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Types of Attachment and Mary Ainsworth's Strange Situation Studies

Written by Keiron Walsh
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There is a difficulty in making objective measurements of attachment; however, most attachment research uses an assessment of the child's “ secure base behaviour” to judge the quality and strength of attachment. One of the most well known methods is Mary Ainsworth's (1967) “Strange Situation”.

The Strange Situation


Strange Situation experiments typically take place in a laboratory, in a pleasant room with a one-way mirror (so observations can take place). The room is usually pleasant and contains attractive toys.

Because the children need to be mobile they are usually aged between 12 and 18 months.

The procedure of the strange situation is described below:

The Strange Situation Procedure
  1. Observer takes mother and infant into room, then leaves (30 secs).

  2. Mother allows baby to explore – stimulates play if necessary (3 mins)

  3. Stranger enters room

  4. Stranger silent (1 min).

  5. Stranger converses with mother (1min).

  6. Stranger approaches baby (1 min) – then mother leaves.

  7. Stranger’s behaviour geared to baby (3 mins – or less if baby becomes distressed).

  8. Stranger leaves, mother returns and greets and/or comforts baby – settles baby in play – leaves, saying “bye-bye”( 3 mins – more if needs to settle).

  9. Baby is alone (3 mins – less if distressed).

  10. Stranger enters – gears behaviour to that of baby (3 mins – less if distressed).

  11. Mother enters, greets and picks up baby – stranger leaves (3 mins).

(based on Ainsworth & Wittig, 1969)


See a video of the strange situation

One of the first uses of the ‘strange situation’ was in Ainsworth et al.’s (1971) “Baltimore study”.

Twenty-six mother-infant pairs participated in this longitudinal study for the first year of the infant’s life. Their homes were visited every 3-4 weeks for four hours at a time. The ‘strange situation’ was used as a standardised procedure for observations so that the relationships could be compared. One reason for using the strange situation is that the infant’s behaviour can be observed under conditions of high and low stress.

Results of the Baltimore Study


Ainsworth identified three types of attachment in one year olds: anxious-avoidant/detached , anxious-resistant/ambivalent and securely attached. The percentages of infants with each type of attachment is displayed in the table below:

Anxious-Avoidant (Type A) 15% of infants

Baby is indifferent towards the mother / play is not affected by whether she is there or not / distress is caused by being alone rather than the absence of the mother / can be comforted as easily by the stranger.

Securely Attached (Type B) 70% of infants

Plays happily in the presence of the mother / unaffected by the presence of a stranger, as long as the mother is present / Mother is often ignored because she can be trusted to be there if needed / distress is caused by the mother leaving / seeks comfort from mother on return, quickly settles and play resumes / stranger can provide some comfort, however, stranger treated very differently.

Anxious-Resistant (Type C) 15% of infants

Baby is fussy and wary in the mother’s presence / Cries much more than type A or B / difficulty using the mother as a secure base / very distressed by mother leaving / actively avoids stranger / on mother’s return seeks contact, but then resists contact (struggles to get down – this shows ambivalence to mother).




Ainsworth claimed, based on observation and interview data, that a key factor in the type of attachment is maternal sensitivity.

Sensitive mothers are able to take the perspective of the infant, interpret the infant’s signals, respond to its needs, and is accepting, cooperative and accessible, whereas insensitive mothers behave more in accordance with their own wishes, activities and moods (see the Sensitivity v Insensitivity Scale).

Some theorists (e.g., Bowlby) have suggested that attachment security forms part of the child’s ‘working model’ of themselves and their parents.

Avoidant (Type A) infants have a negative self image, feeling unacceptable and unworthy. This is derived from having a rejecting carer (Bretherton & Waters, 1985).

Securely attached infants, (Type B) have positive expectations of how the parent will react in stressful situations and of the consequences of being separated. This comes from their experience of having a sensitive and supportive carer (Bretherton & Waters, 1985).

Ambivalent (Type C) children have a negative self image and exaggerate their emotional responses in order to get attention. This is because their carers are inconsistent (Bretherton & Waters, 1985).

Useful teaching resource: Ainsworth: Attachment and the growth of love DVD - An excellent introduction to attachment theory, including footage from Mary Ainsworth's observations of mothers and infants in 1955.

Last modified on Sunday, 13 February 2011 12:36

1 Comment

  • Comment Link becca Tuesday, 06 November 2012 21:34 posted by becca

    this is fantastic, im an a level student and im revising for a simple test and this is perfect. cheeeers!

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Keiron Walsh

Keiron Walsh

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