Ainsworth's Strange Situation

A parent and child relationship is essential, but how important? And how can we establish how important it is? And this is where Ainsworth's Strange Situation comes in. The procedure dates back to the 1970s, yet it is still commonly used to categorise attachment theories. This says a lot about the procedure. 

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Table of contents
    • Let's start by exploring the aim of Ainsworth's strange situation.
    • Then let's review the method and the identified Ainsworth attachment styles.
    • Moving on, let's delve into the Ainsworth strange situation findings.
    • Finally, we will discuss the Ainsworth strange situation evaluation points.

    Ainsworth Theory

    Ainsworth proposed the maternal sensitivity hypothesis, which suggests that the mother-infant attachment style depends on the mothers' emotions, behaviour and responsiveness.

    Ainsworth proposed that 'sensitive mothers are more likely to form secure attachment styles with their child.

    Aim of Ainsworth Strange Situation

    In the late 1950s, Bowlby proposed his work on the attachment theory. He suggested that the infant-caregiver attachment is crucial for development and later relationships and behaviours.

    Mary Ainsworth (1970) created the strange situation procedure to categorise the different types and characteristics of infant-caregiver attachments.

    It's important to note that the research originated long ago; the primary caregiver was automatically assumed to be the mother. So, Ainsworth's Strange situation procedure is based on mother-child interactions.

    Ainsworth created the 'strange situation' concept to identify how children react when separated from their parents/caregivers and when a stranger is present.

    Since then, the strange situation procedure has been applied and used in many research procedures. The strange situation is still used to date and is well-established as a great method to identify and categorise infant-parents to attachment styles.

    Ainsworth's Strange Situation, Mother and child happily hugging on a sofa, StudySmarterFig. 1. Attachment theories suggest infant-caregiver attachments influence the child's later behavioural, social, psychological and developmental abilities.

    Ainsworth's Strange Situation: Method

    The strange situation study observed infants and mothers from 100 middle-class American families. The infants in the study were between 12 and 18 months old.

    The procedure used a standardised, controlled observation in a lab.

    A standardised experiment is when the exact procedure for each participant, the controlled aspect concerns the researcher's ability to control external factors that may influence the study's validity. And observation is when a researcher observes the participant's behaviour.

    The children's behaviour was recorded using a controlled, covert observation (participants were unaware they were being observed) to measure their attachment type. This experiment comprised eight consecutive sections, each lasting approximately three minutes.

    The Ainsworth's strange situation procedure is as follows:

    1. The parent and child enter an unfamiliar playroom with the experimenter.
    2. The child is encouraged to explore and play by their parent; the parent and child are alone.
    3. A stranger enters and attempts to interact with the child.
    4. The parent leaves the room, leaving the stranger and their child.
    5. The parent returns, and the stranger leaves.
    6. The parent leaves the child completely alone in the playroom.
    7. The stranger returns.
    8. The parent returns, and the stranger leaves.

    Although it may not seem like it, the study does have an experimental nature. The independent variable in the research is the caregiver leaving and returning and a stranger entering and leaving. The dependent variable is the infant's behaviour, measured using four attachment behaviours (described next).

    Ainsworth's Strange Situation study: Measures

    Ainsworth defined five behaviours that she measured to determine the children's attachment types.

    Attachment BehavioursDescription
    Proximity seeking

    Proximity seeking is concerned with how close the infant stays to its caregiver.

    Secure base behaviour

    Secure base behaviour involves the child feeling safe enough to explore their environment but returning to their caregiver often, using them as a safe 'base'.

    Stranger anxiety

    Display anxious behaviours such as crying or avoidance when the stranger approaches.

    Separation anxiety

    Display anxious behaviours such as crying, protesting or seeking their caregiver when separated.

    Reunion response

    The child's response to their caregiver when reunited with them.

    Ainsworth Strange Situation Attachment Styles

    The strange situation allowed Ainsworth to identify and categorise children into one of three attachment styles.

    The first Ainsworth strange situation attachment style is Type A insecure-avoidant.

    The Type A attachment style is characterised by fragile infant-caregiver relationships, and the infants are highly independent. They show little to no proximity-seeking or safe base behaviour, and strangers and separation rarely distress them. As a result, they tend to show little or no reaction to their caregiver's leaving or return.

    The second Ainsworth strange situation attachment style is Type B, the secure attachment style.

    These children have healthy bonds with their caregiver, which is close and based on trust. Securely attached children showed moderate stranger and separation anxiety levels but quickly soothed at reunion with the caregiver.

    Type B children also showed prominent safe base behaviour and regular proximity seeking.

    And the final attachment style is Type C, the insecure ambivalent attachment style.

    These children have an ambivalent relationship with their caregivers, and there is a lack of trust in their relationship. These children tend to show high proximity seeking and explore their environment less.

    Insecure-resistant attached children also show severe stranger and separation anxiety, and they are tough to comfort at reunions, sometimes even rejecting their caregiver.

    Ainsworth Strange Situation Findings

    The Ainsworth strange situation findings are as follows:

    Attachment StylePercentage (%)
    Type A (Insecure-Avoidant) 15%
    Type B (Secure)70%
    Type C (Insecure Ambivalent) 15%

    Ainsworth found that attachment styles dictate how the individual interacts with others (i.e. the stranger).

