Mary Ainsworth and Attachment Theory

By Richard Brodie

Mary Ainsworth is best known for her elaboration on the work of John Bowlby and Attachment Theory.  

Ainsworth, who collaborated with Bowlby in the joint publication of their work, Child Care and the Birth of Love (1965), developed a procedure for observing and assessing the quality of attachment in relationships between a caregiver and child.  She called this procedure the Strange Situation.

The above clip is an example of the Strange Situation.


In this procedure the child is observed playing for twenty minutes while caregivers and strangers enter and leave the room, recreating the flow of the familiar and unfamiliar persons in the lives of most children.  The arranged sequence of events is as follows:

  1. Caregiver and infant are introduced to the experimental room.
  2. Caregiver and infant are left alone.  Caregiver does not participate while infant plays and explores.
  3. Stranger enters, converses with parent, then approaches infant.  Caregiver leaves inconspicuously.
  4. First separation episode: Stranger's adjusts his behavior to that of the infant.
  5. First reunion episode: Caregiver greets and comforts the infant, then leaves again.
  6. Second separation episode: Infant is left alone.
  7. Continuation of second separation episode: Stranger enters and again adjusts his behavior to that of the infant.
  8. Second reunion episode: Parent enters, greets infant, and picks up infant; stranger leaves inconspicuously.

Two aspects of the child's behavior are observed:

  • The amount of exploration (e.g. playing with new toys) the child engages in during the time period.
  • The child's reactions to the departure and return of his caregiver.

On the basis of their behavior, children are categorized into three groups:

Successful outcomes are defined as

  • secure attachment;

 Unsuccessful outcomes are defined as

  • anxious-ambivalent insecure attachment, and
  • anxious-avoidant insecure attachment.

Mary Ainsworth's Attachment Theory Secure Attachment: A child who is securely attached to its caregiver will explore freely while the caregiver is present, will engage with strangers, will be visibly upset when the caregiver departs, and happy to see the caregiver return. 
The child will not engage with the stranger if the caregiver is not in the room.

Anxious-Ambivalent Insecure Attachment: A child with an anxious-resistant attachment style is anxious of exploration and of strangers, even when the caregiver is present.  When the caregiver departs, the child is extremely distressed.  The child will be ambivalent when she returns and will seek to remain close to the caregiver, but will be resentful, and also resistant when the caregiver initiates attention.

Anxious-Avoidant Insecure Attachment: A child with an anxious-avoidant attachment style will avoid or ignore the caregiver and show little emotion when the caregiver departs or returns.  The child will not explore very much, regardless of who is there.  Strangers will not be treated very differently from the caregiver.  There is not much emotional range displayed regardless of who is in the room or if it is empty.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure has been criticized more in its suggested application than in its validity.  For example, many critics feel the twenty-minute timeframe for the procedure is too short, and that too many variables can come into play, such as the caregiver’s and infant’s moods at the time, the role that cultural variation can play, etc.  But support for Ainsworth’s basic concept remains intact.

The video Mary Ainsworth: Attachment and the Growth of Love offers an intimate portrayal of her life and work.

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