A Tale of Three Mice: An Attachment Story

Once upon a time there were three mice.

The first mouse lived in a house that contained, along with furniture and other household goods and possessions, a lever and a hole in the wall from which food was delivered. Each time the mouse pressed the lever he would receive a tasty morsel of his favourite food.  The mouse understood that, when he was hungry, all he had to do was press the lever and food would arrive via the hole. The mouse took great comfort in the predictability of his access to food and only pressed the lever when he was hungry.

The second mouse lived in a similar house, also containing a lever and a hole in the wall from which food was delivered. Unfortunately, the lever in his house was faulty and delivered food on an inconsistent basis when he pressed it, such that he might only receive food via the hole on the first, fifth, seventh, or even the eleventh time he pressed the lever. This mouse learnt that he could not always rely on the lever and that he had to press the lever many times, and even when he was not actually hungry, in order to ensure that he would have food. Even after his lever was fixed he found it difficult to stop pressing it frequently and displayed a habit of storing up food.

The third mouse also lived in a similar house, containing a lever and a hole in the wall from which food was to be delivered. However, the lever in his house did not work at all. He soon learnt that he could not rely on the lever and would have to develop other ways of gaining access to food. This belief persisted, even when he moved to a new home with a fully-functioning lever.

Source: Pearce, C. A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2009


An updated version of this allegory – A Tale of Four Mice – can be found in the Second Edition of A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder.

This allegory has been very popular and meaningful for many readers. Here is an example:

From Carr, S. (2013). Attachment in Sport, Exercise and Wellness. Routledge: London and New York (pp 1-2)

Colby Pearce Attachment National Psychology Exam

Some months ago a graduate student came to my office visibly excited after reading the prologue section in Colby Pearce’s (2009) text A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder. The student felt that although he had been studying attachment theory for a number of years he was so intensely focused upon its numerous intricacies and nuances that he had failed to recognise the striking simplicity that underpins this complexity. With Pearce’s permission, I make no apologies for paraphrasing his excellent example below. I agree with my graduate student’s initial interpretation.

Pearce (2009) recites a story about three mice. The first mouse resided in a comfortable house that was furnished and supplied with modern conveniences. Inside the house was a button and a hole in the wall and the mouse was able to press the button to receive tasty food through the hole. The mechanism worked well and the mouse appreciated that when he was hungry he would be able to press the button and consistently receive his food. It was comforting to have this knowledge and the mouse liked the predictable nature of his button, only tending to press it when he really needed food.

In contrast, the second mouse (who lived in an identical house) had the misfortune of dealing with a faulty button mechanism. That is, pressing his button only resulted in food being delivered some of the time. There was no predictability to the button mechanism and on some occasions he would receive food immediately on pressing the button whereas on others he would be required to press it 10 or 20 times. At other times it seemed that no matter how often he pressed it nothing was ever going to happen. His distrust of the button led him to be preoccupied with pressing it, even when he was not actually hungry. He would press it many, many times in order to ensure he would have food when he did grow hungry. When the button was fixed he found it hard to trust that it was now in good working order and spent much time storing up food for a rainy day.

Finally, the third mouse lived in a house with a button that consistently failed to work. In short, he never received any food from his button. He quickly came to the understanding that access to food would require him to employ other means and had no belief in the utility of the button. Even when he moved home and found a house with an effectively functioning button his lack of faith in buttons persisted and he continued to find food the way he always had.

The above story highlights how attachment theory can be seen to be grounded in simple assumptions that retain remarkable logical sense even when talk of mice and food is substituted for young children, emotional care, and security. Pearce (2009) has cleverly recognised this in his prologue. However, although there are some simple logical principles at the core of attachment theory, the fact that Bowlby (1969/1982, 1973, 1980) required close to 1000 pages to articulate his ideas suggests that there are complexities, assumptions, and arguments that cannot be overlooked if one is to begin to develop a fuller understanding of Bowlby’s position. Furthermore, given that attachment theory has been intuitively appealing to researchers whose ideas are allied to contrasting paradigmatic approaches (e.g. Pearce’s example seems couched in behaviourist principles – but attachment theory also reflects ideas that resemble other schools of thought) and from various disciplines it is unsurprising that further methodological and conceptual intricacies have arisen as the ideas have been nurtured  and developed according to the assumptions of differing schools of thought.

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About colbypearce

I am a practising Clinical Psychologist with twenty-seven years’ experience working with children and young people recovering from abuse and neglect. I am also an author and educator in trauma-informed, therapeutic caregiving. My programs are implemented in Australia and Ireland, and I am well-known for my practical and accessible guidance for caregivers and professionals alike.
This entry was posted in AAA Caregiving, Adoption, Attachment, Fostering, kinship care, Parenting, Trauma, trauma informed, trauma informed care, trauma informed practice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Tale of Three Mice: An Attachment Story

  1. Pingback: A Take of Four Mice: An Attachment Story | Attachment and Resilience

  2. Pingback: An allegory about attachment theory | Attachment and Resilience

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