-Written by Katie Little ’18
Attachment theory was originally used to study mother-infant bonding. The term was coined by John Bowlby, but one of its most famous applications was with Mary Ainsworth’s strange situation procedure (To watch a video of Mary Ainsworth’s procedure, please see below.).
In a 1970 article co-authored by Sylvia Bell, Ainsworth described attachment as a tie between a person and another specific person. In order to maintain this attachment, both members of the pair seek contact and proximity to one another. These behaviors are called attachment behaviors. As such, Ainsworth designed a strange situation procedure with 8 episodes.
- In the first episode, the observer led the mother and child into an unfamiliar space.
- The mother put down the baby and watched him/her play. (See the one minute mark in the video.)
- A stranger entered the room (See the 1:30 mark in the video). After 3 minutes, the mother left without saying good-bye. (See the 2 minute mark.)
- The stranger would try to play with or comfort the child if the child either stopped playing or became distressed. The episode was ended if the child could not be distracted or consoled.
- The mother would re-enter, pausing in the doorway so the observer could watch what the baby would do (See the 2:20 mark). The stranger left without saying good-bye. The mother would leave again, this time saying “bye bye” to the child.
- The baby was left alone for 3 minutes, unless the episode had to be shortened due to the child’s distress.
- The stranger re-entered and tried to play with and engage with the child. (See 2:55 mark.)
- The mother re-entered, and the stranger left. Observers watched the mother and child reunite, and the procedure ended. (See 3:20)
Experimenters would monitor different behaviors of the babies to determine if their attachment to their mothers seemed secure or insecure. The baby in first part the YouTube video demonstrated secure attachment, which is shown in about 60% of babies. She played with the toys when her mother watched her, but she became distressed and stopped playing when her mother left unexpectedly. When the stranger tried to engage with her, she was unresponsive. However, when her mother returned, she crawled towards her mother’s feet and was soothed by the reunion.
The second baby in the video did not demonstrate secure attachment and rather showed signs of one type of insecure attachment. She did not become distressed when her mother left, and she rather engaged in distracting herself with the yellow ball. (See 4:50 in the video.) The psychologist in the video suggests that this is a child who has been taught by previous experience that she needs to deal with her negative emotions on her own rather than seeking consolation elsewhere.
However, the strange situation procedure is not always straightforward. The observers in the video remarked that the second baby, Eva, had a different response to the second reunion with her mother than she did in the first.
Why does this type of variation occur?
Ainsworth suggests that attachment is different than attachment behaviors, which are subject to change in response to various circumstances. Attachment behaviors, or rather proximity and contact seeking behaviors, increase when the child is nervous. For example, in the video, the securely attached child played with toys under her mother’s care, but she became nervous when a stranger entered the room or her mother left. When she got nervous, she stopped playing and instead focused on reestablishing contact with her mother.
This brings up an interesting paradox of attachment theory; while attachment related behaviors inhibit exploration and playtime for an infant, the state of being attached actually facilitates a child’s interactions with his or her environment. In these cases, the mother becomes a safe base from which the child can leave to explore and return to when needed.
Ainsworth, M.D.S & Bell, S.M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 1970, 41.1., 49-67.
Souter, M. [Mark Souter]. (2012, December 31). Ainsworth Strange Situation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s608077NtNI
Image Found: https://openclipart.org/detail/28709/baby-silhouette