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Attachment Theory

Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth is an American child psychologist that is known for her work on attachment theory and her experiment The Strange Situation. Her research expanded upon the work of famous child psychologist John Bowlby, by developing assessments and furthering our understanding of child attachment and development.


Born Mary Salter, on December 1st, 1913, in Glendale, Ohio, Ainsworth was the oldest of four daughters. Both of her parents were graduates from Dickinson college and emphasized the importance of education to Mary and her sisters. At age five, Mary’s family moved to Toronto, Canada when her father became president of a manufacturing firm. She became interested in psychology at age fifteen when she read William McDougall’s (an American psychologist) Character and the Conduct of Life. In 1929, only a year later, she was one of only five students to be offered admission to the University of Toronto’s psychology program. Mary Ainsworth earned her bachelor’s (1935), master’s (1936), and Ph.D (1939) there, and began teaching at the university in 1938. She left her teaching position in 1942 to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Over the next four years, she achieved the rank of major, noted for her clinical skills in diagnostics and assessment.

Ainsworth returned to the University of Toronto in 1946, where she met a graduate student named Leonard Ainsworth. They married in 1950 and moved to London, England shortly thereafter so that Leonard could pursue his doctorate from University College London. While he was working on his degree, Mary was invited to participate in research at the Tavistock Clinic. It was here that she met famed psychologist John Bowlby, known for his interest in child development and pioneering work in attachment theory. The bulk of Bowlby’s research was spent examining the effects of maternal separation on child development, believing that breaking this attachment can lead to issues in child development. Ainsworth’s exposure to Bowlby’s ideas and theories influenced her own beliefs and laid the foundation for what she was researching at the time of The Strange Procedure.

In 1953, Ainsworth’s husband accepted a postdoctoral position at the East African Institute for Social Research in Kampala, Uganda. Here, she continued her own research on mother-child attachment with a short-term longitudinal study. Her research findings during this period were eventually published in her 1967 book, Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love.

Ainsworth and her husband moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1954, where Mary began conducted diagnostic work at a local hospital and lectured at John Hopkins University. Four years later, she became an associate professor of developmental psychology where she continued the research she started in Africa. Mary and her husband would divorce shortly thereafter, but she continued her research, achieving full professorship at John Hopkins University in 1963. She established the Baltimore Project, a program that allowed monthly home visits in which researchers completed detailed narratives that described mother-child interactions during feeding, contact, play, and periods of distress. These visits were conducted over a twelve-month period, culminating in Ainsworth’s Strange Situation. This research represents the largest of Mary Ainsworth’s contributions to psychology. Her findings were published over the next decade in several journal articles and a book in 1978, called Patterns of Attachment.

In 1975, Mary Ainsworth left John Hopkins University and became Commonwealth Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. She continued to teach here until her retirement in 1984. During this time, Ainsworth headed the Society for Research in Child Development from 1977 to 1979 and was a fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Association. For her lifelong dedication to research and the improvement of our understanding in child development and attachment, Mary Ainsworth received the Award for Distinguished Professional Contribution to Knowledge and the G. Stanley Hall Award from the APA. Mary Ainsworth died March 21, 1999 but not before she received the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology from the APA for her lifelong achievements in the field of psychology.

Mary Ainsworth’s Attachment Theory

Mary Ainsworth’s attachment theory is a culmination of her work in Uganda, with the Baltimore Project, and John Bowlby’s theories of research and development. Her theory states that children and infants need to develop a secure dependence on their parents before seeking unfamiliar situations. Research findings from the Strange Situation Test further reinforced these theories and helped to define distinct attachment styles. Based on her experiments, she concluded that early childhood experiences result in the development of attachment styles that can affect an individual’s relationships and behavioral interactions throughout the rest of their lives. Ainsworth divided attachment into three different styles: secure, insecure avoidant, and insecure ambivalent/resistant.

Children with secure attachment styles are confident that their attachment figure will be available to meet their needs. This attachment figure is used as a safe base for the child to explore their environment, and they will seek out this figure (usually a female or their mother) in times of distress. Results from the strange situation test show that securely attached infants are easily soothed by the attachment figure when they are upset. Children develop this style when their caregiver is sensitive to their signals and signs of distress, while responding appropriately to their needs. John Bowlby said that an individual with a secure attachment style, ‘is likely to possess a representational model of attachment figure(s) as being available, responsive and helpful‘.

During the Strange Situation Test, children with insecure avoidant attachment styles do not orientate to the attachment figure while they are exploring their environment. They tend to be independent of their attachment figure both physically and emotionally, not seeking contact when they feel distressed. It’s likely that children with this attachment style have parents or caregivers who reject their needs or are insensitive. Attachment figures and parents tend to refrain from helping with difficult tasks and are unavailable when children experience periods of emotional distress. This leads children to believe that communicating their needs will not illicit a response from their caregiver.

Ainsworth’s insecure ambivalent attachment style, also called insecure resistant, describes children that seem ambivalent to their attachment figure. These children may seem to be clingy or over-dependent, yet they reject the attempts of a parent or caregiver when they attempt to interact. In addition to failing to develop feelings of security, they are difficult to soothe and not comforted by parental interactions.

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