Mary Ainsworth proposed a method to help analysing human infants’ attachment types. The research she had conducted is under being in experimental settings, and has been named as ‘The Strange Situation’. It was carried out in the 1970s.


The Artificial Settings

The study involves with having the infants and their mothers being at a strange room with toys and seats. The study targets in observing the infants’ ‘Safe Base Behaviour’; how often and ways the infants will try to interact with their mothers for comfort and security, but also their reactions at Reunion with mothers after separation. It has an operationalised procedures.

1. The infant and the mother would enter a strange room with toys and seats.

2. A stranger will enter the room, and try to interact with the infant and the mother. The infant’s reaction with the stranger is observed.

3. The mother leaves the room, leaving the infant and the stranger together. The infant’s reaction has been observed, and the stranger try to interact with the infant.

4. The mother returns, and comfort the infant if it is distressed.

5. Both the stranger and the mother leave the infant being in the room.

6. The mother return and reunion with the infant.

The study has been conducted in artificial settings, and it cannot represent what infants experience in real life settings. However, the experimental settings allow procedures be operational, making it easier to be replicated again. This can increase reliability if tests are repeated.

The results in the Strange Situation, of proportion of infants’ attachment type has been shown consistent, and similar pattern has been observed with the settings conducted in different countries. The difference in the proportions of attachment types between different countries can be explained by different rearing techniques which are encouraged by the mother’s own culture.

There is ethnic issue with the settings, as the infants may experience unnecessary distress. They are also not capable to withdraw from the research even if they want to, as they cannot communicate and express their feelings. The Strange Situation has been conducted in Japan, where the culture’s rearing concept is that the mother will very rarely leave the infants alone. Many infants expressed massive amounts of distress, while many of them have never experienced to be left alone and being away from their mothers. For some cases the research had to be terminated because of the excessive amount of distress the infants have shown.

As conclusion, the Ainsworth’s Strange Situation helps to identify the infants’ attachment type. However, the infants may experience unnecessary distress which is unethical.


M., D., S Ainsworth. & S., M., Bell. (1970). Child Devlopment. Vol. 41. pp.46-67.

About eugenekitfung

An undergraduate student in Bangor University who lives in Normal Site. NORMAL SITE, TRA LA LA LA!

6 responses »

  1. ln1992 says:

    The strange situation could be highly unethical for many of the children involved, not only could is cause distress but in the insecure resistant outcome the child may continue to reject the mothers care. Furthermore the study was only carried out using mothers therefore it cannot be generalized to attachments with fathers. Although studies have been carried out using the same method with fathers rather than mothers and similar results were found Grossmann, Grossmann,HUber and Wartner (1981). Finally The study uses a very westernised idea of attachment and although the study has been carried out in different countries the same attachment styles are given. The study should use the most ideal form of attachment for that culture. For instance insecure avoidant sounds less desirable than secure, however for many cultures insecure avoidant works and is the most suitable, therefore it should be renamed so none of the attachment styles sound undermining.Despite all of this the research was groundbreaking in the field and it changed the way we think about attachment.

  2. rebeccag92 says:

    I disagree that the experimental setting meant that results were not representative of the reactions of a child in real life situation; the experiment aims to assess a child’s attachment to their mother by placing them in an unfamiliar situation and seeing how they explore and relate to their mother. Therefore the room that was used is perfectly appropriate for the experiment; it is a stange environment the child has not seen before yet still has recognisable, everyday and therefore familiar features, such as chairs and toys. Therefore it has large levels of mundane reality and subsequently external validity as a child will visit and encounter situations and environments like this regularly.
    In the cases of the children in Japan who are rarely left by their mothers this could confound the results producing invalid findings. The experiment and dimensions set to assess attachment are based upon American families and therefore their rearing practices which vary significantly from other cultures such as Japanese famililes. Kelley and Tseng (1992) found that immigant chinese mothers and middle-class caucasion American mothers scored differently on every dimension of the Parenting Dimensions Inventory, showing a large difference in parenting styles. It can be argued then that this experiment is not appropriate for assessing children from Japan, and that the extreme distress, whilst it would be considered a sign of insecure attachment in an American baby is actually the norm for Japanese children.

