Mary Ainsworth and Child Psychology

Mary Ainsworth: Mother of Attachment Theory

Mary Ainsworth and Child Psychology

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.

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 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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The Life of Psychologist Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth and Child Psychology

Mary Ainsworth was an American-Canadian psychologist who, along with John Bowlby, developed one of the greatest and most helpful psychological theories on early social development: the attachment theory. At first, they created this theory only considering children. However, in the 60s and 70s, Ainsworth introduced new concepts that led to an expansion focused on adults.

She was one of the most cited psychologists throughout the 20th century. In fact, her brilliant theory is, to this day, the pillar on which numerous researchers and psychologists based their studies.

Universities around the world use her work as an example.

Additionally, she’s received numerous recognitions despite the fact that she lived in an era in which women were quite restricted in their professional roles.

During her college years, Ainsworth started reflecting on the attached relationship children usually form with their motherly figure.

However, Ainsworth’s life wasn’t all about studies and questions. In fact, it was much more dynamic than we’d expect for a woman of her time. Let’s delve a little deeper into her life.

The life of Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth was born in the United States. However, her family moved to Toronto, Canada when she was only a little girl. She graduated from Developmental Psychology at the University of Toronto and obtained her Ph.D. in 1939. After finishing her studies, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and spent four years in the army.

Soon after, she got married and moved to London with her husband. At that time, she started working at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations along with psychiatrist John Bowlby. The two starting experimenting with separating children from their mothers.

In 1953, she moved to Uganda and started working at the East African Institute of Social Research. There, she continued researching early mother-and-son relationships.

After a while, she obtained a position at the John Hopkins University in the United States. Later, she started working at the University of Virginia, where she kept on developing her attachment theory until her professional retirement in 1984.

“The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals is a basic component of human nature.”

-John Bowlby-

Attachment theory

John Bowlby is considered the father of attachment theory. Bowlby’s studies showed that children have innate exploratory behavior. Despite that, if they feel unprotected or in danger, their first reaction is to seek the support of their mother or primary caregiver. Mary Ainsworth added a new concept to this theory: the strange situation.

Mary Ainsworth studied children’s relationship with their caregivers by adding ‘the strange situation’ in several different contexts. ‘The strange situation’ consisted of adding a strange person in the context of mother-and-son relationships.

the results she obtained, Mary Ainsworth expanded the theory by coining three attachment styles: secure attachment, insecure-avoidant attachment, and insecure-ambivalent/resistant attachment. Other researchers then proceeded to expand her theory. The attachment theory we know today is a result of other psychologists’ additions.

Mary Ainsworth and the different attachment types

A fourth type of attachment later made the cut into the attachment theory. However, Mary Ainsworth only defined and characterized these three:

  • Secure attachment: When the child feels loved and protected. Even if the caregiver is absent and the child feels certain anguish at the moment they separate, they know for a fact that their caregiver will soon return.
  • Insecure-avoidant attachment: When a child responds with intense anguish to the separation of the mother or caregiver. It seems that this type of attachment is the result of poor maternal or primary caregiver availability. Children with this type of attachment learn that their mother won’t always be there when they need it.
  • Insecure-ambivalent/resistant attachment: This attachment type develops when the primary caregiver fails to meet the child’s needs in a consistent manner. These children develop a great feeling of distrust and learn not to seek help in the future.

Her outstanding work

Mary Ainsworth became very aware of the importance of developing a healthy relationship with the maternal figure. She thought that this was important because it could influence the child in the future.

She was in favor of programs that would help women work and be mothers at the same time. Honestly, at that time, it was almost impossible for women to do this. However, nowadays, we see this every day.

The access to academic studies, research programs, the working world, etc. didn’t seem to be compatible with domestic chores, especially those dictated by society (being a wife and a mother). For this reason, many consider Mary Ainsworth one of the precursors of work-life balance programs for mothers.

As a female researcher, she knew that her work had to go beyond the academic world. She wanted to help future women choose their own individual life-path.

Mary Ainsworth died in 1999 at the age of 86, after having dedicated her whole life to developing one of the most important psychological theories.

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Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999)

Mary Ainsworth and Child Psychology

Mary Ainsworth was a Canadian developmental psychologist who conducted research in the field of attachment theory and developed the Strange Situation Test. 

Early Life

Ainsworth was born in Glendale, Ohio and raised in Canada as the oldest of four girls. Both her father and mother were Dickinson College graduates and placed significant emphasis on proper education.

Ainsworth graduated from high school eager to pursue a degree in psychology and enrolled in the University of Toronto in 1929. There she earned her bachelor’s, master's, and her PhD, and she began teaching at the university in 1938.

In 1942, Ainsworth enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corp where she rose to the rank of major within the Corps.

Professional Life

In 1946, Ainsworth returned to teaching in Toronto. Shortly after her marriage in 1950, she moved to London with her husband Leonard Ainsworth, so that he could pursue his degree from University College London.

During her time in England, Ainsworth was invited to participate in research at Tavistock Clinic, where she worked with John Bowlby. The research focused on examining what effects interference in the mother and child bond may have on the development of the child.

