Analysis of Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation”

Outline the procedure used in Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” and the classifications of attachment that result.

In the original study, 10-to-24 month old infants were subjected to a strange setting – which involved the parent briefly leaving the child alone in a room and then returning, then a unfamiliar female entered the room, and the parent leaves the child for a second time, but this time the child is left in the room with the unfamiliar female. The parent returns after a small time elapses. The behaviour of the child when it is reunited with the parent was observed and lead to the classification of three attachment types. Attachment is measured by the existence of certain behaviours. For example, the extend to which the young child is selective, directing attention towards specific people, if their behaviour involves physical proximity seeking-i.e. being close to the parent, if this behaviour provides comfort and security and whether the departure of the parent produces separation anxiety. Ainsworth et al have classified these behaviour types as follows;

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Insecure-avoidant – the child shows little upset with the stranger, but will avoid contact with the parent on their return

Securely-attached – the child will show moderate levels of proximity seeking towards the parents, is upset by their departure but greats the parents return positively.

Insecure-resistant – child is greatly upset with parent’s departure, on reunion the child seeks both comfort and resists it.

Antecedents of the strange situation were from Kagan (1987) and Belsky and Rovine (1984). Kagan (1987) argued that the strange situation measures individual differences in infant’s temperament rather than the quality of the attachment. Kagan (1987) classifies three behaviour types that correspond with Ainsworth’s attachment types. For example; difficult (avoidant); the child can not respond constructively to change, easy-going (securely attached) and shy (insecure attached) – whereby the child may appear distance. In addition, Belsky and Rovine (1984) combine the two theories and believe that it is both temperament and care giving play that plays a part in the quality of attachment. Therefore, Belsky et al (1984) suggest that it is care-givers behaviour and interaction between the two individuals that is most influential feature of attachment.

These resulting behaviours are a widely westernised view and may not be universally accepted. For example, German parents deliberately encourage their infants to be independent and discourage clingy/close contact. However, in Ainsworth’s et al (1978) attachment categories would classify this behaviour as avoidant. In addition, in consideration of the narrow age range of the sample used this study; this brings about reliability and validity questioning. Furthermore, this type of study is set up in laboratory conditions; therefore, it is not ecologically valid. However, it does act as a predictor of behaviour in the home situation. Also, it is not clear whether the study by Ainsworth is able to represent that attachment types may change – in the events of upheaval or instability. Furthermore, Schaffer (1990) argues that the majority of children have more than one attachment, and it does not have to be the biological parent, it could be a different female, satisfier of needs or a person that gives continual care.

Does the parents behaviour influence the type of attachment relationship that develops?

Belsky and Rovine (1984) provide supporting evidence to suggest that it is the parental influence that plays a high role in the development of the attachment relationship between their child and themselves. Belsky et al (1984), particularly emphasis the importance of the interaction process between the two. The quality of the attachment is dependent on different types of interactions experienced. To explore this matter further, a look at contemporary attachment theory and research is insightful – in particular, the discovery of attachment disorganisation. For example, a study by Solomon and George, (1999) found that approximately 10% of their sample considered being at low risk of insecurity (i.e. middle-class, non-clinical) and 50% of high risk (i.e. especially maltreated) samples displayed marked and pervasive fear in the presence of their parent. This kind of behaviour does not comfortably fit into the three classic patterns of infant-parent attachment described by Ainsworth et al (1978). Ainsworth et al’s (1978) categories have become regarded as organised strategies for maintaining the relationship with a predictable caregiver. However, this type of behaviour was termed ‘disorganised or ‘D’ pattern of attachment style, due to the behaviour of the parent or caregiver being prone to unpredictable and frightened or frightening behaviour (Lyons-Ruth and Jacobvitz, 1999). This erratic behaviour displayed by the parent often has a negative impact on the child’s behaviour – shown by highly controlling behavioural strategies adopted by child. These controlling strategies of the child either come out as punitive and aggressive or act in a compulsively complaint and care giving manner. Either way, it may be fair to conclude that the child is trying to control their environment by adopting a particular style of behaviour that he or she has learnt to use when interacting with others from an early age. Consequently, it is of little surprise that infant disorganisation has been shown to lead to severe problems in social relations during the school age years (Jacobvitz and Hazen, 1999)

There is a great body of evidence to suggest that infant-parent attachment patterns are largely acquired, rather than determined by one’s genetic or biological make up. This nature / nurture debate was explored by O’Connor and Croft (2001), who looked at the child-mother attachment of 120 twin pairs of pre-school age children, with balanced numbers of identical and non-identical twins. These findings confirmed that the influence of genetic make up was not a strong or medium influence upon the observed quality of a child’s attachment to the mother. Therefore, Solomon and George, (1999) the long term consequences of the parental influences on infant experiences may be due to on-going disturbances in the care-givers ability to provide a secure home-base. However, the question arising as to whether it is the parent reacting to a restless (or calm) child, or is it the behaviour of the adult that influences the child to be in this state of mind? Thus, what is necessary for a good mother-child attachment? Crockenberg (1981) showed that mothers with high levels of social support helped their child if of irritable tendencies, to develop secure attachments. Therefore, it may be concluded that the way a mother reacts to their child – is the basis of attachment. Van de Boom (1994) has shown that therapeutic interventions aimed at facilitating and improving mother’s sensitivity and responsiveness can result in dramatic increases in secure attachments among irritable infants. Therefore, it may be fair to say that nurture does infact have a considerable influence over nature.

