express primitive or fundamental meanings. Mandler calls this analysis of the events and of objects based on image schemas "a perceptual meaning analysis".

What are image schemas spatial in nature? One thing that infants are good at is contingency-detection "I smile, others smile back at me" as well as contingency-detection based interactions with objects "I flap my hands and a mobile toys starts moving". Movement is one of the first things infants observe, particularly whether movement is self-initiated or movement is caused by one thing bumping into another. As Mandler notes, the work of Bahrick et al. (2002) shows that infants have a bias to focus their attention on movement, and will even preferentially pay attention to events that involve action and movement, over watching faces, despite the fact that infants are powerfully attracted to faces (Bahrick, Hernandez-Reif & Pickens, 2002). Attention is particularly focused to the beginnings and the ends of action sequences. Once attention is focused on the start of motion and to its cessation, the occasion for perceptual meaning analysis exists in spades.

Some example of an image-schemas and how they are used by infants to develop a conceptual understanding of the world will explain how image-schemas operate in real life. Self-motion is an example of an image-schema that refers to the fact that an object moves without anything coming in contact with it (from here on we follow Mandler in capitalizing image-schemas).  SELF-MOTION AND CAUSED- MOTION are two image-schemas that are within the grasp of every infant. Infants can discriminate between these two image-schemas early in their development. By 6 months, infants react differently to films of balls that initiate motion on their own by looking longer, indicating that self-propelled balls violate their expectations that balls cannot move be themselves and require something else to move them. Yet infants are unphased when they see one ball hit by another ball (the CAUSED-MOTION image-schema). This analysis of movement also leads to the concepts of AGENT (a self starting object). Mandler quotes an experiment that showed 9 month-old infants become distressed when a robot moved contingently upon verbal command. This experiment suggests that by nine months infants have assimilated the image-schema of SELF-MOTION to animals.

How do infants form the concept of animal based on image-schemas? For an infant, an animal is 

"an animate thing (by which we should understand animal, not plant), is something that stars on its own, moves in rhythmical and somewhat irregular way, and interacts contingently with other objects, often form a distance" (Mandler, 2004, p. 85)

As Mandler observes, this is not a bad first definition of an animal. In this example infants are putting together several image-schemas. SELF-MOTION is used to define AGENCY (an object that is self-propelled as an agent). LINK is a spatial representation of two agents that are connected by contingent interactions. When AGENT and LINK are put together, infants form the idea that AGENTS that react contingently to other agents form a special category of AGENCY, namely an animal. PATH is the spatial representation of a trajectory, any trajectory taken by animate or inanimate things that is unspecified as to speed, direction, jerkiness or smoothness, or any other figural aspect. Two agents following PATHS are linked together, often contingently (one affects the other), it further consolidates the ideas that agents that follow PATHS that are linked to each other are animals.

Conceptualizing goals and intentions based on image-schemas

An understanding of goal-directed behavior is a classical example an image-schema representation. The image-schema of PATH changes the moment one considers its start, the path itself and its end. By paying attention to the start of movement of the image-schema PATH (a trajectory) you get the image-schema SOURCE, and by paying attention to the end point of the image-schema PATH you get the image-schema GOAL. If these three image-schemas are put together, we get a combined image-schema SOURCE-PATH-GOAL. This combined image-schema SOURCE-PATH-GOAL is a typical spatial representation of movement that infants can easily grasp. One year-olds  understand agent's behaviors in terms of how they move vis-à-vis other objects, so that image-schemas like SOURCE-PATH-GOAL or AGENCY are subject to perceptual meaning analysis [Footnote 3: The notion of goals and agency could conceivably also arise from contingency detection leading to a universal tendency to analyze all contingent events in teleological fashion (as goal-directed). However contingent interactions do not always involve goal-seeking. For instance, turn-taking is often based on contingent interactions, but it is not necessarily goal-directed. Conversely, goal-directed behavior is not always based on contingent interactions. For instance, Csibra experiments with computer displays showing show that circles A may follow a path to reach a second circle B is interpreted by infants as goal-directed behavior, but this behavior is not a contingent interaction]. We will close this section by quoting Mandler one more time:

"…perceptual meaning analysis operates on perceptual information leading to image-schemas. The image-schemas represent events in a simple, abstract, spatial form. They create the meanings that supply the foundations of the conceptual system and allow language to be learned. The most important characteristic of the system is that it is accessible, first in the form of imagery, and later via language, thus making conscious thought and imagination possible".

