Mary Ainsworth was a pioneer in research into early attachment theory. She became famous for her assessment technique in identifying different attachment styles in infants. Her technique was the Strange Situation.
The Strange Situation involved approximately 100 middle class American mothers and infants. The infant’s ages ranged between 12 and 18 months. The experiment was set up in a playroom with one way glass in order for the researchers to observe what was happening. The assessment involved eight different steps:
- The experimenter, mother, and baby are in the room together
- The experimenter leaves the mother and baby. The researchers observe whether the baby explores his/her environment and plays with the available toys
- A stranger enters and talks to the mother
- The mother leaves the room, so that it is just the stranger and baby. The researchers observe whether the baby experiences separation anxiety and whether he/she is comforted by the stranger
- The mother enters the room and the baby’s reaction is observed. The stranger leaves
- The mother leaves the baby alone in the room
- The stranger enters and offers comfort. The researchers observe the baby’s reaction to the comforting attempts
- The mother returns and comforts the baby
In each of the stages, the infant’s reaction is crucial in determining his/her attachment type. There are three main types of attachment styles which include: secure, ambivalent and avoidant attachment. These are based on whether the baby seeks, resists or avoids contact with the mother upon their reunions in the playroom.
The majority of the infant’s in the study revealed secure attachments. The infant’s with secure attachments usually were upset when the mother left and avoided the stranger. When the mother returned, however, they expressed happiness and were comforted by the mother. They also explored the playroom and would return to the mother if distressed. Secure attachments develop when the caregiver responds to the baby’s needs appropriately.
The insecure ambivalent attachment style was characterised by the infant becoming extremely distressed when the mother left and was unable to be comforted by the stranger. During the reunion, the infant wanted contact but at the same time pushed the mother way. The child also explored his/her environment less than securely attached infants. The babies with this attachment style were both clingy and rejecting in their attitude towards the mother. This type of attachment is generally the result of caregivers inconsistently meeting their baby’s needs.
The insecure avoidant attachment type was reflected when the baby did not orient towards the mother when in the playroom. The infant also did not get upset when the mother left nor did he/she show any interest upon the mothers return. The mother and stranger were equally capable of comforting the infant. This type of attachment may be the result of caregivers who are rejecting and insensitive to the baby’s needs.
These attachment styles may affect children as they grow older and influence the types of relationships they subsequently develop. Although it is a very revealing study, it does have its drawbacks. While the strange situation provides consistent results, it lacks ecological validity since the situation is highly artificial. Furthermore, while it certainly represents the attachment style the baby has with the mother, it may not be a general attachment style. The baby may act a certain way with the mother, but very differently with other people. Finally it is difficult to generalise these findings to other populations since the sample consisted solely of middle class American mothers. Despite these limitations, it is a major contribution to attachment research!
McLeod, S. A. (2014). Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html
Thibs44. (Jan 17, 2009). The Strange Situation – Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTsewNrHUHU
Image Credit: Cute Baby Wallpapers. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2015, from http://cutebabywallpapers.com/cute-baby-mother-hd-wallpapers.html