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Strange situation

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The Strange SituationEdit

In the 1960s, Mary Ainsworth devised a procedure, called The Strange Situation, to observe attachment behavior 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:

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

Two aspects of the child's behaviour are observed:

  1. The amount of exploration (e.g. playing with new toys) the child engages in throughout.
  2. 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.)

Secure attachmentEdit

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. Will not engage with stranger if mother is not in the room.

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 attachmentEdit

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 attachmentEdit

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.

Disorganized/disoriented attachmentEdit

A fourth category was added by Ainsworth's colleague Mary Main[1] and Ainsworth accepted the validity of this modification.[2]

A child may cry during separation but avoid the mother when she returns or may approach the mother, then freeze or fall to the floor. Some show stereotyped behavior, rocking to and fro or repeatedly hitting themselves. Main and Hesse[3] found that most of the mothers of these children had suffered major losses or other trauma shortly before or after the birth of the infant and had reacted by becoming severely depressed.[2] In fact, 56% of mothers who had lost a parent by death before they completed high school subsequently had children with disorganized attachments.[3]

Critique of the Strange Situation ProtocolEdit

Template:Over-quotation Michael Rutter describes the procedure in the following terms:[4]

"It is by no means free of limitations (see Lamb, Thompson, Gardener, Charnov & Estes, 1984).[5] To begin with, it is very dependent on brief separations and reunions having the same meaning for all children. This may be a major constraint when applying the procedure in cultures, such as that in Japan (see Miyake et al.,, 1985),[6] where infants are rarely separated from their mothers in ordinary circumstances. Also, because older children have a cognitive capacity to maintain relationships when the older person is not present, separation may not provide the same stress for them. Modified procedures based on the Strange Situation have been developed for older preschool children (see Belsky et al., 1994; Greenberg et al., 1990)[7][8] but it is much more dubious whether the same approach can be used in middle childhood. Also, despite its manifest strengths, the procedure is based on just 20 minutes of behavior. It can be scarcely expected to tap all the relevant qualities of a child's attachment relationships. Q-sort procedures based on much longer naturalistic observations in the home, and interviews with the mothers have developed in order to extend the data base (see Vaughn & Waters, 1990).[9] A further constraint is that the coding procedure results in discrete categories rather than continuously distributed dimensions. Not only is this likely to provide boundary problems, but also it is not at all obvious that discrete categories best represent the concepts that are inherent in attachment security. It seems much more likely that infants vary in their degree of security and there is need for a measurement systems that can quantify individual variation".

Ecological validity and universality of Strange Situation attachment classification distributionsEdit

With respect to the ecological validity of the Strange Situation, a meta-analysis of 2,000 infant-parent dyads, including several from studies with non-Western language and/or cultural bases found the global distribution of attachment categorizations to be A (21%), B (65%), and C (14%)[10] This global distribution was generally consistent with Ainsworth et al.'s (1978) original attachment classification distributions.

However, controversy has been raised over a few cultural differences in these rates of 'global' attachment classification distributions. In particular, two studies diverged from the global distributions of attachment classifications noted above. One study was conducted in North Germany [11] in which more avoidant (A) infants were found than global norms would suggest, and the other in Sapporo, Japan [12] where more resistant (C) infants were found. Of these two studies, the Japanese findings have sparked the most controversy as to the meaning of individual differences in attachment behavior as originally identified by Ainsworth et al. (1978).

In a recent study conducted in Sapporo, Behrens, et al., 2007.[13] found attachment distributions consistent with global norms using the six-year Main & Cassidy scoring system for attachment classification.[14] In addition to these findings supporting the global distributions of attachment classifications in Sapporo, Behrens et al. also discuss the Japanese concept of amae and its relevance to questions concerning whether the insecure-resistant (C) style of interaction may be engendered in Japanese infants as a result of the cultural practice of amae.


See alsoEdit

Major worksEdit

  • Ainsworth, M. and Bowlby, J. (1965). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.
  • Ainsworth, M. (1967). Infancy in Uganda. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
  • Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Further readingEdit

  • O'Connell, A.N., & Rusoo, N.F. (1983). Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology. New York: Columbia University Press.

External linksEdit


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