The origin and development of language

The most important theory in the last 40 years on the origin of language is Chomsky's theory. According to Chomsky humans have a "generative grammar" that is universal and innate. This grammar generates though algorithms, whose transformational laws produce the grammatical structures of the more than 6000 languages spoken in the world. Working within this tradition, workers like (Pinker, 1994) have revised some of Chomsky's ideas but in essence they agree on the idea that the basic structure language could not have been learned and can be thought as an "instinct". Yet, after 40 years of the collective work from many researchers worldwide, we are nowhere near to discovering the basic laws of grammatical transformation, which supposedly exist in all languages.

During the last 20 years, a new approach has been developing in regard to the origin of language which conceives the "gramatization" process (the generative grammar of Chomsky) as an acquired (non-innate) process (Lieberman, 1999, 2000; Mandler, 2004; Tomasello, 1999, 2003, Gallese, 2003 #132). This alternative approach has acquired strength, as evidenced by empirical research has shown how children learn to construct language has begun to accumulate (Tomasello, 2003). According to Tomasello, a joint form of intentionality based on an understanding of shared plans of action, goals and psychological states is the base from which language begins to takes off. Language is based on the understanding of shared symbols, but symbols cannot be shared unless infants have an understanding of what these symbols mean. The meaning of symbols can only develop if there is shared understanding of intentionality and psychological states. A rudimentary conceptual understanding of our interactions with the world must have already been developed before language could be acquired. To build language we need a conceptual framework, however primitive, that helps us understand our interactions with others and with the world. We need to be able to conceptualize basic categories (animate-inanimate), different categories of objects furniture, (tools) and different categories within the basic categories (animals, plants), and last, but no least to understand goals and intentions conceptually. As we noted earlier when we discussed Mandler's revolutionary work, these basic conceptual categories are derived from image-schemas that extract from perception abstract spatial relations, and use these spatial abstractions as food for thought. Here are examples of how image-schemas might provide the primitive conceptual based that will be taken up by language. Two people walking together hand in hand can be understood by conjoining the PATH and LINK image-schemas. The same image-schemas can be extended metaphorically to produce new meanings. Marriage can be seen as the metaphorical extension of the image-schema LINK (two people attached to each other) following a common journey (PATH) through life (Mandler, 2004, pp 78-79).

In addition to these intersubjective and conceptual capacities, there were also somatic changes that took place during the course of primate evolution which allowed for the development of language. These somatic changes were the descent of the larynges to a caudal position into the thorax. The laryngeal descent, perhaps a consequence of the shift toward bipedal locomotion in primates, changed the vocal chords' anatomy, more specifically the location of the vocal supralaryngeal tract where the vocal chords reside [Footnote 4: This change is particularly accentuated in homo erectus, the first hominid that left Africa 1.9 million of years ago (Lieberman, 2000)]. There were two consequences of these anatomical changes, one positive and one negative. The negative effect is that humans are at risk of asphyxiating with food, because with the larynx descent, the root of the tongue also dropped and became inserted to the level of the throat. But this anatomical change had a very positive result. The anatomical reconfiguration of the larynx and of the supralaryngeal vocal tract (SVT) allows for the production of certain sounds such as the vowels "i" , "u"  and  "a" (Lieberman, 1999). Hominids with this type of anatomical configuration of SVT can produce much more clear and defined sounds, and communicate in a more effective form than other primates that did not posses this capacity. The ability of producing a range or sounds that are more intelligible to human perception undoubtedly made for better communication amongst the first humans.


