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Mary Ainsworth (December 1913 - 1999) was an American developmental psychologist known for her work in early emotional attachment with "The Strange Situation" as well as her work in the development of Attachment Theory.
Mary D. Salter Ainsworth was born in Glendale, Ohio in 1913, eldest of three sisters. Her parents both graduated from Dickinson College. Her father earned his Master's in History and was transferred to a manufacturing firm in Canada when Ainsworth was five. While her parents always put a strong emphasis on education, it was William McDougall's book Character and the Conduct of Life that inspired her interest in psychology.
Ainsworth enrolled in honors program in psychology at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1929. She earned her BA in 1935, her MA in 1936, and her Ph.D in 1939, all from the University of Toronto. She stayed to teach for a few years before joining the Canadian Women's Army Corp in 1942 in World War II, reaching the rank of Major in 1945.
She returned to Toronto to continue teaching personality psychology and conduct research. She married Leonard Ainsworth in 1950 and moved to London with him to allow him to finish his graduate degree at University College.
While in England, Ainsworth joined the research team at Tavistock Clinic investigating the effects of maternal separation on child development. Comparison of disrupted mother-child bonds to normal mother-child relationship showed that a child's lack of a mother figure leads to "adverse development effects." In 1954, she left Tavistock Clinic to do research in Africa, where she carried out her longitudinal field study of mother-infant interaction.
She and her colleagues developed the Strange Situation Procedure (See Patterns of Attachment), which is a widely used, well researched and validated, method of assessing an infant's pattern and style of attachment to a caregiver.
The Strange Situation
In the 1960s, Ainsworth devised a procedure, called The Strange Situation, to observe attachment relationships between a human caregiver and child. In this procedure the child is observed playing for 20 minutes while caregivers and strangers enter and leave the room, recreating the flow of the familiar and unfamiliar presence in most children's lives. The situation varies in stressfulness and the child's responses are observed. The child experiences the following situations:
- Parent and infant are introduced to the experimental room.
- Parent and infant are alone. Parent does not participate while infant explores.
- Stranger enters, converses with parent, then approaches infant. Parent leaves inconspicuously.
- First separation episode: Stranger's behavior is geared to that of infant.
- First reunion episode: Parent greets and comforts infant, then leaves again.
- Second separation episode: Infant is alone.
- Continuation of second separation episode: Stranger enters and gears behavior to that of infant.
- Second reunion episode: Parent enters, greets infant, and picks up infant; stranger leaves inconspicuously.
Two aspects of the child's behaviour are observed:
- The amount of exploration (e.g. playing with new toys) the child engages in throughout.
- The child's reactions to the departure and return of its caregiver.
On the basis of their behaviours, the children can be categorized into three groups. Each of these groups reflects a different kind of attachment relationship with the mother. (It should be noted that Bowlby believed that mothers were the primary attachment figure in children's lives, but subsequent research has confirmed that children form attachments to both their mothers and their fathers. Bowlby, like many of his colleagues at the time, infused the gender norms of the day into otherwise "unbiased" scientific research.)
A child who is securely attached to its mother will explore freely while the mother is present, will engage with strangers, will be visibly upset when the mother departs, and happy to see the mother return.
Securely attached children are best able to explore when they have the knowledge of a secure base to return to in times of need (also known as "rapprochement", meaning in French "bring together"). When assistance is given, this bolsters the sense of security and also, assuming the mother's assistance is helpful, educates the child in how to cope with the same problem in the future. Therefore, secure attachment can be seen as the most adaptive attachment style. According to some psychological researchers, a child becomes securely attached when the mother is available and able to meet the needs of the child in a responsive and appropriate manner. Others have pointed out that there are also other determinants of the child's attachment, and that behavior of the parent may in turn be influenced by the child's behaviour.
Anxious-ambivalent insecure attachment
A child with an anxious-resistant attachment style is anxious of exploration and of strangers, even when the mother is present. When the mother departs, the child is extremely distressed. The child will be ambivalent when she returns - seeking to remain close to the mother but resentful, and also resistant when the mother initiates attention.
According to some psychological researchers, this style develops from a mothering style which is engaged but on the mother's own terms. That is, sometimes the child's needs are ignored until some other activity is completed and that attention is sometimes given to the child more through the needs of the parent than from the child's initiation.
Anxious-avoidant insecure attachment
A child with an anxious-avoidant attachment style will avoid or ignore the mother - showing little emotion when the mother departs or returns. The child will not explore very much regardless of who is there. Strangers will not be treated much differently from the mother. There is not much emotional range displayed regardless of who is in the room or if it is empty.
This style of attachment develops from a mothering style which is more disengaged. The child's needs are frequently not met and the child comes to believe that communication of needs has no influence on the mother.
- John Bowlby
- Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy
- Attachment theory
- Reactive attachment disorder
- Attachment in children
- Ainsworth, M. and Bowlby, J. (1965). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.
- Ainsworth, M. (1967). Infancy in Uganda. Baltimore: John Hopkins.
- Ainsworth. M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E_ and Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment: a Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- O'Connell, A.N., & Rusoo, N.F. (1983). Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology. New York: Columbia University Press.
- fr:Mary Ainsworth