The Strange Situation

Something related to developmental psychology now – in particular, how do we know if an infant is securely attached to their parent? Attachment means the emotional bond that connects one person to another (Ainsworth). If  attachment is successful, then there is a secure bond between the infant and their parent, which is thought to lead to psychological and social benefits to the child as they grow up, e.g. being better at expressing emotions and better social skills. So let’s start with the basics, what are the types of attachment?

As mentioned above, if attachment is successful, then it is said to be secure. There are two different forms of insecure attachment: insecure/avoidant, and insecure/resistant. These represent the opposite ends of insecure attachment: infants with resistant type are more clingy to their caregivers, whilst avoidant children tend to seek less interaction and avoid new situations.

This leads us nicely into an important question.. how can we measure attachment? Mary Ainsworth (1969) devised an assessment called the Strange Situation: a mother and her baby came to a lab and took part in an observed experiment. There are 8 stages in total, and these are shown in the table below:


As you can see, the infant’s behaviour was monitored throughout this situation, and was then categorised into the 3 attachment types. The table below summarises their results:


As you can see, infants with a secure attachment cope better being left in an unfamiliar environment – they are less anxious as they know their mother will return. As well as these results, Ainsworth & Bell (1970) found that infants with a secure attachment are more likely to have a mother who is sensitive to their needs e.g. comfort them when they cry. This secure attachment provides a basis for the infant’s social relationships as they grow older, so is strongly encouraged.

If you would like to see a video of the strange situation in action then click here!


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