Strange Situation

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Mary Ainsworth played a key role in the development of attachment theory. She joined with John Bowlby in the early 1950’s conducting research in London England,  examining the importance of childhood bonding for emotional development. Their research strongly supported the notion that maternal depravation has a significant impact on developing children. Ainsworth conducted a significant study that is a staple of psychology education. We refer to this study as the “strange situation.”

Ainsworth noted that “the catch-all phrase ‘maternal deprivation’ was actually composed of three different dimensions—the lack of maternal care (insufficiency), distortion of maternal care (neglect or mistreatment), and discontinuity in maternal care (separations, or the child’s being given one mother figure and then another)—and that these three dimensions were frequently confounded, making it difficult to study any one of them alone” (Mooney, 2009, p. 27). 

Ainsworth focused on separations because they were the easiest dimension of maternal deprivation to clinically duplicate. Ainsworth’s strange situation procedure involved observing short separations between mother and child, while compounding the stress by adding the presence of a stranger.

Ainsworth explained her purpose for creating the strange situation procedure. She wrote, “naturalistic studies of the attachment-exploration balance are very time consuming; the interaction between two sets of behaviors must be observed over a wide range of situations.” She continues, “a short-cut alternative is to utilize a controlled strange or unfamiliar situation in which the child, with and without the mother, is exposed to stressful episodes of different kinds.” Ainsworth then predicts “so powerful is this technique in evoking behavioral changes that it is likely to be used with increasing frequency in studies of mother-infant interaction” (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970, p. 52).

Ainsworth’s prediction was correct. Her designed strange situation procedure is a classically designed study, replicated many, many times.

Ainsworth not the First to Examine Child Behavior  when Confronted with a Strange Situation

In no way am I discrediting Mary Ainsworth’s incredible contributions to the study of attachment behaviors. Ainsworth’s structure and theory behind her laboratory experiments pushed child attachment studies from the shadows and into mainstream psychology. Her design is what we see in almost every psychology textbook.

However, Ainsworth’s design was one of many studies of child behavior during the twentieth century. Child reaction to stress was of great interest. A common goal of many of these studies was to design a method to measure security and insecurity in children.

William Blatz and the Security Theory

Ainsworth wrote her graduate dissertation in 1939 under the guidance of William Blatz and fully based on his security theory. During the time of Ainsworth’s studies, child security research was already in motion.

During the early 1930’s an unpublished study by F. Wieche examined the reactions of children to a strange person and in a strange room. 

In the late 1930’s Mary Shirley and Lillian Poyntz examined the impact of the increasing numbers of mothers entering the work force. They collected data on the absence of mother on her child during health and development examinations as part of a longitudinal study on child growth. In 1942, Shirley was the first to use the term “strange situation” as a factor to be measured (Rosmalen, Veer, & Horst, 2015). 

Ainsworth began her observations of children interactions with their mothers in Uganda. She continued this line of observation in Baltimore. She began in home observation of child-mother attachment in 1963. However, in home observations were lengthy. She sought a way to bring her theory into the clinic. She first brought the children already under home observation into the laboratory, and implemented the strange situation procedure.

Ainsworth never intended the strange situation procedure to stand alone to diagnose child security. She believed that researchers should use the strange situation data in conjunction with home observations.

Structure of the Strange Situation Procedure

In the strange situation procedure, Ainsworth and her colleagues observed infant play in an unfamiliar room while both familiar (mother) and unfamiliar (strangers) adults enter and leave the room. Ainsworth identified five common attachment behaviors and recorded when the child performed those specific behaviors in context of the different events (separations, greetings, etc…) during the twenty-minute observation period.

​Ainsworth’s strange situation procedure consists of eight episodes. For the first two, the child and caregiver are exposed to the strange environment (a play room). In the third episode a stranger is added to the situation. In episode 4, the caregiver leaves the child alone in the strange environment with the stranger. The caregiver returns during episode 5 and the stranger leave. The caregiver leaves the child alone in the strange environment. Episode 7 the stranger enters the room. And in episode 8 the caregiver returns.