Given that intersubjectivity takes on a new motivational dimension, it seems logical to think that when the goals and functions of intersubjectivity are not adequately met,  emergent (new) clinical phenomena could emerge that would follow in the wake of the intersubjective failures. As we suggested in the introduction, we think that two such failures might be autism, a biologically-induced defect, and pathological narcissism, a parentally-induced failure to respond to the need to be recognized and valued as persons.

Autism in the light of intersubjectivity

Several key clinical characteristics of autism, the failure to empathize with others, the failure to share with others the joys of new discoveries, and different degrees in the failure to develop language, can all be understood as failures to develop primary and secondary forms of intersubjectivity. The neurobiological component of this failure might well turn out to be defects in the mirror matching neuronal systems we described earlier. As the neuroscience of this mirror matching system develops, it becomes clear that all the functions that we have attributed to intersubjectivity in its various forms have correlates to this vast mirror matching system, such as mirror matching neurons that map goals and intentions and mirror matching neurons that map emotions and empathy (Gallese, 2003; Tomasello et al., 2005)

Narcissism in light of intersubjectivity

The evolutionary, intersubjective approach from which we address the need for validation and recognition adds a fresh perspective to this old psychoanalytic chestnut. Once a new intersubjective threshold is reached in human evolution where humans can understand the intentions of others, the need to be recognized and valued by others becomes both a biological necessity and a psychological imperative: the need to be valued as persons. The enormous importance of being recognized by conspecifics is essential in all social species. Only humans, however, need to be valued as persons.

As with other motivation systems that we have described, the intersubjective need to be recognized and validated has deep biological roots. The deepest biological origin of social recognition is based on the fact that all cells and organisms (with the exception of communal super-organisms) need to distinguish self from nonself to survive. A key step in the evolution of eukaryotic immune systems (cells with a nucleus and membrane) is based on the ability to discriminate between self and non-self. Social recognition first emerges phylogenetically as kin recognition e.g., the recognition of genetically related family members (Pfennig & Scherman, 1995). With the emergence of complex social systems in mammals and primates, kin recognition mechanisms were extended to recognize unique features of non-kin members. Kin selection and recognition of nonkin members if the same group or species builds on some of the same genetic, molecular and immunological mechanisms used to recognize self from nonself (Pfennig & Scherman, 1995).

Why was this new level of social recognition so important? It is particularly important for social species to be able to identity other members of the species as unique individuals. This ability to recognize unique features of conspecifics makes it possible to predict each individual's behavior based on characteristics that over time define each member as unique. The attribution of a social identity automatically contextualizes the behavior of an individual and greatly reduces the variables that must be considered in order to predict an individual's behavior. It also reduces the space that the brain must use in order to compute complex social relationships (Gallese, 2002). The capacity to be recognized as a unique individual within social contexts grows in importance in humans. In addition to the capacity to "read" behavior and emotions (a capacity we share with other primates), human primates can also "read" motivation and social meaning (see below). The capacity to infer intentions and goals that are not always visible to the observer is perhaps one the key the ability to "read" intentions and minds of others. At any rate this ability creates a qualitatively different form of intersubjectivity. Within this enhanced intersubjective space, the need to be recognized as an individual with desires, intentions and needs that are unique takes a life of its own, creating many of the phenomena that are usually described in the psychoanalytic literature under the rubric of narcissism and narcissistic pathologies.

As Kohut persuasively argued, failures in recognition and validation during the course of development have long lasting effects on personality organization (Kohut, 1971, 1977). In some cases, seeking recognition and validation become a compulsive psychological need, whether the person is more or less blind to this need and develops a compensatory and compulsive form of self reliance with or without grandiosity (Gabbard's oblivious type of narcissism, see bellow) or whether the individual is more or less conscious of this need and tries to control it within himself, and/or tries to control others (Gabbard's hypervigilant type of narcissism).  In these pathological varieties, it is easy to see how mutual recognition and validation functions as a motivational system, but the proper regulation of this need during normal development (Kohut's concept of self object and the mirroring function of parents) is basic for a healthy self esteem.  Of course this need is closely intertwined with all the social systems we have been describing, particularly with attachment relationships and with different form of affiliation in social groups.

