Brief Overview

If John Bowlby was the father of attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth could certainly be considered its mother. Together the two started a rich field of study that has changed the face of developmental psychology and profoundly influenced theories of parenting.

In brief, attachment theory is based on the concept that all infants have a fundamental need to develop a close relationship, or attachment, to their mother (or primary caregiver). They initiate attempts at attachment through attachment behaviors such as smiling at, hugging, and moving toward their care-giver. If the mother or caregiver answers consistently and appropriately with sensitive and responsive behavior such as comforting, holding, hugging, and stroking, the attachment bond is strengthened and secure. When responses are inconsistent, insensitive, or inappropriate, an insecure attachment is formed.

Although it was Ainsworth's London colleague John Bowlby who first theorized that there was something beyond the mother-infant bond than a fulfillment of basic physical needs (i.e., food and shelter), Ainsworth provided attachment theory with both the empirical data and the psychological scales and methods for validating Bowlby's hypotheses. She also further refined attachment theory with concepts such as mother as secure base and organizations of attachment.

Ainsworth pioneered the concept of longitudinal, systematic, yet naturalistic observation in the home.



Mary Salter Ainsworth. (Photo courtesy of Mary Salter Ainsworth.

Reproduced by permission.)

Mary Salter Ainsworth. (Photo courtesy of Mary Salter Ainsworth.

Reproduced by permission.)

Her field studies of mother-infant dyads and narrative data collection, first in Uganda and later in Baltimore, were unprecedented, although they were at first frequently criticized as having too "unscientific" a tone. Ainsworth's "strange situation" laboratory procedure is still used in developmental research today.

The "strange situation" technique involves a series of separations and reunions between an infant and his or her mother, which take place in a laboratory setting. A stranger is also introduced at several points in the protocol. As with all of Ainsworth's clinical studies, observers carefully monitor and transcribe how the procedure unfolds. The infant's reaction to the separation and behavior towards his or her mother upon reunion provides a framework for determining the type of attachment he or she has to the mother. Ainsworth had determined three main categories of infant attachment: secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-resistant.

Finally, throughout Ainsworth's lengthy academic and teaching career, she mentored dozens of students who would go on to make significant contributions to broadening the field of attachment theory in their own right. One of these, student Mary Main, summed up what made Ainsworth such a remarkable mentor:

First, she required rather than simply recommended independence on the part of her students, meaning that rather than utilizing her already-collected data for a thesis, each student had to design and carry out a complete project, bringing in their own research participants and drawing their own new conclusions. Second, she believed that a person's academic life was not the whole of their life, but only a portion. . . . Third, she wrote our better ideas down in an endeavor not to become confused later and think that she herself had come up with them. Fourth, she worked very hard on helping us with our work.

Her love of both teaching and research kept Ainsworth working well past her official retirement at age 80. She was a co-recipient of the APA's first mentoring award in 1998, the same year she was also honored with one of the APA's highest recognitions— the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology.

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