The vast amount of research on attachment theories involves examining the relationship between mother and child. However, research also considers the role of the father in the role of attachment too. Clarke and Stewart (1978) suggest that the father figure is seen more as a playmate to the child than the primary care giver. . The attachment between the male parent and the child is different to that of the mother and child. Therefore, this would suggest that the male parent behaves in a more fun and relaxed manner, thus does not instil the same dependency that the mother figure does. Therefore, it may be fair to conclude that the infant-parent attachment is predominantly a relationship specific construct, opposed to the characteristics of the child. Steele et al (1996) investigated how the thoughts and feelings of the both the mother and the father had about their own attachment relationships with their own caregivers affected how they behaved with their own child. It was found that the infant develops a relationship towards their father based upon the father’s representation or model of his own family of origin – not on the model of the relationship between the infant and its mother. Thus, it can not be confirmed that the child-mother relationship is a prototype for all other love relationships. However, it would seem that it is the early and on-going mother-child relationship from which the child appears to acquire their understanding of complex feelings, including the ability to acknowledge distress in others and the capability to generate flexible coping strategies (Steel et al, 1999). In contrast, the early father-child relationship appears to uniquely influence the child’s perceived functioning in peer relationships and overall self report of behavioural problems at the onset of adolescence (Steel and Steele, 2001)

In light of the above evidence, it can be suggested that the each parent has a vital and independent, if not overlapping, influence on the child. However, does this imply that the absence of parental influence has a negative effect on the child’s behaviour? To investigate, Page and Brentherton (2001) collected large numbers of emotion and narratives in response of domestic and moral dilemmas. Narratives from children who had experienced divorce or separation in the family inevitably and universally appeared to reflect loss and longing. Therefore, this shows how the direct or indirect behaviour of parents can affect and have a strong influence on the behaviour in the child and also the attachment patterns that they develop.



Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., and Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hilsdale, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jacobvitz, D and Hazen, N (1999). Developmental pathways from infant disorganization to childhood peer relationships. Cited in Solomon, J and George, C (Eds) Attachment disorganisation. Pp 127 – 159. New York. Guildford Press.

Lyons-Ruth, K and Jacobvitz, D (1999). Attachment disorganisation. Unresolved loss, relational violence, and lapses in behavioural and attentional strategies. Cited in Cassidy, J and Shavers, P (Eds). Handbook of attachment. Pp 520-554. London. Guildford Press

Schaffer, R. (1990) Making Decisions about Children. Oxford: Blackwell

Solomon, J and George, C (1999) Attachment disorganisation. New York and London. Guildford Press


Clarke-Stewart, A. (1988). The effects of Infant Day Care Reconsidered’ Reconsidered.”Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 3, 293-318.

Belsky, J., & Rovine, H. (1988). Non-maternal care in the first year of life and the security of infant- parent attachment.Child Development, 59, 157-167.

Crockenberg, S. (1981). Infant irritability, mother responsiveness, and social support influences on the security of infant-mother attachment.Child Development, 52, 857 – 865

Kagan, J. (1989). Temperamental contributions to social behaviour.American Psychologist, 44, 668-674.

Page, T. and Brentherton, I. (2001) Mother- and father- child attachment themes in the story completions of pre-schoolers from post divorce families: Do they predict relationships with peers and teachers?Attachment and Human Development, 3, 1-29

Solomon, J and George, C (1999). The development of attachment in separated and divorced families. Effects of overnight visitation, parent and couple variable.Attachment and Human Development, 1, 2-33

Steele, H and Steele, M (2001). Expectant fathers’ (not mothers’) Adult Attachment Interviews predict their children’s mental health at age 11. Presentation at a conference of the Society for Research in Child Development Minneapolis. Cited in Steele, H (2002). State of the art. Attachment Theory.The Psychologist, Vol 15, No 10.

Steele, H., Steele, M., and Fonagy, P (1996). Associations among attachment classifications of mothers, fathers and their infants.Child Development, 67, 541-555

Van de Boom, D.C., (1994). The influence of temperament and mothering on attachment and exploration: An experimental manipulation of sensitive responsiveness among lower-class mothers of irritable infants.Child Development, 65, 1457 – 1477


Cassidy, J and Shavers, P (Eds). Handbook of attachment. London. Guildford Press

Solomon, J and George, C (Eds) Attachment disorganisation. New York. Guildford Press.

Steele, H (2002). State of the art. Attachment Theory.The Psychologist, Vol 15, No 10.

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