Seeing  attachment and intersubjectivity as independent but closely intertwined motivational systems provide a useful framework to begin to consider the vicissitudes that the need for mutual recognition and validation takes during normal and abnormal development and the different representational models that are constructed based on different parental responses to this need 

Parents who integrate the intuitive ability to care for and to protect their children with the capacity to reflect and monitor their own experience (they fall within the autonomous/free classification in the Adult Attachment Interview) are more likely to develop suitable understanding of the unique intentions, desires and needs of their children and will view their children as persons in their own right. Consequently their children are more likely to develop an image of themselves as valued and lovable and an image of others as predictable and reliable.  It is not surprising that these children turn out to have a healthier self-esteem in comparison with other children who have anxious or disorganized attachment histories. They do not crave attention and have reasonable expectations of people's interest in them and of the availability of attachment figures (Sroufe et al., 2005, 1999; Sroufe & Watters, 1997).

Parents who tend to tend to ignore their children's manifestations of stress and anguish (and fall into the dismissing category of the AAI), produce a defensive reaction in their children who focus their attention away from attachment needs and toward exploratory activities. These children fell rejected and are often angry (although the anger does not show up until later stages of there development). Children with this type of avoidant attachment or avoidant/disorganized develop an inflated self image and show a lack of sensitivity toward others. Researchers from the Minnesota parent child longitudinal study had to invent the term "anti-empathetic" to describe the lack of emotional responsiveness that these children showed toward their peers (Kestenbaum, Farther & Sroufe, 1989). If this type of rejection of attachment needs is severe, children may begin to habitually learn to ignore their need for attachment and care and develop an image of themselves as unworthy of love and of others as untrustworthy. They simple do not expect others will be available or responsive to their needs. We have observed clinically that some of these children with severe or even traumatic histories accompanied by a history avoidant attachment may move into an alternative developmental path. If they are gifted and can excel in academic, artistic or athletic endeavors, they develop an inflated view of themselves that might even by accompanied by a sense of invulnerability and omnipotence. We believe that the type of narcissism and personality that develops from this attachment history corresponds to what Gabbard describes as the "oblivious" type of narcissist -- as apposed to the "hypervigilant type" we will discuss next (Gabbard, 1996). Oblivious types tend to have little understanding of others and of themselves and are compulsively self reliant. Their inflated self image can come across as arrogance and can verge into grandiosity and the often ride roughshod over others. At their most productive, oblivious narcissists can be creative artists and scientists, or emerge as visionary leaders in times of great historical turmoil. A combination of innate talent, competence and supreme confidence in their vision, gives them the resolve and confidence to impose their vision in times of social turmoil (Maccoby, 2003).

Parents who are inconsistent, intrusive and insensitive to their children's needs desires and mental states (and fall within the preoccupied classification of the AAI) are more likely to produce children that form images of themselves as weak and/or ineffective (the ubiquitous feelings of inferiority) and an image of others as inconsistent and incompetent of their care. This hypothesis has been shown through longitudinal studies.  Children with a resistant or disorganized/resistant attachment history (that correspond to the AAI preoccupied category) are seen as dependent and emotionally labile by their teachers (who are blind to their developmental trajectories (Sroufe, 1996, 1997). They are often looking for approval and may go over board to please other. These children also tend to be victims of bullying children (Troy & Sroufe, 1987). We believe that this type of development leads to Gabbard's hypervigilant type of narcissism (Gabbard, 1996). Hypervigilant types are self absorbed due to their insecurity and their fear of being rejected by others. They become easily hurt by any slight, real or imagined and they can oscillate between being angry and resentful or making inordinate efforts to please others. They can also fit into Bowlby's description of compulsive caregivers, people who are good at taking care of others (Bowlby, 1980), while remaining anxious and preoccupied -- hence their self absorption. This puts some hypervigilant types on the paradoxical situation of being directed towards others while simultaneously being anxiously self-absorbed and therefore rather insensitive to the needs of others.