The findings revealed that when a bond between mother and child is broken, the child is at risk for developmental challenges.

Ainsworth later traveled to Kampala, Uganda where she worked at the East African Institute for Social Research, continuing her exploration into the significance of the mother-child bond.

Ainsworth taught at John Hopkins University from 1959 until 1975, when she accepted a position as professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. She remained at the University of Virginia until her retirement in 1984. Ainsworth and her husband divorced in 1960.

Contribution to Psychology

Ainsworth, in collaboration with colleague Sylvia Bell, developed a technique called the Strange Situation Test. This test is used to examine the pattern of attachment between a child and the mother or caregiver.

This method of measuring the child’s specific attachment characteristics is highly respected and well established, and variations of the procedure are used throughout the clinical world of psychiatry and psychology today.

The Strange Situation Test is characterized by an observation phase and an assessment phase. During the observation phase, the clinician places both the mother (or caregiver) and child in a secure environment and allows them to interact to the point of familiarity with their surroundings.

A stranger is introduced into the environment and interacts with the child, and then the parent leaves the room. When the parent returns, the child and parent are reunited and the stranger exits. After this point, the parent exits, leaving the child alone. During that time, the stranger enters again, interacts with the child, and the parent returns.

The stranger leaves again and the parent and child are left alone to interact.

The child’s behavior is examined and assessed throughout this exercise. There are four key elements of behavior that are examined with respect to the child:

  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. Assess the behavior of the child when interacting with the parent.

The results of this experiment have been categorized into four specific types of attachment:

  1. Secure Attachment: Secure attachment is a healthy, strong attachment to the mother. This child will explore and engage with others when the mother is present, however, when the mother leaves, this child will become agitated. If alone with the stranger, the child will avoid contact with the stranger.

  2. Anxious-Resistant Insecure Attachment: This child displays elevated anxiety when the stranger is introduced to the environment, even while the mother is there. The child will not freely explore the surroundings and becomes extremely agitated and distressed when the mother exits. When the mother re-enters the environment, the child appears resentful and unreceptive to the mother’s attempts at interaction. Often this child will try to move away from the mother when she returns. An anxious-resistant attachment style is associated with a child whose needs are not reliably met by the parent. Parents may prioritize their own needs over the child's or only periodically respond to the child's need for love, comfort, or affection. An anxious-resistant attachment style is frequently the product of inadequate parenting and strongly correlates with future attachment problems. 
  3. Anxious-Avoidant Insecure Attachment: This child will display ambivalence when the mother is present or not present. This child rarely clings to the caregiver and often refuses to be held. The child will avoid exploration and displays similar ambivalence toward strangers when they enter the environment.

    Children with an avoidant attachment style have learned that their efforts to get their needs met are ignored. Strangers may be treated virtually the same as the parent, with the child showing little preference regarding caregivers.

    While an anxious-avoidant attachment style is maladaptive, it is less strongly correlated with subsequent attachment problems than is an anxious-resistant attachment style. 

  4. Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment: A child that falls into this category may appear distressed when the mother exits and show immediate relief upon her return. However, the child may not want to be held or may exhibit anger once the mother approaches. This child may also exhibit repetitive behaviors, such as hitting or rocking. 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 as a result of that trauma.

Ainsworth's Strange Situation test demonstrated that, for young children, the primary caregiver serves as a secure base from which to explore the world. Children with secure attachments are upset when their caregivers leave, but comforted by their presence in stressful situations.

Children with insecure attachments, however, are much less comforted by their parents and do not have the “secure base” that securely attached children have.

The results of Ainsworth's research challenged traditional notions regarding the mother-child bond and demonstrated that infants who are fed on demand and comforted when crying, rather than adhering to a particular routine, tend to develop secure attachments to their mothers.

Subsequent research has demonstrated a strong correlation between a child's attachment style and mental health difficulties.

People tend to use their childhood attachment styles in adult relationships, including with children and romantic interests, so insecure attachments could potentially be passed from generation to generation, with an insecurely attached mother producing an insecurely attached child. 

Ainsworth was a member of the:

  • Society for Research in Child Development
  • Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry
  • American Psychological Association
  • British Psychological Society
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Eastern Psychological Association

She received several awards, including the Distinguished Contribution Award from the Maryland Psychological Association in 1973 and the Gold Medal for Scientific Contributions from the American Psychological Foundation in 1998.

Controversies and Criticism

Ainsworth's Strange Situation test was designed to be used with mothers and their children, so her research reveals much less about attachments between fathers and children. Some researchers have also emphasized that Ainsworth's research may not apply across cultures.

A brief separation from a caregiver might mean something very different in a small tribal culture or in a family where a child is regularly left with various caregivers or frequently around new people.

There is also some concern about whether one brief separation can be used to measure continuity of attachment. A child or mother might be having a bad day, for example, and this could alter their usual pattern of relating.


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Quote by Mary Ainsworth

Last Update: 03-02-2018


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