    Conclusion to Ainsworth's Strange Situation

    From the Ainsworth strange situation findings, it can be concluded that type B, the secure attachment style is the most prominent.

    The caregiver sensitivity hypothesis was theorised from the results.

    The caregiver sensitivity hypothesis suggests that the style and quality of attachment styles are based on mothers' (primary caregivers) behaviour.

    Mary Ainsworth concluded that children could have one of three distinct attachment types with their primary caregiver. The strange situation findings challenge the notion that attachment was something a child either had or didn't have, as theorised by Ainsworth's colleague John Bowlby.

    Bowlby argued that attachments are initially monotropic and have evolutionary purposes. He argued that infants attachments to their primary caregiver to ensure survival. E.g. if a child is hungry, the primary caregiver will automatically know how to respond due to their attachment.

    Ainsworth Strange Situation Evaluation

    Let's explore the Ainsworth strange situation evaluation, covering both its strengths and weaknesses.

    Ainsworth's Strange Situation: Strengths

    In the strange situation study, Ainsworth's strange situation later showed children with secure attachments are more likely to have stronger and more trusting relationships in the future, which the love quiz study by Hazan and Shaver (1987) supports.

    Furthermore, multiple relatively recent studies, such as in Kokkinos (2007), supports Ainsworth's conclusion that insecure attachments can cause negative outcomes in a child's life.

    The study found bullying and victimisation were related to attachment style. Securely attached children reported less bullying and victimisation than those reported as avoidant or ambivalently attached.

    The collective research shows Ainsworth's strange situation has high temporal validity.

    Temporal validity refers to how well we can apply conclusions from a study to other periods than when it was conducted, i.e. it remains relevant over time.

    The strange situation study involved multiple observers recording the children's behaviours. The researchers' observations were often very similar, meaning that the results have strong inter-rater reliability.

    Bick et al. (2012) conducted a strange situation experiment and found that researchers agreed on attachment types around 94% of the time. And this is likely due to the standardised nature of the procedure.

    The strange situation is beneficial to society as we can use the test to:

    • Help therapists working with very young children determine their attachment type to understand their current behaviours.
    • Suggest ways caregivers can promote a healthier, more secure attachment, which will benefit the child later in life.

    Ainsworth's Strange Situation: Weaknesses

    A weakness of this study is that its results may be culture-bound. Its findings are only applicable to the culture in which it was conducted, so they are not truly generalisable. Cultural differences in child-rearing practices and common early-childhood experiences mean that children from different cultures can respond to strange situations differently for reasons other than their attachment type.

    For instance, consider a society that focuses on independence compared to a society that focuses on the community and family. Some cultures emphasise developing independence earlier, so their children may resonate more with the avoidant type attachment style, which may be actively encouraged and not necessarily an 'unhealthy' attachment style, as Ainsworth suggests (Grossman et al., 1985).

    Ainsworth's Strange Situation study can be considered ethnocentric as only American children were used as participants. Thus, the findings may not be generalisable to other cultures or countries.

    Main and Solomon (1986) suggested that some children fall outside Ainsworth's attachment categories. They proposed a fourth attachment type, disorganised attachment, assigned to children with a mix of avoidant and resistant behaviours.

    Ainsworth's Strange Situation - Key takeaways

    • The aim of Ainsworth's strange situation study was to identify and categorise infant-attachment styles.
    • Ainsworth identified and observed the following behaviours to classify the infant-caregiver attachment type: proximity seeking, secure base, stranger anxiety, separation anxiety, and reunion response.
    • The Ainsworth strange situation attachment styles consist of Type A (avoidant), Type B (secure) and Type C (ambivalent).
    • The Ainsworth strange situation findings indicated 70% of infants had secure attachment styles, 15% had type A, and 15% had Type C.
    • The Ainsworth strange situation evaluation suggests the research is highly reliable and has high temporal validity. However, there are some issues when making broad inferences, as the study is ethnocentric.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ainsworth's Strange Situation

    What is the strange situation experiment?

    The strange situation, designed by Ainsworth, is a controlled, observational research study that she created to assess, measure and categorise infant-attachment styles. 

    How is Ainsworth’s strange situation ethnocentric?

    The Ainsworth strange situation evaluation often criticises the procedure as ethnocentric as only American children were used as participants.

    What is Ainsworth’s Strange Situation procedure (8 stages)?

    1. The parent and child enter an unfamiliar playroom with the experimenter. 
    2. The child is encouraged to explore and play by their parent; the parent and child are alone.
    3. A stranger enters and attempts to interact with the child. 
    4. The parent leaves the room, leaving the stranger and their child. 
    5. The parent returns, and the stranger leaves. 
    6. The parent leaves the child completely alone in the playroom. 
    7. The stranger returns. 
    8. The parent returns, and the stranger leaves.

    What is the experimental design for Ainsworth’s Strange Situation?

    The experimental design for Ainsworth’s Strange Situation is a controlled observation conducted in a lab setting to measure attachment style quality.

    Why is Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation important?

    The strange situation study discovered three distinct attachment types children could have with their primary caregiver. This finding challenged the previously accepted idea that attachment was something a child either had or didn’t have, as Ainsworth’s colleague, John Bowlby, theorised.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many behavioural measures did Ainsworth record?

    What is the definition of safe base/secure base behaviour?

    Which is the definition of a secure attachment?


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