Major Movements in Psychology

Attachment Theory

How did Mary Ainsworth create a scientific means to measure attachment?

Although John Bowlby was always interested in translating his concepts into empirical research, his colleague Mary Ainsworth (1913–1999) is credited with taking attachment theory into the lab. While Bowlby had initially been interested in the universal effect of mother-child separation, Ainsworth was interested in individual differences in the quality of attachment based on the nature of the mother-child relationship. Her initial research was in Uganda, where she had traveled with her husband in 1954. By observing twenty-eight Ugandan babies, she noted individual differences in the quality of mother-infant attachment.

This research would be further developed in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University, where she and her husband moved after leaving Uganda. Here she studied mother-child interactions both in their homes and in the laboratory during an experimental procedure she termed the strange situation. Based on the child’s responses to separations and reunions with the mother, the child could be classified into secure and insecure attachment categories. Ainsworth also found that attachment status in the lab correlated with the mother’s behavior toward the child in the home. Ainsworth’s publication of this data in her 1978 book Patterns of Attachment was a milestone in attachment research. This fairly simple experimental paradigm would dramatically change psychological research into child development.


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