The strange situation procedure always followed this same sequence of episodes.

The three components of the strange situation procedure (the strange environment, the stranger, and the separation) create stress for the child and prompt attachment behaviors (Rosmalen, Veer, & Horst, 2015).

Three primary aspects given special attention during observations were:

​Secure Base

A secure base describes a child’s exploration activities when attachment system drives were satisfied. Comparatively, securely attached children treated their attachment figure as a secure base where they could repeatedly return when frightened or stressed.

Response to Stranger
Ainsworth wanted to know which attachment behaviors a child activated when confronted by a stranger under a variety of circumstances. 

Response to Departure and Reunion with Caregiver

The strange situation procedure provided several scenarios of departure and return, giving researchers to record and examine a variety of behaviors.

Five Classes of Attachment Behaviors

Observers recorded the child’s attachment behaviors particularly interested in five classes of behaviors. These behaviors were:

Proximity and contact seeking behaviors

These behaviors include active, effective behaviors such as approaching, clambering to be held, active gestures such as reaching towards or leaning on mother, intention movements such as partial approaches decreasing proximity, and vocal signals (crying).

Contact maintaining behaviors

These behaviors refer to actions taken by child after contact with mother. These behaviors include: clinging, embracing, clutching and holding on. They also more intense resisting release by intensified clinging or, if set down, turning back and reaching or clambering back up, and verbally protesting release.

Proximity and interaction-avoiding behaviors

These behaviors pertain to situations that ordinarily elicit approach and greeting reactions. Such behaviors include ignoring the adult, obvious refusal to look at the adult, looking away, turning away, or moving away. 

Contact and interaction-resisting behaviors

These behaviors include angry, ambivalent attempts to push away, hit, or kick the adult who seeks to make contact, squirming to get down after being picked up, or throwing and pushing away toys when the adult tries to engage in play with the child. Other behaviors recorded are angry screaming, throwing self about or down, kicking the floor, pouting, cranky fussing, or petulance.

Search behavior

Researchers noted search behaviors during separation episodes (4, 6, and 7). These behaviors include: following mother to the door, trying to open door, banging on door, remaining in close proximity of the door, going to empty chair where mother was sitting  (Ainsworth & Bell 1970, p. 55).

Types of Attachment Behavior Categorized in The Strange Situation Experiments

Ainsworth suggests their are two dimensions or factors involved in creating the three groupings of child attachment styles. The first is a security-anxiety dimension. Secure children more often displayed behaviors characteristic of the secure pole of this dimension. Both avoidant and anxious-ambivalent children’s behavior were more consistent with the anxious pole of the dimension.

The second dimension was related to close bodily contact. This dimension was important to distinguishing avoidant babies from the other two groups. Securely attached and Anxious-ambivalent babies both sought close bodily contact.

Also considered in determining attachment style was expressions of cooperativeness and anger. Secure children were more cooperative and less angry than either avoidant or anxious babies. Avoidant babies expressed more anger than Anxious ambivalent babies.

After the original structure, Mary Main discovered a small percentage of children that exhibited conflicting behaviors that didn’t fit in any of the three original groupings of attachment behavior. She added a fourth group—disorganized-disorienting (Group D).

​Avoidant Insecure (Group A)

Children in this group typically do not cry on separation, continue to play with toys throughout strange situation procedure. markedly, the child actively avoids or ignores mother at reunion by moving away, turning away, or leaning away when picked up. Emotions of anger are absent (Main, 1996, p. 238).

Ainsworth suggests that avoidant behaviors exhibited in the strange situation “may be detachment in the making and so constitute a primitive kind of defense” (Ainsworth & Bell 1970, p. 63).

Secure (Group B)

Children in the secure group show signs of missing the parent on first separation and cries during the second separation. However, the child greets mother actively upon her return (seeking to be held, moves towards mother). After briefly greeting and remaining in contact, the child returns to play (Main, 1996, p. 238).

