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Ainsworth: Attachment 1


Mary Ainsworth and her Theories of Attachment

Mac Ramsey

Oklahoma State University



Mary Ainsworth and her Theories of Attachment

Attachment is a psychological phenomenon that is present in many different species, but

is very noticeable in human children. The theories on how attachment works has changed as time

has passed, moving from John Bowlbys all or nothing theory to the more widely accepted

theory presented by Mary Ainsworth. Unlike Bowlbys idea that all people have the same type of

attachment, Ainsworth believed that there are small differences in the behavior of different

babies towards the person they formed an attachment with. Ainsworth not only changed the way

we saw attachment, she also devised a way to observe it.

The experiment Ainsworth is most famous for is her Strange Situation experiment. The

Strange Situation was set up in a small room with a one way mirror, used for observing the

interactions. They then placed an infant, aged 12 to 18 months in the room. The sample size

consisted of about 100 babies, all from middle-class American households. After being placed in

the room, the babies were then presented with different situations. First Mother, baby and

experimenter were left alone for less than a minute. Then the experimenter left, leaving the

mother and baby alone. A short time later, the mother and baby are joined by a stranger, which is

then followed by the mother leaving the stranger and baby alone. After watching this reaction,

the mother returns and the stranger leaves. After about three minutes, the mother leaves the baby

alone in the room. Another three minutes passes and the stranger comes into the room, which is

followed shortly after with the mother returning and the stranger leaving. This experiment gave

psychologists many different scenarios to observe the childs reactions to changing and

unfamiliar situations (McLeod, 2008).



After concluding this experiment, Ainsworth was able to fully develop her theories on

attachment. She concluded that there are at least three types of attachment: Secure Ambivalent,

and Avoidant. The most common of these is the secure attachment, which consisted of normal

behavior when in the company of both mother and stranger, but distressed when left alone with

the stranger. They also showed relief and happiness when the mother returned and used her as a

safe base for their activities (McLeod, 2008). This form of attachment showed up in roughly

70% of infants that were observed. The other forms, Avoidant and Ambivalent, each only

appeared in 15% of the infants.

In Avoidant attachment, the infants show little interest in both the disappearance and

return of their mother, as well as the appearance of a stranger. This form of attachment is seen in

more curious infants, trading an attachment with their mother for more exploration. This is a

stark contrast to the Secure form of attachment. The third major form of attachment is the

Ambivalent type, also known as type C. This kind of attachment is the most solitary and

distressful for the infant, seen by observing the child display intense signs of distress when the

mother leaves, as well as showing fear of the stranger and a rejection of the mother upon her

return. This is form does much less exploring than the other two and typically cries more often

(Wallin, 2007).

The information gathered from her experiment, as well as her outline for the three major

types of attachment, have been reviewed and retested by psychologists around the world. The

findings of this experiment are backed by many other findings, one of which occurred in

Germany that found 78% of children being classified in the same way from ages 1 to 6. While it

did give good insight to the nature of attachment, it has been criticized as breaking the ethical

guidelines for psychological experiments through the stress that is caused towards the children

during it. Regardless of the criticism, Ainsworths experiment gave psychologists an opportunity

to study and observe different attachment styles and to learn more about how humans interact

with others.

Ainsworth may not have discovered human attachment or how we bond with others, but

she did take a theory and elaborate and evolve it. Her discoveries are not concrete, like any other

theory, but offer the best explanation and idea currently. Her theories on attachment will be built

upon by future psychologists and have established a reliable way to study and observe human

behavior. Her theories and the insight they provided open up the doors for further research by

psychologists and give them a good basic understanding of human behavior and attachment.


McLeod, S. (2008). Mary Ainsworth: Attatchment Styles. Retrieved from Simply


Wallin, D. J. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. Guilford Press.