Mary Ainsworth : Attachment Theory

The Strange Situation

A brief video of Mary Ainsworth's research confirming John Bowlby's theory of attachment.



Robert Karen, MD, on Mary Ainsworth in his book, Becoming Attached: first relationships and how they shape our capacity to love. (Oxford University Press US, 1998). From the "limited preview" at Google Books.

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The mothers' different responses to their infant's crying was also more obvious in the home environment. Some ignored 96 percent of their baby's cries, while others ignored only 4 percent; some mothers averaged two minutes in responding, while others averaged nine minutes. Some- times Ainsworth sat and counted the minutes, waiting for what seemed an eternity while a baby howled in anguish. Some mothers steeled them- selves to wait it out as long as they could, often because they believed that not responding would train their baby not to cry. Some were at times too engaged in other activities to be able to attend to the baby. Some, incredibly, simply did not register that the baby was crying, per- haps because they were too anxious or depressed themselves. (This proved particularly hard for an observer to sit through.) As Bowlby later remarked, "Had the observers not been present to see and hear what was going on but had relied instead on what the mothers had told them, the pictures they would have got would in many cases have been entirely false."

Ainsworth put together a team of four observers and a total of twenty- six families with babies on the way. The researchers would make eigh- teen home visits of four hours each over the course of the infant's first year. As in Uganda, Ainsworth and her colleagues acted as friends, not furniture—talking, helping, holding the babies, becoming part of the family—in order to encourage the mothers to act more naturally. "To have somebody there for an extended period of time just watching and taking notes could be very tension producing. Besides, I wanted to see whether the baby would smile at us, whether he would cuddle when we picked him up, and how the baby would behave with us in comparison with the mother."

Continued on Page 149 :

Despite the surprising variability, Ainsworth's expectations were strongly validated. Although it was a strange environment, almost all the babies began to explore, usually keeping visual tabs on their mother at the same time. When the stranger arrived, exploration diminished markedly, and most babies spent more time looking at the stranger than the toys. Their wariness was evident mostly in gare aversion but also in some cases in physical avoidance and crying. Still, the pleasant stranger also managed to get at least one smile from over half the babies.

When the mother walked out of the room the first time, half the babies cried at some point. A large minority of the babies were lured back into play by the stranger, but few of those who were truly distressed could be fully comforted by her. When mother returned, the vast major- ity of the babies greeted her by smiling, vocalizing, or crying, or more often with some combination of these reactions. About half of them wanted physical contact, the majority of them achieving it within fifteen seconds.

When the mother slipped out a second time, now leaving the baby alone in the room, the distress was usually very intense, with most of the babies crying, many of them so pitifully the episode had to be curtailed. When the stranger returned, she did not have much success in comfort- ing the babies who are distressed, although many of them did accept her soothing attentions, allowing themselves to be picked up, and, although still upset, seeming to derive some solace from contact with her. The babies' responses to her efforts to get them to play were mixed.

When the mother returned the second time, the great majority of babies greeted her in some way, often with intensified crying. More than twice as many babies achieved contact with mother within fifteen sec- onds of her return this time than in the previous reunion, and almost all of them were picked up at some point, as indeed the instructions to the mother had recommended. Interestingly, almost half the babies also avoided the mother in some way during this episode, most prominently by turning away from her.

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Video Two

Mary Ainsworth: Attachment and the Growth of Love (Davidson Films) (artsgroup01)