Parents who have a "U" classification (unresolved/disorganized) in the AAI have complex relationships with their children. These parents show indexes of disorganization in the AAI such as subtle grammatical changes when they describe a traumatic event in their lives.  Also they may show momentary losses of the thread of conversation, lapses in the monitoring if reason and discourse (e.g., confusion about the date of death of a loved one, and dislocations in space and time about the person who died.  These indexes of disorganization, linked to unresolved memories of trauma and loss are occasionally expressed in their relationship with their children as moments of dissociation or disorientation and/or as fearful, violent or terrifying behavior. In these circumstances infants' encounter a dilemma, that in early childhood, does not have a solution. When infants' attachment system is intensely activated, they seek a calming and consoling response from their attachment figures. At the same time the expressions of intense fear and terror, or the impulsive aggression activate the defensive system and propel them to flee.  When these two innate responses are simultaneously activated the children's behavior becomes disorganized. Under these circumstances, infants develop a type of attachment called disoriented/ disorganized, with very confused and contradictory behaviors and self-representations.  Children can construct representations of themselves as bad or evil, believing that they are causing the terror they observe of their caregivers, or construct self-representations as victims or as saviors, when parents invert roles with their children by acting with fear and helplessness.  These self-representations images (evil persecutors, victims or saviors) can coexist and can oscillate rapidly in moments of great distress, and/or they can reenact the roles of  persecutors, victims or saviors with others (Liotti, 1992, 1995, 1999). In line with our previous discussion, we have also observed  patients oscillating between the two types of narcissism. An oblivious type of narcissism, were they become cold, distant and arrogant, showing little regard for others, and a hypervigilant type of narcissism, were they are helpless, needy and self-absorbed by their fears and shame.

Attachment related trauma, can lead to narcissistic and borderline disorders that are sometimes accompanied by a temporary, trauma-induced collapse of a conceptually-based form of intersubjectivity that we described earlier. This fluctuating, trauma-induced collapse of a conceptually-based form of intersubjectivity has been referred to in the attachment literature as "failures in cognitive monitoring" (Liotti & Intreccialagli, 2003; Main, 1991) or as "failures in reflective function" (Fonagy et al., 2002; Fonagy & Target, 1997).


Our objective has been to use the evolutionary and developmental paradigm of attachment theory to create a more comprehensive list of basic motivational systems and put forward an intersubjective interpretation of human nature. A central theme of this essay is that one of the most powerful factors that led to the humanization of the primate lineage was a shift from social forms of organization based on dominance hierarchies and competition to a social organizations based on cooperation among equals. As noted by Tomasello et al. (2005), this hypothesis emphasizing cooperation among primate groups, with competition between groups (selection at the level of groups) complements an emphasis on the importance of adaptation to competitive social environments among groups (selection at the level of individuals). Both types of adaptation in primates favored the selection for advanced cognitive skills to navigate these complex social environments (Byrne & Whitten, 1988; de Wall, 1982). A second major theme of this essay is that these selective pressures were even greater for social systems based on cooperation, requiring the development of a full-blown form of intersubjectivity and of language. However, language is derived from intersubjectivity, the third main theme of this essay. The consequences of these developments were enormous, leading to the emergence of a new form of evolution based on the accumulation of cultural, social and technological innovations. 

This essay is a work in progress. Much work remains ahead and we are aware that we have not provided all the evidence to support many of the ideas that we have presented. But we believe that even this outline of the central ideas of this project suggests fruitful avenues of exploration that we hope to continue to share with our readers in the future.


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An earlier Spanish version of this essay was published in the internet journal Aperturas Psicoanalíticas, November 2003, No. 15, with the title "Hacia un modelo pluralista de la motivation humana basado en el paradigma de apego". We thank Alan Sroufe, Briana Coffino and Elizabeth Carlson translating the article to English an Alan , June Sroufe and Emilce Bleichmar for their comments. We also thank Barbara Lenkerd or going over this new version of the essay with her keen editorial skills

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