Mary Ainsworth Research Paper

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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 Women’s 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 Salter’s 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 Bowlby’s theoretical explorations. When the Ainsworths returned to the United States at the completion of Leonard’s 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 Bowlby’s 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-toface interaction, greetings, explorations, and the exchange of affection. She found connections between individual differences in maternal sensitivity and an infant’s 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 infant’s 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 mother’s departure and to avoid her on return; (2) securely attached, in which the child was distressed by mother’s departure and easily soothed by her on return; and (3) anxious/resistant, in which the child tended to become highly distressed at the mother’s 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 StillwellBarnes 1980). Ainsworth’s 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.



  1. Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1967. Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1969. Object Relations, Dependency, and Attachment: A Theoretical Review of the Infant-Mother Relationship. Child Development 40 (4): 969–1025.
  3. Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1979. Infant-Mother Attachment. American Psychologist 34 (10): 932–937.
  4. Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1983. A Sketch of a Career. In Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology, eds. Agnes N. O’Connell and Nancy Felipe Russo, 200–219. New York: Columbia University Press.
  5. Ainsworth, Mary D. (Salter). 1989. Attachments beyond Infancy. American Psychologist 44 (4): 709–716.
  6. 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.
  7. Bell, Silvia M., and Mary D. (Salter) Ainsworth. 1972. Infant Crying and Maternal Responsiveness. Child Development 43 (4): 1171–1190.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.


  1. Bretherton, Inge. 1992. The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28 (5): 759–775.
  2. Fallani, Gaia, Emanuela Prato-Previde, and Paola Valsecchi. Do Disrupted Early Attachments Affect the Relationship between Guide Dogs and Blind Owners? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 100 (3–4): 241–257.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Stevenson-Hinde, Joan, Marion Zunz, and Robin StillwellBarnes. 1980. Behaviour of One-Year-Old Rhesus Monkeys in a Strange Situation. Animal Behaviour 28 (1): 266–277.

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