Ainsworth, Mary

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ainsworth, Mary 1913-1999


It is difficult to overestimate the influence Mary D. Salter Ainsworth has had on the field of developmental psychology. Her work has been cited by over 7,000 social science sources, with over 2,500 of these citing her seminal work on patterns of infant attachment (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall 1978). Moreover, her professional life, which spanned five decades and three continents, exemplifies the gendered and circuitous career path taken by many women.

Mary Salter was born in 1913 to parents who were both college graduates. Her family moved to Toronto, Canada, when she was five, and it was there that she received her PhD in psychology from the University of Toronto in 1939, did her World War II (1939-1945) service in the Canadian Womens Army Corps, and accepted a postwar teaching appointment at her alma mater in the area of personality psychology. William Blatz, first as dissertation advisor and then as colleague, influenced Mary Salters research interests in the contribution of a secure relationship between parent and child to healthy growth and adjustment.

Marriage to Leonard Ainsworth, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, complicated her staying at the university as a faculty member. The couple relocated to England in 1950 when Leonard was accepted to a doctoral program at University College, London. Mary Ainsworth soon began a research position at the Tavistock Clinic with John Bowlby, who was using evolutionary and ethological theory to explore the development of attachments to caregivers and the consequences of maternal separation and loss for young children.

In 1954 Leonard Ainsworth accepted a job at the East African Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda. Mary Ainsworth moved to Africa with her husband and secured an appointment at the Institute. She then embarked on a longitudinal field-based study of infant-mother interactions in their natural setting using the skills she had developed in analyzing naturalistic observations at Tavistock. The commonalities she observed in the developing relationships of Ugandan infants to their mothers and the attachment development of infants in industrialized nations was striking to Ainsworth and consistent with Bowlbys theoretical explorations. When the Ainsworths returned to the United States at the completion of Leonards two-year appointment, Mary brought back extensive field notes. A decade later these became the basis for her book Infancy in Uganda (1967), which provided some of the first empirical evidence supporting Bowlbys ethological theory of attachment development and in general made a significant contribution to the emerging field of infant social development.

On returning from Africa, Mary Ainsworth obtained a teaching and clinical position at the Johns Hopkins University. She also began to organize an intensive observational study of infant-mother pairs in Baltimore from birth through age one. In a series of papers, Ainsworth examined the sensitivity and responsiveness of mothers across a variety of daily contexts, such as feeding, face-to-face interaction, greetings, explorations, and the exchange of affection. She found connections between individual differences in maternal sensitivity and an infants later responses to a series of separations and reunions from his or her mother. Compared to infants of less responsive mothers, infants of more responsive mothers evidenced more secure maternal attachment in their reaction to separation and reunion.

To quantify the infants attachment security, Ainsworth and her colleagues developed a twenty-minute procedure (known as the Strange Situation) involving a series of separations and reunions between mother and toddler. Three main patterns of attachment were observed: (1) anxious/avoidant, in which the child tended not to be distressed at the mothers departure and to avoid her on return; (2) securely attached, in which the child was distressed by mothers departure and easily soothed by her on return; and (3) anxious/resistant, in which the child tended to become highly distressed at the mothers departure, only to seek comfort and distance simultaneously on her return by engaging in behaviors such as crying and reaching to be held, but then attempting to leave once picked up.

The Strange Situation has become one of the most commonly used procedures in child development research, and it has been extended to studies of attachment behaviors and correlates in rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees, and dogs used as pets and guide animals for the blind (Fallani, Prato-Previde, and Valsecchi 2006; Inoue, Hikami, and Matsuzawa 1992; Prato-Previde, Fallani, and Valsecchi 2006; Stevenson-Hinde, Zunz, and Stillwell-Barnes 1980). Ainsworths original interpretations have also prompted several lines of research to explicate the origins and meanings of behavior in the Strange Situation (e.g., Mangelsdorf, McHale, Diener, et al. 2000; Marshall and Fox 2005).

Mary Ainsworth moved from Johns Hopkins to the University of Virginia in 1975. She died in 1999, leaving behind forty published papers or books and scores of investigators whose work is securely attached to her own.

SEE ALSO Attachment Theory; Bowlby, John; Child Development; Developmental Psychology; Parent-Child Relationships; Personality; Psychology



Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1967. Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1969. Object Relations, Dependency, and Attachment: A Theoretical Review of the Infant-Mother Relationship. Child Development 40 (4): 969-1025.

Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1979. Infant-Mother Attachment. American Psychologist 34 (10): 932-937.

Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1983. A Sketch of a Career. In Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology, eds. Agnes N. OConnell and Nancy Felipe Russo, 200-219. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1989. Attachments beyond Infancy. American Psychologist 44 (4): 709-716.

Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter), Mary C. Blehar, Everett Waters, and Sally Wall. 1978. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bell, Silvia M., and Mary D. (Salter) Ainsworth. 1972. Infant Crying and Maternal Responsiveness. Child Development 43 (4): 1171-1190.

Crittenden, Patricia M., and Mary D. (Salter) Ainsworth. 1989. Child Maltreatment and Attachment Theory. In Child Maltreatment: Theory and Research on the Causes and Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect, eds. Dante Cicchetti and Vicki Carlson, 432-463. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stayton, Donelda J., Robert Hogan, and Mary D. (Salter) Ainsworth. 1971. Infant Obedience and Maternal Behavior: The Origins of Socialization Reconsidered. Child Development 42 (4): 1057-1069.


Bretherton, Inge. 1992. The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28 (5): 759-775.

Fallani, Gaia, Emanuela Prato-Previde, and Paola Valsecchi. 2006. Do Disrupted Early Attachments Affect the Relationship between Guide Dogs and Blind Owners? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 100 (3-4): 241-257.

Inoue, Noriko, Koji Hikami, and Tetsuro Matsuzawa. 1992. Attachment Behavior and Heart-Rate Changes in an Infant Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) in Strange Situations. Japanese Journal of Developmental Psychology 3 (1): 17-24.

Mangelsdorf, Sarah C., Jean L. McHale, Marissa Diener, et al. 2000. Infant Attachment: Contributions of Infant Temperament and Maternal Characteristics. Infant Behavior and Development 23 (2): 175-196.

Marshall, Peter J., and Nathan A. Fox. 2005. Relations between Behavioral Reactivity at 4 Months and Attachment Classification at 14 Months in a Selected Sample. Infant Behavior and Development 28 (4): 492-502.

Prato-Previde, Emanuela, Gaia Fallani, and Paola Valsecchi. 2006. Gender Differences in Owners Interacting with Pet Dogs: An Observational Study. Ethology 112 (1): 64-73.

Stevenson-Hinde, Joan, Marion Zunz, and Robin Stillwell-Barnes. 1980. Behaviour of One-Year-Old Rhesus Monkeys in a Strange Situation. Animal Behaviour 28 (1): 266-277.

Doreen Arcus

Ainsworth, Mary

views updated May 08 2018

Mary Ainsworth

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/avoidantthe child may not be distressed at the mother's departure and may avoid or turn away from her on return; (B) Securely attachedthe child is distressed by mother's departure and easily soothed by her on her return; (C) Anxious/resistantthe 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+.

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