The Strange Situation and types of attachment

How can we measure attachment? What are the differences between secure attachment and insecure attachment types?

The Strange Situation
Ainsworth & Bell (1970) investigated individual differences in the attachment styles of 100 middle class American infants. They were interested in the frequency of children (how many) that showed each of a range of attachment behaviours. The attachment behaviours studied were comfort seeking, exploration using the mother as a safe base, separation distress, and stranger anxiety. The researchers used a controlled observation technique known as the strange situation.

Procedure for the strange situation:
  1. Mother and child are introduced to the room.
  2. Mother and child are left alone and the child can investigate the room and toys.
  3. A stranger enters the room and talks to the mother before approaching the infant with a toy.
  4. Mother leaves the room, and the infant is left alone with the stranger.
  5. Mother returns to the room.
  6. Mother and stranger both leave the room, and the infant is left alone.
  7. The stranger returns and tries to play with the infant.
  8. The mother returns to the room and the stranger leaves.

The observers recorded the following behaviours:
  • Exploration - how willingly the infant explored the room using the mother as a safe base.
  • Stranger anxiety - how distressed the infant became toward the stranger, both with the mother present and when alone.
  • Separation distress - how distressed the infant became when the mother left the room.
  • Reunion behaviour - how the mother was greeted by the infant on her return to the room.

Types of attachment
The original strange situation study (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970) revealed 3 main attachment types:
  • Securely attached (Type B). 66% of infants were classified as securely attached. They would explore the room freely and with frequent reference to the mother, were mildly distressed when the mother left, and they greeted her warmly when she returned. The mothers reacted sensitively to the infants.
  • Insecure-avoidant (Type A). 22% of infants were classified as insecure-avoidant attachment. These infants explored the room without any reference to the mother, showed no reaction when she left the room, and ignored her when she returned. The mothers often ignored the infants.
  • Insecure-resistant (Type C). 12% of infants were classified as insecure-resistant attachment. These infants showed intense distress when the mother left the room, and reacted to her angrily when she returned. The mothers tended to be ambivalent towards the infants.

Later research by Main & Cassidy (1988) identified a further category of attachment:
  • Disorganised attachment (Type D). These infants tend to show confused, indecisive, disorientated behaviour as well as stereotypical signs of distress such as rocking.


What causes different types of attachment?
Why are two-thirds of infants securely attached to their mothers or primary caregivers, whereas one-third fall into one of the insecure attachment types? Is the type of attachment caused by the behaviour of the caregiver towards the infant, or is it caused by some other factor? Two hypotheses have been suggested to answer this problem: caregiver sensitivity hypothesis and temperament hypothesis.

Caregiver sensitivity hypothesis (Ainsworth et al, 1974) argues that the way the mother or caregiver behaves towards an infant directly causes the infant’s attachment type. Securely attached infants have mothers who are sensitive to their needs, insecure-avoidant infants have mothers who ignore them when they need comfort or are distressed, and insecure-resistant infants have mothers who behave ambivalently or inconsistently towards them and put their own needs first.

Temperament hypothesis (Kagan, 1982) argues that some infants are born with an innate personality that makes them more friendly, and so it is easier for the mother or caregiver to be caring and nurturing, whereas other infants have difficult personalities that make it less likely the mother will want to comfort them. Belsky & Rovine (1987) found that babies who were born with signs of behavioural difficulties were less likely to become securely attached to their mothers than babies who seemed ‘normal’ when born.

Evaluating the Strange Situation
  • The strange situation is a valuable research tool that allows a fairly easy judgement to be made about the attachment type of infants, both in clinical and research settings.
  • The sample used by Ainsworth & Bell (1970) consisted of 100 middle-class American infants. It therefore lacks population validity as it is biased towards middle-class Americans, ignores poorer Americans and non-American cultures, and so the findings cannot be generalised to all human children from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA1 AQA A specification)
How can the strange situation be used to measure attachment type? (4 marks)
4 AO3 marks: This question is asking you to apply your knowledge of the strange situation to a novel situation. A good answer will state that the strange situation is a controlled observation, and will describe the main procedure. There is no need to evaluate the strange situation.

Billy’s mother often ignores him when he is crying, and only plays with him when she wants to, even if it means waking him up. What attachment type is Billy most likely to have? (2 marks)
2 AO3 marks: This question is asking you to apply your knowledge of attachment types to a novel situation. Billy’s mother behaves ambivalently towards him, does not care for his needs, and is only interested in her own needs. Billy is therefore likely to be insecure-resistant or Type C.


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