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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Mary Ainsworth, Infant Anxiety, and the Case of the “Strange Situation”

We tend to think of babies as, psychologically, relatively uncomplicated creatures. They are happy when clean, warm, and fed, and angry when wet, cold, or hungry, and that’s more or less the extent of it. Concurrent with that sense of the basic simplicity of babies is the conclusion that, as long as someone is attentively seeing to that baby’s drying, warming, and feeding, the child will be fine, and not turn out evil.

By the 1930s, this notion of infant psychological simplicity was being challenged from two sides, by the Freudians on the continent, who theorized the existence of profound and disturbing relationships between the infant child and its parents, and by developmental psychologists in the United States and Canada, who became interested in how different amounts and types of parental (and particularly maternal) attention correlated with different infant behavior patterns. This American school of infant psychological studies, which properly began with the insights of William E. Blatz, culminated in the work of Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) that established Attachment Theory as a major hypothesis in developmental psychology.

Born Mary Salter in Glendale, Ohio on December 1, 1913, Ainsworth was the oldest of three siblings, and the one who displayed the earliest predilection for intellectual pursuits, learning to read at the age of three. When she was five years old, her family moved to Toronto because of her father’s job, and ultimately became Canadian citizens when he was given the presidency of the Canadian branch of the company he had been working for. For the next twenty years, until the outbreak of World War II, then, Toronto would be the center of Ainsworth’s world, a comfortable nest where she would remain even when the common academic wisdom urged her to flee.

Her path through elementary and high school was an easy one, the way paved by the family tradition of going to the library every week and checking out as many books as their five library cards would allow, with just one bump in the road when Ainsworth affected a disinterest in academic pursuits to raise her social standing (something I think many of us nerds have experimented with at least once in our lives - for me that was sixth grade, when I hung out with the skateboard kids and tried to drum up an interest in Alice In Chains to be cool). When she was fifteen, and a senior in high school, a book came her way which determined the course of her life - William McDougall’s Character and the Conduct of Life (1827). To Ainsworth, it was a revelation - through psychology, humanity had the chance to determine how emotions and behaviors originated, allowing humans to understand themselves and why they act as they do, instead of throwing up their hands in resignation as the mere vessels upon which irresistible emotions and outside forces act.

In 1929, she matriculated at the University of Toronto, where she directed herself as soon as university requirements would allow to the honors psychology track, which featured a battery of instructors filled with a quasi-messianic zeal for psychology and its potential to change the world which Ainsworth caught in due course. While an undergraduate, she took courses from William E. Blatz (1895-1964), who was developing the Security Theory which was the predecessor to Ainsworth’s Attachment Theory. Blatz believed that, as an individual grows and develops, their ability to courageously and competently navigate the world around them flows from the possession of a series of secure relationship bases, first provided by the parents, then by a friendship group, and ultimately by a spouse, and that individuals lacking this dependable harbor of emotional safe return have a tendency to develop a less exploratory approach towards their life options and goals.

Ainsworth remained at the University of Toronto for her Master’s and PhD work, rejecting the general advice that graduate school should be about seeking new opportunities and new points of view. She did her dissertation work on Blatz’s Security Theory, developing self-reporting tools that would allow researchers to gather consistent and scorable information about children’s evolving sense of stability at home and with their friends. In 1939, she received her PhD, just as the world was tumbling headlong into the Second World War. With most of her professors involving themselves in war-related work, Ainsworth had the opportunity to remain yet longer at the University of Toronto (along with her colleague Magda Arnold, about whom more later), keeping the department afloat for three years, until the call to action became too insistent and, in 1942, she joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps.

With her training in psychology, and particularly her ability to turn the results of personality tests into measurable information about the behavior and aptitudes of individuals, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the CWAC would steer her towards Personnel Selection as her primary occupation. This was both a rewarding experience, in that it gave her an appreciation for how much could be learned in a clinical, rather than academic, setting, and a frustrating one, as for the most part the army was really only interested in infantry soldiers, and so generally ignored most of her department’s recommendations for where to place people so as to best employ their abilities.

After the war, she continued with Rehabilitation Services for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, but after a year returned to the University of Toronto, where she taught classes on personality assessment while continuing work with Blatz on how best to quantify individuals’ sense of self security. In 1950, she married Leonard Ainsworth, who was still working on his PhD, and whose lesser status meant that decisions about where the new couple would work were largely based around what places would hire him. Together, they moved to London, where Mary was able to work with John Bowlby and James Robertson on separation theory, i.e. on how different young children respond to separation from their parents, and on what evolutionary or ethological explanations might lie at the heart of those responses. She was at the verge of beginning a longitudinal study of how mothers and infants interact with each other when Leonard finished his PhD and decided that he wanted to work in Africa, which meant Mary had to say goodbye to her planned research and find some paying and relevant work to occupy herself with in Uganda where Leonard found a job as a research psychologist.

