Mary Ainsworth Attachment Theory Explained


Many theories of attachment involved an all-or-nothing process. This means researchers have often focused on why some attachments are able to occur or why they do not. Mary Ainsworth went against this body of research because she believed that attachments were formed through a process that was much more complex than previously discussed.

The Mary Ainsworth attachment theory focuses on providing an explanation as to why there are individual differences in attachment.

Newborns often attach to people and have a primary attachment point, which is usually their mother. Young children also form numerous attachments to certain family members and friends. Unlike adults, however, these infants and youth are unable to verbalize why they make these attachments.

To create her attachment theory, Ainsworth would create an observational technique that she called the Strange Situation Classification. Devised in 1969, it would become the foundation of her ideas about individualized attachment.

Attachment is Complex Enough that It Comes in Multiple Forms

Ainsworth wanted to investigate the security of attachments in young children. This caused her to develop an 8-step procedure to watch how children would display attachment behaviors and what their individualized style happened to be.

Each step in the strange situation scenario would last for about 3 minutes, except for the initial stage that included the experimenter, which would only last for a minute or less. The mother and child would start out alone. Then a stranger would join the mother and the infant. The mother would then leave the child alone with the stranger.

In the next stage, the mother would return to the child and the stranger would leave. Then the mother leaves and the child is left alone. The stranger then returns, which is followed by the mother returning and the stranger leaving.

Ainsworth designed a scoring scale that could then be used during the observations made during this 8-stage process. There were four points of emphasis that were based on the interaction behaviors that the child would direct at the mother when she returned and was reunited with the child.

  • The proximity of the child to the mother and any contact-seeking behaviors that were evident.
  • How long that contact was maintained.
  • If there was any avoidance of proximity or contact with the mother.
  • Resistance to contact from the mother by the child or resistance to comforting efforts.

Each behavioral episode was directly scored for 15 seconds using the attachment theory from Ainsworth. Then each behavior would be rated by the observer on a scale of 1-7 based on the behavior intensity that was displayed.

Ainsworth also noted that there could be exploratory behaviors, searching behaviors, and affect displays offered by the child as part of the behavioral process.

Ainsworth Identified Three Primary Attachment Styles

Through her observational work, Mary Ainsworth discovered three primary attachment styles that may affect children.

  • Type A attachments were those that caused the child to be insecure and avoidant.
  • Type B attachments were those that were secure.
  • Type C attachments were insecure and resistant.

Ainsworth then believed that the attachment types would form based on the early interactions that the child would have with its mother.

Research into the Mary Ainsworth attachment theory in 1990 would produce a fourth attachment style: disorganized.

Each type could be identified based on specific behaviors the child would display. In secure attachments, a child would be distressed when the mother left and be avoidant of the stranger. When the mother returned, the child would become happy again.

For ambivalent attachments, the child would be intensely distressed when the m other leaves. The child would be avoidant of the stranger, then approach the mother upon reunion, but resist contact.

In avoidant attachments, Ainsworth discovered that the child would not be concerned if the mother left. The child would also embrace the stranger and play with them. When the mother returned, the child would show little interest.

Ainsworth discovered that 70% of children tend to have a secure attachment to their mother through her studies. The other 30% of children were equally distributed between Type A and Type C attachments.

What We Have Learned Through Attachment Theory

For children to develop a secure attachment, an initial attachment figure must be present for a child from the very beginning. This attachment figure must be available a majority of the time, be responsive, and also be helpful. It is usually the mother, but could be a father, a sibling, or someone else important in the child’s life.

If one of those attributes is not present, then the attachment of the child changes. This is what we have learned through the attachment theory proposed by Mary Ainsworth.