Attachment, affect-regulation, and mentalization: the developmental origins of the representational affective self

György Gergely and Zsolt Unoka

in Social Cognition and Developmental Psychopathology

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780198569183
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754432 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Attachment, affect-regulation, and mentalization: the developmental origins of the representational affective self

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In this chapter we propose an evolutionary-based social cognitive theory of the early development of the representational affective self in humans and its role in emotional self-regulation and control. We first identify species-unique properties of human caregiver–infant interactions and critically discuss alternative proposals concerning the functional role of the human attachment system in the development of mentalizing on the one hand, and emotional self-awareness and affective self-control on the other. We propose that the human-specific features of early caregiver–infant interactions provide the necessary input conditions for specialized representation-building and attention socialization mechanisms (such as contingency detection, social biofeedback, and natural ‘pedagogy’). These mechanisms play a crucial role in establishing primary self–other affective relationship representations that capture the characteristic causal structure of contingent reactivity of early attachment relationships. They also set up cognitively accessible second-order emotion representations with associative links to the self's procedurally represented prewired basic emotions. We then characterize different levels of primary and secondary emotion-control systems and show how the developmentally established affective self–other representations subserve these emotion-regulative mechanisms. Finally, we argue that the socially constructed second-order emotion representations support the ontogenetic extension of the domain of mentalizing to include the self's own causal mental states (apart from those of others) and show how this enables the functional use of mentalization for the purposes of emotional self-regulation and control in affectively charged interactions and relationships in humans.

Chapter.  15207 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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