Last Updated 20 Jun 2022

Ainsworth Strange Situation Studies

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The Strange Situation procedure, developed by American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, is widely used in child development research. Much research in psychology has focused on how forms of attachment differ between infants. For example, Schaffer and Emerson (1964) discovered what appeared to be innate differences in sociability in babies; some babies preferred cuddling more than others, from very early on, before much interaction had occurred to cause such differences.

It’s easy enough to know when you are attached to someone because you know how you feel when you are apart from that person, and, being an adult, you can put your feelings into words and describe how it feels. However, most attachment research is carried out using infants and young children, so psychologists have to devise subtle ways of researching attachment, involving the observational method. Using the Strange Situation procedure, many researchers have studied the development of child attachment to the mother and other caregivers.

However, there continues to be much debate about the origins of the child's reaction in the Strange Situation, and about what factors influence the development of an infant's attachment relationships. The security of attachment in one- to two-year-olds was investigated by Ainsworth and Bell (1970) in the 'strange situation' study, in order to determine the nature of attachment behaviors and types of attachment. Ainsworth (1970) developed an experimental procedure in order to observe the variety of attachment forms exhibited between caregivers and infants.

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The experiment is set up in a small room with one way glass so the behaviour of the infant can be observed. Infants were aged between 12 and 18 months. The sample comprised about 100 middle-class American families. The procedure, known as the ‘Strange Situation’, was conducted by observing the behaviour of the caregiver and the infant in a series of seven 3-minute episodes, as follows:

  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 left completely alone.
  6. Stranger returns.
  7. Parent returns and stranger leaves.

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth devised an assessment technique called the Strange Situation Classification (SSC) in order to investigate how attachments might vary between children. The goal of the Strange Situation procedure was to provide an environment that would arouse in the infant both the motivation to explore and the urge to seek security. An observer (often a researcher or therapist) takes a mother and her child (usually around the age of 12 months) to an unfamiliar room containing toys.

A series of eight separations and reunions are staged involving mild, but cumulative, stress for the infant. Separation in such an unfamiliar setting would also likely activate the child's attachment system and allow for a direct test of its functioning. Although no single behaviour can be used to assess the quality of the infant's attachment to the caregiver, the pattern of the infant's responses to the changing situation is of interest to psychologists. The validation of the procedure and its scoring method were grounded in the naturalistic observation of the child's exploration, crying, and proximity-seeking in the home.

Ainsworth's research revealed key individual differences among children, demonstrated by the child's reaction to the mother's return. Ainsworth categorised these responses into three major types:

  • Anxious/avoidant—the child may not be distressed at the mother's departure and may avoid or turn away from her on her return;
  • Securely attached—the child is distressed by the mother's departure and easily soothed by her on her return;
  • Anxious/resistant—the child may stay extremely close to the mother during the first few minutes and become highly distressed at her departure.

When she returns, the child will simultaneously seek both comfort and distance from the mother. The child's behaviour will be characterised by crying and reaching to be held and then attempting to leave once picked up. Strengths The strange situation classification has become the accepted methodology worldwide for measuring attachment.


In addition, some research has shown that the same child may show different attachment behaviours on different occasions. Children's attachments may change, perhaps because of changes in the child's circumstances, so a securely attached child may appear insecurely attached if the mother becomes ill or the family circumstances change. The strange situation has also been criticised on ethica grounds.

Because the child is put under stress (separation and stranger anxiety), the study has broken the ethical guideline protection of participants. The sample is biased -100 middle-class American families. Therefore, it is difficult to generalise the findings outside of America and to working class families. Finally, the observational study has been criticised for having low ecological validity. Because the child is place in a strange and artificial environment, due to the the procedure of the mother and stranger following a predetermined script.

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