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Strange Situation

A research technique developed by American psychologist Mary Ainsworth and used in the assessment of attachment.

The Strange Situation procedure, developed by American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, is widely used in child development research. The goal of the Strange Situation procedure is to provide an environment that would arouse in the infant both the motivation to explore and the urge to seek security. An observer (often a researcher or therapist) takes a mother and her child (usually around the age of 12 months) to an unfamiliar room containing toys. A series of eight separations and reunions are staged involving mild, but cumulative, stress for the infant. Separation in such an unfamiliar setting would also likely activate the child's attachment system and allow for a direct test of its functioning. Although no single behavior can be used to assess the quality of the infant's attachment to the caregiver, the pattern of the infant's responses to the changing situation is of interest to psychologists. The validation of the procedure and its scoring method were grounded in the naturalistic observation of the child's exploration, crying, and proximity-seeking in the home.

Ainsworth's research revealed key individual differences among children, demonstrated by the child's reaction to the mother's return. Ainsworth 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 her return;
  • (B) Securely attached—the child is distressed by the 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. When she returns, the child will simultaneously seek both comfort and distance from the mother. The child's behavior will be characterized by crying and reaching to be held and then attempting to leave once picked up.

Using the Strange Situation procedure, many researchers have studied the development of child attachment to the mother and to other caregivers. However, there continues to be much debate about the origins of the child's reaction in the Strange Situation, and about what factors influence the development of an infant's attachment relationships.

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: Earlbaum, 1978.

Bowlby, J. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Sroufe, L. A., and J. Fleeson. "Attachment and the Construction of Relationships." In Hartup, W. and Z. Rubin, eds. Relationships and Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1986, pp. 51-71.

Ainsworth, M., and S. M. Bell. "Infant Crying and Maternal Responsiveness." In Child Development, 1171-90.

Silver, Nan. "The ABCs of Intimacy." Parents Magazine 71, June 1996, p. 72+.

Spock, Benjamin. "Mommy, Don't Go!" Parenting 10, June-July 1996, pp. 86+.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development