Mary Ainsworth: mother of attachment theory

Mary Ainsworth - psychologist, who made a big impact on Bowlby's Attachment Theory. She had definitely modified and improved this theory by providing most famous research which explained the individual differences of newborns in attachment.

While Bowlby is called the father of Attachment theory, Ainsworth could definately be named a mother of Attachment theory.

Ainsworth's biography and career

Mary Dinsmore Salter Ainsworth (December 1, 1913 – March 21, 1999) was an American-Canadian developmental psychologist known for her work in early emotional attachment with "Strange Situation" as well as her work in the development of Attachment Theory. 

Mary Ainsworth’s biography and career summary
1. Mary Ainsworth was born in Glendale, Ohio, in December of 1913.
2. At age fifteen, Ainsworth read William McDougall's book entitled Character and the Conduct of Life, which inspired her to become a psychologist
3. Ainsworth earned her BA in 1935, her Master's degree in 1936, and her PhD in developmental psychology in 1939, all from the University of Toronto
4. She joined the Canadian Women's Army Corp in 1942.
5. In 1950, she married Leonard Ainsworth and moved to London.
6. Soon Ainsworth began a research position at the Tavistock Clinic with John Bowlby, where she studied maternal-infant attachments.
7. In 1954 Leonard Ainsworth accepted a job at the East African Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda.
8. 2 years later Ainsworth returned to US to teach at John Hopkins. She began working on creating an assessment to measure attachments between mothers and children. It was here that she developed her famous "Strange Situation" assessment.
9. Mary Ainsworth moved from Johns Hopkins to the University of Virginia in 1975. She died in 1999.

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The Strange Situation test

Mary Ainsworth developed a test known as the Strange Situation test, which has now become a standard test for researching infants' respond to a slightly stressful situation.  

The procedure of the Strange Situation test

  • During the test, the infant is brought into a room with her mother and the infant is allowed to explore the room and play with the toys.
  • Then a stranger enters the room and talks to the mother,
  • Then the mother leaves the infant with the stranger for 3 minutes. 
  • The mother then returns and the stranger leaves. 
  • The mother now remains with the infant for 3 minutes.  

The Strange Situation developed by Mary Ainsworth has become one of the most commonly used procedures in child development research.

  *The whole test lasts around twenty minutes.
  *The test is administered to infants aged between 12 and 24 months.

The purpose of this test is to study child's respond to stress when mother leaves and then child's ability to calm down and continue exploring. Therefore, there are 4 key elements of behavior that help determine the child's attachment type

The results are finalized according to the responses of these questions:

  1. How much does the child explore his or her surroundings?
  2. What is the child’s reaction when the parent leaves?
  3. Does the child express any anxiety with the introduction of the stranger when the child is alone?
  4. The behavior of the child when interacting with the parent is assessed.

Special attention is paid to how the infant responds to the mother on her return.

According to the child's behavior in this test there are 4 attachment styles categorized to determine how secure/unsecure is infant.

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4 Attachment styles

  1. Secure Attachment: This happens when a child is very attached to the mother. Usually this child will explore and engage with others when the mother is in the room, but, when the mother leaves, this child will show negative emotions. When left alone with the stranger, the child will avoid the him.
  2. Anxious-Resistant Insecure Attachment: This child becomes irritated when the stranger appears in the room, while mother is still near by. And when mother leaves, the child cannot explore and continue play. He is very distressed. However, when mother comes back, child acts resentful and upset to the mother, he tries to move away from her.
  3. Anxious-Avoidant Insecure Attachment: This child seems careless. He doesn't show much emotions whether mother is in the room or not. He doesn't want to be played with or held.  He acts the same with the stranger as well.
  4. Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment: This child might be distressed when the mother leaves the room and be relieved when she comes back. However, the child may not want to be held or may show anger once the mother approaches. He might hit or rock. Further research revealed that more than half of the mothers with a child who fell into this category had suffered a trauma immediately before the birth of the child and had developed depression because of that trauma.

Click to enlarge

Here is comic caricature of what does child think during strange situations (when he has secure attachment with his mother).

strange situation from child's perspective

Strange situation test helps to predict later development

According to the study, the children who have a secure attachment by 12 months they will have:

  • curiosity and problem solving at age 2,
  • social confidence at age 3,
  • empathy and independence at age 5,
  • lack of behavioral problem in boys at age 6.

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Ainsworth’s impact on Psychology

  • Mary Ainsworth's research work on attachment helps us to understand the child development better.
  • Today, the technique of Ainsworth's Strange Situation is commonly used in psychiatry and psychology to examine the attachment pattern between mother and a child.
  • Ainsworth's books:

               Ainsworth, M. and Bowlby, J. (1965). Child Care and the Growth of Love.

               Ainsworth, M. (1967). Infancy in Uganda.

               Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment.

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