Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) devised an experiment known as the Strange Situation in order to investigate differences in attachment styles in infants (age 12-18 months). Seven different 3-minute stages were observed:  1) parent and infant alone,  2) stranger joins parent and infant,  3) parent leaves infant and stranger alone,  4) parent returns and stranger leaves,  5) parent leaves infant alone,  6) stranger returns,  7) parent returns and stranger leaves.

Throughout the scenario, the researchers looked for four unique behaviors:
1) separation anxiety of the child when the caregiver leaves,
2) the child’s willingness to explore the environment,
3) the child’s reaction to the stranger’s presence, and
4) the child’s reaction to the caregiver’s return.

From this series of observations, Ainsworth defined 4 types of attachment:

Secure Attachment– (60-70%) explores environment in mother’s presence, upset when she leaves, distressed when mother leaves and not well-comforted by stranger, calms down quickly when mother returns

Avoidant Attachment– (15-20%) not distressed when mother leaves, equally comforted by stranger and mother, shows little interest when mother returns

Resistant Attachment– (10-15%) does not explore environment, intense distress when mother leaves, avoids stranger, resists mother when she returns and is not easily comforted

Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment– (5-10%) child has random outburts and periods of unresponsiveness as well as spurts of sudden emotion; unpredictable behavior


a video of Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation experiment 


How does this apply today?
By defining specific types of attachment styles, Mary Ainsworth was able to determine the best parenting styles as well as possible difficulties a particular child may face later on in life.  Today, the terms secure, avoidant, resistant and disorganized/disoriented attachment are still used to define infant-caregiver relationships as well as adult romantic relationship styles (DeWall, C. N., et. al., 2011) and even the relationship between children and their kindergarten teacher (Zlatka, C., 2011). 


For more information…
Check out this original article by Mary Ainsworth, published in 1985:  Patterns of attachment.  Clinical Psychologist, 38, 27-29. 

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