AS Psychology: Attachment - The Strange Situation

Everything you could ever need to know about Mary Ainsworth and Bell's 1970s study called 'The Strange Situation'.

Well, I say everything, but If I miss anything vital, please let me know!

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APFCC: Aim, Procedure, Findings, Conclusions, Crit

The Strange Situation

The Strange Situation did not have an Independent Variable, so is not an Experiment, but a study!


  • Ainsworth and Bell [1970]


To study the relationship between an infant and it's primary caregiver.


  • Controlled, naturalistic observation. 
  • Used 100 children, aged 12-18 months, all from white, American, middle-classed families.
  • Consisted of 7 steps (Be patient, They're coming up next!) each lasting 3 minutes.
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APFCC: Aim, Procedure, Findings, Conclusions, Crit


  • 1. A mother and child enter a playroom. The child explores the environment. [M&C]
  • 2. A second female adult - the stranger - enters the room, and talks first to the mother, and then to the child. [M,C&S]
  • 3. The mother leaves the room while the stranger is talking to the child. The stranger interacts with the child. [C&S]
  • 4. The mother returns and the stranger leaves. [M&C]
  • 5. The mother leaves, and the child is alone. [C]
  • 6. The stranger returns and comforts the child. [C&S]
  • 7. The mother returns. [C,S&M]
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APFCC: Aim, Procedure, Findings, Conclusions, Crit


  • Each child fit into one of three different types of attachment to the primary caregiver.

A: Insecure Avoidant    B: Secure    C: Insecure Resistant.


Each child reacted differently to both the stranger and their mother in different ways for each part of the study. (Again, Patience is a vertue, I'll go through this in a moment!)

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APFCC: Aim, Procedure, Findings, Conclusions, Crit



  • Helps identify children at risk,
  • Practical applications: eg. shows a mother has to react with her child.
  • The procedure can be easily repeated due to the standardised procedure.


  • Puts child under (unneccesary?) stress.
  • Research may lack internal validity, as it is in a Lab. Experiment format - The child may be acting stressed due to the unusual environment.
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How does each Attachment type respond?

Type A: Avoidant

Explores - Explores, but doesn't interact with caregiver (Mother)

Seperation - Doesn't notice when caregiver leaves

Stranger - Indifferent, Not bothered at all

Reunion - No interest with caregiver, minimal contact.

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How does each Attachment type respond?

Type B: Secure

Explores - Explores happily, using primary caregiver(Mother) as a secure base

Stranger - Easily comforted, and not that anxious. Slightly warey, but friendly while mother is present.

Seperation - Mild/Moderate distress, but fairly easily comforted by stranger.

Reunion - Positive, shows joy at reunion with mother.

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How does each Attachment type respond?

Type C: Resistant

Explores - Doesn't explore, child is anxious, not happy, clinging to primary caregiver (Mother)

Stranger -Emotional. Usually either overly anxious or overly friendly towards stranger, at it has no clear boundaries.

Seperation -Very distressed, over-reaction.

Reunion - Child is angry at caregiver, goes to her but is angry, aggressive and rejecting, and is not easily soothed.

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The mysterious case of the 'Type D' !

Type D

Believe it or not (And I would believe it, because it's true!) but there is also a 'Type D' form of attachment.

It was discovered 20 years after the original Ainsworth and Bell study, and is called 'Disorganised' attachment.

It was discovered by researchers Main and Cassidy.

Type D: Disorganised takes on the qualities of both Type A and C for the respective parts of the study.

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Reliability and Validity

My teacher, bless her, is obssesed with Reliability and Validity. She is convinced that there will be a question about R&V of The S.S ( will come up on the exam, so here are a few brief points about the Reliability and Validity of The Strange Situation.

Reliability - Results are consistent, because..


  • Has a standardised procedure
  • The study has been conducted many times, on lots of children
  • Still used as a main assesment type.
  • Main et al. Tested children at 1 1/2 (One and a Half) years and 6 (Six) years, and most of the results corresponded, and the childs original attachment type remained the same. (Type Bs: 100% consistent Type As: 75% consistent)


  • Cross-Cultural variations suggest that the study is not as reliable as we all thought (Patience, again, I will come to this..)
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Reliability and Validity

Validity - The Strange Situation is accurate or trustworthy because ..


  • Each time the study was conducted, they used the same measure for the responces, and the same standardised procedure.


  • Child may not be acting naturally, due to a lack of internal validity because it is a lab. experiment.
  • Extraneous variables: The researchers already knew what they were looking for during the repeated tests, and so perhaps recognised characteristics and sorted them wrongly ('Oh, She's being friendly, she must be a type C' without any real thought, if you get it?)
  • Main et al. - Raised the question 'Are you assesing the child or the relationship?'
  • Type D discovery: Earlier studies were wrong? There would have been children wrongly categorised, and therefore wrong data.
  • Possible demand characteristics?
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But whose fault is it? The mother's or the childs?

All of this is all very well and good, but it doesn't tell us why the child is like this. Is it all the mothers fault, or the child's natural wiring, their personality?

Maternal Sensitivity

Definition: Attachment type depends mainly on the quality of a mother's behaviour towards - and interaction with - her child.

Explanation: Ainsworth believed high levels of sensitive responsiveness (eye contact, cuddles, talking with the child) are associated with Secure attachment.


Definition: Some infants are inately (from birth, so are born..) more friendly or find it easier to attach. Others are especially difficult to respond to and form a good attachment with.

Explanation: Research suggest inherited traits can make it easier or harder for infants and primary caregivers to attach to eachother.

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Maternal Sensitivity or Temperament - The relevant

Relevant Studies:

Maternal Sensitivity

  • Stayton and Ainsworth 1973 - The maternal variable most associated with attachment is sensitivity (eye contact, cuddles, talking with child..)
  • Cantero and Cerezo 2001 - found supporting evidence, in a cross-cultural study, for the importance of sensitive responsiveness for development of secure attachment. 


  • Kagan 1982 - some infants may form secure attachments due to personality.
  • Belsky and Rovine 1987 - infants showing signs of behavioural instability were less likely to securely attached to mothers.
  • Fuertes et al.- Found both temperament and maternal sensitivity were linked with higher risk of insecure attachment.
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Coming soon...

Coming soon!

  • Van Ijzendoor and Kroonnburg's Meta-Analysis based on The Strange situation.
  • We'll look at some fancy graphs that I'll make and upload, and see how Attachment types differ between countries.

Thank you for flipping through my notes. Good luck for your exam, and I hope everything I've covered here is up to your standards! Comments and suggestions are always welcome, but once again thank you! :)

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This is pretty awesome!  Thank you very much :) 

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