    Kelley and Tseng (1992)

  3. ISCraddock says:

    The ethical issues of this study are important, as are studies involving children on a whole. Parents are the only ones that can decide if their child can take part. However in the case of the Strange Situation, it is a very important piece of research that has been replicated a lot, because of how useful it is. Although it can be considered unethical, the study only demonstrates how a child would react to these stimuli in real life. There is going to come a time when a mother will walk out the room to do something, leaving her child. There is most likely to be a time when someone the child does not know comes to visit and the mother may again leave them alone with this trusted stranger. Does this then make the mother a bad person for causing such distress? I do not disagree that it is fair to make a child distressed, but in this case it was on the whole minor and something a child is most likely often subjected to anyway.

    Also, I think it is important to build on the point about the replication in Japan. The reason for the extreme distress is their different rearing practices, as you explained, which shows another issue with the Strange Situation. The practices of individualist cultures focus on the individual’s needs and tend to be more built on independence. Collectivist cultures take a more society’s needs-based-approach. A baby in somewhere like Japan is very dependant in terms of separation anxiety. This suggests that the Strange Situation is perhaps not a very universal method of determining secure or insecure attachments, because a secure attachment in itself is subjective, culturally.

  4. sigmafreud says:

    Undoubtedly, Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” brought new insight into the attachments of infants to their care-giver/mother.
    However, I have to disagree with your comment on the artificial setting damaging the external validity. What was being tested was the attachment, which involved such observations involving the levels of distress at the arrival of the stranger, and the supposed abandonment. All of this would remain constant despite the setting. A naturalistic environment, although lacking in the control, would not produce different results if the situation naturally arose. Indeed, as you state, the controlled setting allowed for a higher degree of replication.
    The “Strange Situation”, despite the initial literature based upon its results, has been found to be culturally biased. Replication in other cultures has found notable differences in the gathered results.
    A meta-analysis conducted by van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenburg (1988) suggested that, culturally, certain disparities occur. Yet, certain agreement between individualistic (or collectivist cultures) were apparent. Intra-cultural variation, interestingly , was nearly “1.5 times” (pp. 147) the cross-cultural variation.
    Additionally, another attachment type has been added since Ainsworth’s initial experimentation; Disorganized. Such an attachment is rare, yet severe- with many suggesting it is indicative of a severe fault by the care-giver. A type defined by the mother being considered “frightening”. Hertsgaard, Gunnar, Farrell-Erickson and Nachmias (1995) conducted a study into adrenocorticol responses of infants characterized as being of a “disorganized” attachment type. It was found that those infants exhibited higher adrenocorticol levels, which are indicative of stress, than infants of other attachment types.

    Hertsgaard, L., Gunnar, M., Farrell-Erickson, M.,& Nachmias, M. (1995). Adrenocorticol responses to the strange situation in infants with disorganized / disorientated attachment relationships. Child Development, 66, 1100-1106. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1995.tb00925.x
    Van Ijzendoorn, M.H., & Kroonenburg, P.M. (1988). Cross-cultural patterns of attachment: A meta-analysis of the strange situation. Child Development, 59, 147-156. Retrieved from:

  5. I kinda agree that the findings of this study dont best show what a childs reaction would be like in real situations. For starters no responsible parent would ever leave their child alone with a complete stranger so the situation in itself is flawed. Watching a child in a room that they aren’t particulary used to isn’t going to show their complete true reaction as they may be affected by the surroundings as well as the absence of their parent. However this doesn’t mean that the findings are useless as a childs behaviour isnt going to be miles different in real life to in the experiment.

  6. devilsadvocate says:

    Why isn’t this an ethical study? Ethics are guidelines used by researchers to identify appropriate research practices. If Ainsworth has gained parental permission and allowed for withdrawal of the child by the parent, then doesn’t that classify as ethical? Yes, there is some psychological distress experienced by the child, but it is in a controlled setting and it wouldn’t be long-lasting or permanent. The parent is nearby to offer comfort at any time. The benefits also have to outweigh the minimal harm done – that this study is worth causing some psychological distress in order to find out important aspects of attachments.

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