Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

The Strange Situation- Mary Ainsworth


In 1969, American Psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed a new procedure for studying attachment types in infants. She called her procedure the Strange Situation Classification – known more commonly as just the Strange Situation. Ainsworth was a student of the leading Developmental Psychologist John Bowlby. 

As an adult you know when you’ve formed an attachment with someone; you know how it feels and you know how to express your feelings in words. However, when it comes to babies and young children they haven’t yet developed these skills.

Therefore researchers must turn to more subtle techniques such as the Strange Situation, which measures the security of an attachment in 1 to 2 year olds; a twenty minute participatory observation, during which the researcher observes the infant’s behavioural responses to a series of scenarios.

Ainsworth’s strange situation includes eight stages, each lasting roughly 3 minutes:

Stage 1: Mother and Baby
Stage 2: Mother, Baby and Stranger
Stage 3: Stranger and Baby
Stage 4: Mother returns
Stage 5: Stranger leaves
Stage 6: Mother leaves, leaving baby alone
Stage 7: Stranger returns
Stage 8: Mother returns and stranger leaves

So what were the researchers measuring?

When the mother was in the room with the baby, they scored the infant’s behaviour on four measures:

  • Proximity and contact-seeking
  • Contact maintaining
  • Avoidance of proximity and contact
  • Resistance to contact and comforting.

The baby’s exploratory behaviours were also recorded as they explored the environment.

Ainsworth reported that infants display one of three attachment types:

Secure Attachment

Securely attached infants showed distress when separated from their mother, were avoidant of the stranger when alone but friendly in the presence of their mother, and were happy when the mother returned from outside the room. Seventy percent of children studied fell into this category.

Ambivalent Attachment

Fifteen percent of children demonstrated an ambivalent attachment with their mother. These children showed intense distress when the mother left the room, and demonstrated a significant fear of the stranger. When the mother returned to the room, ambivalent children approached the mother but rejected contact.

Avoidant Attachment

Ainsworth reported that a final fifteen percent had an avoidant attachment style. Such infants show no interest when the mother leaves the room and play happily with the stranger. When the mother returns, avoidant children barely seem to notice.

Disorganised Attachment

In 1990, Main and Solomon added that a very small percentage were inconstant in their behaviours and defined this attachment style as disorganised.

Caregiver Sensitivity Hypothesis

Ainsworth’s Caregiver Sensitivity Hypothesis suggests that differences in infants’ attachment styles are dependent on the mother’s behaviour towards the baby during a critical period of development.

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About Daniel Edward 65 Articles
Daniel set up Psychology Unlocked in 2016 to support Psychology students in higher and further education. Daniel has a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Psychology, Politics and Sociology from the University of Cambridge.