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Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

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Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

The Strange Situation study is an experiment conducted in the 1970s to investigate whether or not there were different types of attachment, rather than implying attachment was innate or not innate in a child. An award-winning American-Canadian psychologist specialising in attachment psychology, Mary Ainsworth originally conducted the study.

Family Ainsworths Strange Situation StudySmarterFamily attachment, Flaticon

Method of the Strange Situation study

Ainsworth created the ‘strange situation’ concept to identify how children react when separated from their parents/caregivers and formed a study to investigate it.

Participants

The original Strange Situation study included infants and mothers from 100 middle-class American families. The infants in the study were between 12 and 18 months old.

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

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

Separation anxiety

Display of anxious behaviours such as crying, protest or seeking their caregiver when separated from them.

Reunion response

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

Measures of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study

The children’s behaviour was recorded using a controlled, covert observation to measure their attachment type. This experiment comprised eight consecutive sections, each lasting approximately three minutes.

  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.

Test yourself! Which of the five behaviours do you think each section is measuring?

Conclusion to Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study

Mary Ainsworth concluded that children could have three distinct attachment types with their primary caregiver, challenging the previously accepted idea that attachment was something a child either had or didn’t have, as theorised by Ainsworth’s colleague John Bowlby.

Parents play the most significant role in an infant’s life; they teach them all their basic skills, including forming healthy attachments.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation and types of attachment

Ainsworth classified the children and placed them into one of the three attachment types described below.

Insecure-avoidant attachment (type A)

Children with an insecure-avoidant attachment made up around 15% of Ainsworth’s participants.

These children have a fragile relationship with their caregivers and 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.

Secure attachment (type B)

Children with a secure attachment made up around 70% of Ainsworth’s participants.

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 were quickly soothed by their parents upon reunion. These children also showed prominent safe base behaviour and regular proximity seeking.

Insecure-resistant attachment (type C)

Children with an insecure-resistant attachment made up around 15% of Ainsworth’s participants.

These children have an ambivalent relationship with their caregiver, 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 upon reunion, sometimes even rejecting their caregiver.

Ainsworth's Strange Situation Playing Parent Child StudySmarterParent and child playing with blocks, Flaticon

Evaluation of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study is not without its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study

The strange situation study has the following strengths.

Validity

In the strange situation study, Ainsworth explains 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.

A study by Kokkinos (2007) examined the relationship between bullying and victimisation in children by associating it with their attachment style, analysing 434 Greek schoolchildren in fifth and sixth grade. They found bullying and victimisation was related to attachment style; children who identified themselves as securely attached reported less bullying and victimisation than children who identified themselves as avoidant or ambivalently attached.

This finding shows that the study has strong temporal validity.

Temporal validity refers to how well we can apply conclusions drawn from a study to other periods than where it was conducted.

Reliability

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.

Weaknesses of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study

The strange situation has the following weaknesses.

Cultural differences

A weakness of this study is that its results may be culture-bound, i.e. 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 place more importance on developing independence earlier, so their children may resonate more with the avoidant type attachment style, which may actively be encouraged (Grossman et al., 1985).

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study can be considered ethnocentric as only American children were used as participants.

Disorganised attachment

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 who show a mix of avoidant and resistant behaviours.

Application of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study

The strange situation study is an effective, standardised way to determine a child’s attachment type, which many studies with different aims within the field of developmental psychology used.

We could use this test to help therapists working with very young children determine their attachment type and suggest ways their caregiver could promote a healthier, more secure attachment, which will benefit the child later in life.


Ainsworth’s Strange Situation - Key takeaways

  • The Strange Situation study is an experiment conducted in the 1970s to investigate whether or not there were different types of attachment, rather than implying attachment was innate or not innate in a child.
  • To identify how children react when separated from their parents/caregivers, Ainsworth created the ‘strange situation’ concept and formed a study to investigate it.
  • The original Strange Situation study included infants and mothers from 100 middle-class American families. The infants in the study were aged between 12 and 18 months.
  • Ainsworth identified the following behaviours to be observed to classify the children’s attachment type: proximity seeking, secure base, stranger anxiety, separation anxiety, and reunion response.
  • The children’s behaviour was recorded using a controlled observation to measure their attachment type. This comprised eight consecutive sections, each lasting approximately three minutes. This involved the mother and child entering the playroom, the involvement of a stranger, and the parent leaving and the stranger leaving, to name a few.
  • Mary Ainsworth concluded there are three distinct attachment types children can have with their primary caregiver: 15% were insecure-avoidant, 70% were securely attached, and 15% were insecure-resistant.
  • The study is valid and reliable but has issues with the cross-cultural application, and another study suggested the fourth style of attachment is needed (disorganised attachment).

Frequently Asked Questions about Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

The Strange Situation is a standardised, controlled observation study that measured attachment types and behaviours in infants. It identified three distinct attachment types: insecure-avoidant, securely attached, and insecure-resistant.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study can be considered ethnocentric as only American children were used as participants.

  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.

The experimental design for Ainsworth’s Strange Situation is a controlled, covert observation in a lab setting.

The strange situation study discovered three distinct attachment types that children can 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.

Final Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Quiz

Question

Who conducted the Strange Situation study?

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Answer

Mary Ainsworth.

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Question

When was the Strange Situation study conducted?

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Answer

In 1969.

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Question

What was the aim of the Strange Situation study?

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Answer

The Strange Situation aimed to investigate whether or not there were different types of attachment, rather than simply being something a child had or did not have.

Show question

Question

How many behavioural measures did Ainsworth record?

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Answer

Five.

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Question

What is the definition of separation anxiety?

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Answer

Display of anxious behaviours such as crying, protest or seeking their caregiver when separated from them.

Show question

Question

What is the definition of stranger anxiety?

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Answer

It is a display of anxious behaviours such as crying or avoidance when the stranger approaches.

Show question

Question

What is the definition of proximity seeking?

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Answer

It refers to how close the infant stays to its caregiver.

Show question

Question

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

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Answer

The child feels safe to explore their environment but returns to their caregiver often.

Show question

Question

Who were Ainsworth’s participants?

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Answer

The original Strange Situation study included infants and mothers from 100 middle-class American families. The infants in the study were between 12 and 18 months old.

Show question

Question

How many sections were in the original strange situation study?

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Answer

Seven.

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Question

How long did each section of the strange situation last?

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Answer

Three minutes.

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Question

What were the stages of the strange situation?

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Answer

  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.

Show question

Question

Which is the definition of a secure attachment?

Show answer

Answer

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 were quickly soothed by their parents upon reunion. These children also showed prominent safe base behaviour and regular proximity seeking.

Show question

Question

Which is the definition of an insecure-resistant attachment?

Show answer

Answer

These children have an ambivalent relationship with their caregiver, and there is a lack of trust in their relationship. These children tend to show high proximity seeking and explore their environment less. They also show severe stranger and separation anxiety, and they are very difficult to comfort upon reunion, sometimes even rejecting their caregiver.

Show question

Question

Which is the definition of an insecure-avoidant attachment?

Show answer

Answer

These children have a fragile relationship with their caregivers and 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.

Show question

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