Ainsworth’s ’Strange Situation’ - Attachment

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Ainsworth’s ’Strange Situation’


Following on from her earlier work with mothers and babies in Uganda and Baltimore, Ainsworth created the Strange Situation, a controlled observation of a mother and stranger leaving and returning to a room where an infant is playing. Three types of attachment were observed:

1 Securely attached (Type B), where children are willing to explore, have high stranger anxiety, are easy to soothe and are enthusiastic at their caregiver’s return. Caregivers are sensitive to their infants’ needs.

2 Insecure-avoidant (Type A), where children are willing to explore, have low stranger anxiety, are indifferent to separation and avoid contact at the return of their caregiver. Caregivers ignore their infants.

3 Insecure-resistant (Type C), where children are unwilling to explore, have high stranger anxiety, are distressed at separation and seek and reject contact at the return of caregivers. Caregivers show simultaneous opposite feelings and behaviour towards their infants.

Differences have been found in patterns of attachment types in replications of the Strange Situation in other cultures, such as that by Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenberg (1988), though generally results were similar to what Ainsworth found. Indeed intra-cultural differences (differences between sub-cultural groupings within a culture) were often greater than inter-cultural differences (differences between different cultures).


Fig 3.6 The Strange Situation is a procedure for measuring the strength and type of infants’ attachments to their mothers

Focal study

Ainsworth et al. (1978) tested 106 young infants between 9 and 18 months old under conditions of mild stress and novelty, to assess stranger anxiety, separation anxiety and the secure base concept. The Strange Situation procedure involved an 81 square foot (about 7.5 square metre) novel environment divided into 16 squares, which was used to track movements and consisted of 8 episodes involving mothers and strangers in various scenarios of arrival and departure. Five categories were recorded: proximity and contact-seeking behaviours, contact-maintaining behaviours, proximity and interaction-avoiding behaviours, contact and interaction-resisting behaviours and search behaviours. Every 5 seconds the category of behaviour was recorded and assessed on a scale of 1—7. 15 per cent of infants were insecure-avoidant attachment type, 15 per cent were insecure-resistant and 70 per cent were securely attached. Ainsworth concluded that sensitive responsiveness was the key factor, as sensitive caregivers are accepting, co-operative and accessible, attending appropriately to their infant’s needs. Sensitive mothers tend to have securely attached infants.


• Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenberg (1988) performed a meta-analysis of 32 Strange Situation studies from 8 countries. They found Type A = 21 per cent, Type B = 67 per cent and Type C = 12 per cent, so generally the results were similar to Ainsworth’s. However, there were some differences in attachment types in some cultures, reflecting differences in childrearing practices. Greater intra-cultural differences were found that reflected socio-economic differences within a culture. Overall, Type B was dominant in all cultures, which suggests some degree of biological origin to attachment types.

• Main & Solomon (1986) found a fourth attachment type, insecure-disorganised (Type D), a rare type where children display a confusing mix of approach and avoidance behaviours. Ainsworth agreed with the existence of this type.

• McMahon-True et al. (2001) found no existence of Type A in the Dogon people of Mali, due to their natural childrearing practices. This suggests the Strange Situation is not suitable for all cultures.

Positive evaluation

Image The Strange Situation became a paradigm study, the accepted method of assessing attachment behaviour, and has been used in countless studies.

Image The Strange Situation is accused of being unethical, as it subjects infants to stress. But it is modelled on everyday experiences where mothers do leave children for brief periods in different settings and with strangers, for example babysitters.

Image Van Ijzendoorn & Schuengel (1999) see Ainsworth’s studies as important, as her central finding of parental sensitivity being linked to the quality of attachment has been widely replicated by others using larger samples. This is true also in cross-cultural studies.

Negative evaluation

Image Improper use of the Strange Situation has serious implications. Yeo (2003) reported how judgements are made about whether Aboriginal children should be in care, based on what white Australian culture deems appropriate parenting, leading to 25 per cent of children in care being Aborigines.

Image The Strange Situation is not a valid measure of attachment, as the technique only measures attachment type to one attachment figure. Main & Weston (1981) found that children acted differently in the Strange Situation depending on which parent they were with.

Image As attachment types vary cross-culturally and the Strange Situation is not applicable to all cultures, attachment theory is culture bound and appropriate mainly to Western cultures.

Practical application

The Strange Situation is used to make informed decisions about child placements in such instances as fostering — for example, to assess what children’s attachment needs are when being placed in care and to determine whether or not children should be removed from their home environment.