4 minute read

Mary Ainsworth

1913-
American psychologist specializing in the study of infant attachment.

Mary D. Satler Ainsworth graduated from the University of Toronto in 1935 and earned her Ph.D. in psychology from that same institution in 1939. She is best known for her landmark work in assessing the security of infant attachment and linking attachment security to aspects of maternal care giving.

Ainsworth began her career teaching at the University of Toronto before joining the Canadian Women's Army Corp in 1942 during World War II. After a brief period of post-war government service as the superintendent of Women's Rehabilitation in the Canadian Department of Veteran's Affairs, Ainsworth returned to Toronto to teach personality psychology and conduct research in the assessment of security. She married Leonard Ainsworth in 1950. Since he was a graduate student in the same department in which she held a faculty appointment, the couple decided to move to London where he could finish his degree at University College.

In England Mary Ainsworth began work at the Tavistock Clinic on a research project investigating the effects of early maternal separation on children's personality development. The project director, John Bowlby, had studied children's reactions to separations during the war years in England, and brought an evolutionary and ethological perspective to understanding the problems of attachment, separation, and loss. Her work with Bowlby brought Ainsworth's earlier interest in security into the developmental realm, and she planned to conduct a longitudinal study of mother-infant interaction in a natural setting at her earliest opportunity.

That opportunity came when Ainsworth's husband accepted a position in the East African Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda. It was in Uganda that Mary Ainsworth studied mothers and infants in their natural environment, observing and recording as much as possible, and analyzing and publishing the data years later after joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Based on her original observations in Uganda and subsequent studies in Baltimore, Ainsworth concluded that there are qualitatively distinct patterns of attachment that evolve between infants and their mothers over the opening years of life. Although a majority of these patterns are marked by comfort and security, some are tense or conflicted, and Ainsworth found evidence suggesting that these relationships were related to the level of responsiveness that mothers showed toward their infants from the earliest months. In one study she found mothers who responded more quickly to their infants' cries at three months were more likely to have developed secure attachments with their babies by one year.

How could the security of a relationship be measured? Ainsworth and her colleagues devised a system for assessing individual differences in infants' reactions to a series of separations and reunions with their mothers. This method, the " Strange Situation," has become one of the most widely used procedures in child development research.

In this scenario, an observer takes a mother and child of about one year to an unfamiliar room containing toys. There are a series of separations and reunions. For example, mother and child are alone in the room for several minutes, the observer re-enters, remains, and after a few minutes, the mother leaves and returns after a few more minutes. Both observer and mother may comfort the distressed child.

Ainsworth found that key individual differences among children are revealed by the child's reaction to the mother's return. She categorized these responses into three major types: (A) Anxious/avoidant—the child may not be distressed at the mother's departure and may avoid or turn away from her on return; (B) Securely attached—the child is distressed by mother's departure and easily soothed by her on her return; (C) Anxious/resistant—the child may stay extremely close to the mother during the first few minutes and become highly distressed at her departure, only to seek simultaneously comfort and distance from the mother on her return by such behaviors as crying and reaching to be held and then attempting to leave once picked up.

The development of this procedure has spawned an enormous body of literature examining the development of mother-child attachment, the role of attachments to other caregivers, and the correlates and consequences of secure and insecure attachments. Ainsworth's work has not been without controversy. Attempts to replicate her link between response to early crying and later attachment have met with mixed success, and there is much debate about the origins of children's reactions in the Strange Situation. Still, Mary Ainsworth has made a lasting contribution to the study of children's affective growth and the role of supportive relationships in many aspects of development.

See also Bowlby, John

Doreen Arcus

Further Reading

Ainsworth, M. Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.

Ainsworth, M., M. C. Blehar, E. Waters, and S. Wall. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1978.

Karen, Robert. "Becoming Attached: What Experiences in Infancy Will Allow Children to Thrive Emotionally and to Come to Feel That the World of People Is a Positive Place?" Atlantic 265 (February 1990): 35+.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists