Attachment Types, Mary Ainsworth

Description (AO1) Attachment Types:

Secure and insecure attachments are examples of a particular type of style of attachment bond that may be established between any two individuals (usually the mother and infant).                                                                                                                                     Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth is a Psychologist who was largely responsible for the original work on attachment types; her method of assessing attachment type (the strange situation) and her typology (secure, insecure-resistant and insecure-avoidant attachments) have stood the test of time and are still used today.

Ainsworth provided the idea that an attachment figure acts as a ‘secure base’ from which an infant can explore the world/their environment and pointed out the importance of maternal sensitivity in the development of mother-infant attachment patterns.

Aim: This study aimed to investigate the individual differences in attachment, (secure, insecure attachments). In addition, Ainsworth et al wanted to see how infants would react under conditions of mild stress (created by being separated from primary caregiver and the presence of a stranger in the room).

Research Method: Laboratory using structured observations.

Participants: Infants aged between 12-18 months.

Procedure:

  • Infants were observed through video cameras in a purpose-built laboratory playroom with their mothers.
  • The room contained two comfortable chairs and a play area with a set of toys suitable for young children.
  • Ainsworth’s research consisted of a series of 8 situations;
SeriesPersons PresentBrief Description
1Mother and InfantMother and Infant enter the room, Infant free to play with toys, Mother sits on chair and reads magazine.
2Mother, Infant, Stranger3 minutes later, stranger enters and talks with mother.
3Mother, Infant, StrangerThe stranger attempts to interact with infant.
4Infant and StrangerMother leaves the room, stranger alone with infant. Stranger comforts infant if they are upset and offers to play with them
5Mother and Infant3 minutes later, mother returns, stranger leaves.
6Infant3 minutes later, mother leaves (baby alone in room).
7Infant and StrangerStranger re-enters offers to play/comfort infant.
8Mother and InfantMother returns and stranger leaves.

Key observations in the Strange Situation procedure:

(1) Separation Anxiety: the amount of distress shown when a caregiver briefly leaves the room/environment.

(2) Stranger Anxiety: the amount of distress shown in response to a stranger.

(3)Reunion Behaviour: behaviour on being reunited with their caregiver.

(4) Willingness to Explore: whether the infant feels they have a ‘secure base’ to explore the environment (including whether they orientate towards the caregiver).

Click here to learn more about the naturalistic observation methodology.

Findings: From Ainsworth’s observations, she identified three main different types of attachment:

  • Type B: Securely Attached (60-75% of sample): When the caregiver is present, the infant explores the strange environment, plays happily and uses the caregiver as a secure base. The infant shows moderate distress when separated from the caregiver goes to her for comfort when she returns and easily soothed on her return. The infant is wary of the stranger and clearly prefers the caregiver.
  • Type A: Insecure-Avoidant (20-25% of sample): Anxious avoidant infants do not attempt to interact with the mother when with her, nor do they show anxiety when left with the stranger. When the mother returns, the infant makes no attempt to get close to her. These infants are happy to explore the strange environment but do not orientate towards her whilst exploring.
  • Type C: Insecure-Resistant (3% of sample) : The infant is very distressed when separated from the caregiver and is difficult to console on reunion. The infant rushes to her but may show anger, and struggle to be put down. The caregiver’s behaviour is also inconsistent – sometimes rejecting and angry and sometimes over sensitive and responsive. The infant tends to ignore the stranger and resists the stranger’s attempts to interact and provide comfort. There is limited exploration of the environment.

Evaluation (AO3) of The Strange Situation Research:

Strength:

(1) A strength of Strange Situation is that the attachment types identified through this process are strongly predictive of later development. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Kokkinos at al (2007) found that babies assessed to have a secure attachment type go on to have better outcomes in many areas, ranging from success at school to romantic relationships and friendships in adulthood. Insecure-resistant attachment is associated with the worst outcomes including bullying in later childhood. EVALUATION: This is positive because such research increases the validity of the concept of the different attachment types (as assessed through the Strange Situation) because it can explain subsequent outcomes and behaviours in later life. In addition, it can be seen that the assessment of attachment type in the Strange Situation is accurate through the fact that the individual assessed continues displaying behaviours of this attachment throughout their life.

Weaknesses:

(1) POINT: The study can be criticised for ethical issues. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, in episode 6, 20% of the infants reportedly cried ‘desperately’, clearly showing their distress. EVALUATION: This is problematic because the ethical guidelines state psychologists should avoid causing distress to participants.

However, Ainsworth suggests that the Strange Situation adheres to the ethical guidelines because the situation is no more disturbing than real-life experiences.

(2) POINT: Another criticism is that the classification system doesn’t fit all infants. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: Evidence for this comes from Main and Solomon (1986) who added a fourth type ‘D’ of attachment (Disorganised Attachment) which was used for babies who were inconsistent and did not fit clearly into one of Ainsworth’s three attachment types (e.g. a type ‘D’ infant might cry the first time the mother leaves the room but not the second time). EVALUATION: This is problematic because it suggests that some infants placed in the Strange Situation showed attachment behaviour that was inconsistent with the three main attachment types therefore suggesting the study was unsuccessful at classifying all infants and therefore the classification process in incomplete.

(3) POINT: Another weakness of the ‘Strange Situation’ is that it lacks ecological validity. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, the ‘playroom’ environment in which the infant was interacting in was both strange and unfamiliar to the infant’s everyday environment (the research environment was artificial). EVALUATION: This is a weakness because it is possible that the experiment was not measuring the infant’s natural behaviour and as a result, the findings cannot be generalised past the study.