As it turned out, she not only found financing, but a golden opportunity, to observe mother-infant dyads in Uganda that would provide a crucial baseline for her later work in Attachment Theory, and the results of which she would publish in the mid 1960s. The primary contrast she observed between Ugandan mothers, and the middle class Western mothers she would later study, was in the pure amount of physical time that mothers were in physical contact with their children in Uganda, and the tendency to let children set the cadence for the meeting of their needs, instead of attempting to rewire the children to fit into the cadences of the household.

The Ainsworths remained in Uganda from 1953 to 1955, when, once again, the availability of a job for Leonard dictated the couple’s next move, this time to Baltimore, where Mary found work as a lecturer at Johns Hopkins’s evening classes, and as a psychologist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. The dual responsibilities meant that, during the late 1950s, Mary’s research career was at a virtual standstill, and did not pick back up until after her divorce in 1960 and her decision to stop working at Sheppard and Pratt in 1961, events which cleared the decks for her to begin the work which her name will forever be associated with, the invention of the Strange Situation, and its use in the development of Attachment Theory.

Beginning in 1962, Ainsworth set out on a program of observation to determine how different types of mother-infant interactions lead to different types of behaviors in infants vis a vis their relations to other people and the space around them. To probe this issue, she created the Strange Situation, an experimental setup that featured eight stages, wherein a caretaker and her child were introduced to a new room, filled with toys, and where psychologists observed the interaction between the mother and the infant, the infant and a stranger introduced into the room, the mother, the infant, and the stranger, and the infant left by itself. From her observations, she determined that babies ultimately belonged to one of three categories in terms of how they perceived their mother and the world. The majority of babies, at around 70%, were Type B, whose mothers regularly engaged in physical contact with them and were generally highly responsive to their infant’s needs. These babies, she hypothesized, had developed an inner model of their universe based in security, in the expectation that their needs would be met, and that their caretaker could be generally relied upon. As such, they tend to be more confident in exploring their surroundings, using their mother as a kind of base to return to, but not requiring constant physical contact to reassure them of her presence, are more cooperative, less prone to anger, and are willing to engage with strangers so long as their caretaker is around.

Type A children, then, representing some 15% of the total, possessed caretakers who were actively uninterested or flat out rejective of contact with their infants, being generally unresponsive to their vocalizations, and unwilling to engage with them physically unless absolutely necessary. These “avoidant” children, Ainsworth believed, have in response to habitual rejection built up a defensive indifference that manifests in a lack of interest when their mothers leave the room, an ambivalence when being left alone with strangers, and a greater tendency to angry outbursts. Type C children, meanwhile, make up the remaining 15% of babies observed, and represent the middle of the road, being the children of parents who are responsive to their needs, but inconsistently so. These children have learned neither to completely rely, nor completely give up on, their caregivers, and so have a greater feeling of anxiety that manifests in clinginess and an unwillingness to explore, a finding in agreement with the basic principle in reward theory that, if you want to keep a person pushing a button, you need to give them rewards only intermittently, to keep their expectations from solidifying into sure knowledge about what the result of each push will be.

For the next three decades, Ainsworth fine-tuned her Attachment Theory, often in the face of feminist criticism that her results about children’s apparent need for a single dependable figure whose time was given over to their development ran against the entire spirit of women’s liberation, which held that babysitters were just as effective as parents in giving infants what they fundamentally need. Ainsworth herself always claimed that her findings were not essentially anti-feminist, that more research needed to be done on the possibility that multiple attachments could take the place of a single maternal one, or that fathers could fill that role just as adequately as mothers would. Her point was to highlight the hitherto undocumented complexity of expectations formed by individuals even as infants, and how the fulfillment of those expectations has an early impact on their engagement with the world, while leaving it to the next generation to determine how best to meet those expectations within the confines of each individual family’s economic situation, while for the moment suggesting at the very least the creation of government programs to aid couples in understanding the developmental needs of children, and accessing resources to best serve them in providing those needs.

In 1975, Ainsworth transferred to the University of Virginia, which had a more robust roster of developmental psychologists to collaborate with than Johns Hopkins did, and where she remained until her full retirement in 1992, the same year she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She died of a stroke in 1999,


A wonderful source for Ainsworth’s life and the inspirations behind her research is the autobiographical sketch she wrote in 1983 for Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology, edited by Agnes O’Connell and Nancy Russo, which is just a remarkable resource generally, featuring seventeen autobiographical accounts from prominent women psychologists of the early to mid Twentieth Century. Beyond that, her 1978 book Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation is an exhaustive account of the development and results of Attachment Theory, and if you can’t wait for that to show up, her papers “Infant-Mother Attachment” (1979) and “Attachments Beyond Infancy” (1989) are nice and digestible summaries of her main points, with the latter in particular fulfilling Blatz’s original goal of tracing the impact of different levels of security throughout an individual’s life.


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