Ainsworth writes that “Group B babies use their mothers as a secure base from which to explore in the preseparation episodes; their attachment behavior is greatly intensified by the separation episodes so that exploration diminishes and distress is likely; and in the reunion episodes they seek contact with, proximity to, or at least interaction with their mothers” (1979, p. 932).

Anxious-Ambivalent Insecure (Group C)

These children are preoccupied with parent throughout the procedure, often expressing anger, alternatively seeking proximity or resisting mother. The child fails to return to exploratory behavior after reunion, continues to focus on parent and cry (Main, 1996, p. 238).

Ainsworth described that the Group C babies “tend to show some signs of anxiety even in preseparation episodes; they are intensely distressed at separation; and in reunion episodes they are ambivalent with the mother, seeking contact with her and yet resisting contact or interaction” (1979, p. 932).

Disorganized-Disoriented (Group D)

Later, Mary Main added group D. However, Ainsworth supported this addition. These children display disorganized behaviors in the mother’s presence. The child may freeze with an emotionless stare, collapse onto the floor at the parent’s return, or cling while leaning away. If not for the disorganizing and conflicting behaviors these children would fit well into one of the three other categories (Main, 1996, p. 238).

Ainsworth’s Five Propositions for Comprehensive Attachment

Ainsworth finalizes her findings on attachment and attachment behavior by encouraging continued research employing the basic concepts of attachment and attachment behaviors. Ainsworth suggests that the following five propositions are “essential to a comprehensive concept of attachment” ​(Ainsworth & Bell, 1970, p. 63).

Attachment is not coincident with attachment behavior

Research settings may heighten or diminish attachment behaviors. Despite the environmental and undetected influences, the child is “predisposed to intermittently to seek proximity to the object of attachment” (p.64). Overtime the predisposition to exhibit attachment behaviors towards object of attachment is inevitable, however, immediate circumstances and distractions may mislead.

Attachment behavior heightened in threatening situations

Percieved danger heightened a child’s attachment behaviors. The danger may be an actual external threat (such as a loud noise) or fear of an impending separation from the attachment object.

Highly aroused attachment behavior incompatible with exploratory behavior

When the object of a child’s attachment is nearby, the attachment system is soothed, allowing for expression of exploratory behaviors.

Attachment behavior may diminish over the course of long separations, but the attachment remains intact

Notably, attachment behavior, even after long separations, is likely to reemerge in full or heightened strength at the reunion (with or without delay).

Attachment relations qualitatively different from one attached pair to another; therefore it is difficult to ascertain the strength of the attachment

Because attachment may be exhibited in a variety of ways, one type of attachment is not necessarily a stronger form of attachment than the other types. they are just expressed differently (Ainsworth & Bell 1970, p. 64).

A Few Closing Remarks on the Strange Situation

There is a small handful of studies that leave an undeniable mark on research and society. We see the vernacular popularized by Ainsworth’s strange situation procedures everywhere. We haphazardly assign others with our judgements to one of her attachment categories. Generations of doctorate dissertations utilize some measure of Ainsworth’s attachment styles in association with a specified behavior (i.e. abuse) or illness (i.e. depression) to shed light on new treatments or better adjustments. Searching through the literature for research on this article I uncovered thousands of these studies.

Mary Ainsworth and the strange situation is anything but strange to countless students, psychologists, and millions of others.

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Ainsworth, M., Bell, S.(1970). Attachment, Exploration, and Separation: Illustrated by the Behavior of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation. Child Development.

Ainsworth, M. (1979). Infant–mother attachment. American Psychologist, 34(10), 932-937.

​Main, Mary (1996). Introduction to the Special Section on Attachment and Psychopathology: 2. Overview of the Field of Attachment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(2), 237-243.

Mooney, Carol Garhart (2009). Theories of Attachment: An Introduction to Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton, Kennell, and Klaus. Redleaf Press; Illustrated edition. Theories of Attachment: An Introduction to Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton, Kennell, and Klaus.

Rosmalen, L., Veer, R., & Horst, F. (2015). AINSWORTH’S STRANGE SITUATION PROCEDURE: THE ORIGIN OF AN INSTRUMENT. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 51(3), 261-284.

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