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Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth

Mary Dinsmore Salter Ainsworth is an American child development psychologist known for her work on emotional attachment of infants to their caregiver using “The Strange Situation” experiment along with her work in development of Attachment Theory.

Born in Glendale, Ohio in 1913, Ainsworth was the eldest of the three daughters of the Salter family. When she was 15, she read William McDougall’s Character and Conduct of Life which stirred her life-long interest in psychology. Ainsworth enrolled in the psychology program at the University of Toronto in 1929 and was one of only five students to be offered admission to the program. She completed her BA in 1935, MA in 1936 and PhD in 1939, all from the same university. Ainsworth started teaching at University of Toronto until 1942 when she decided to join Canadian Women’s Army Corps. After four years in the Army, where she was promoted to the rank of a Major, she returned to University of Toronto as Assistant Professor. There she became emotionally involved with a graduate student, Leonard Ainsworth, whom she later married. Though the marriage lasted only ten years, her subsequent trip to London for Leonard’s doctoral research proved to be monumental in her career.

During her time in England, Mary Ainsworth started study at Tavistock Clinic with psychologist John Bowlby. There she studied the effect of maternal separation on child development. She also went to Africa and conducted a study there to prove that these effects were universal. Bowlby believed that attachment was an all or nothing process. Ainsworth, with her colleagues, was able to prove through “The Strange Situation” experiment that there are individual differences in attachment, offering an explanation for these differences. This experiment was her most significant contribution to the field of child development and paved the way for future research in the field. In this experiment, an infant between one and two years of age is left in a room to explore some toys while their caregiver and a stranger enter and leave the room and tries to communicate with the child. The reaction of the child helped classify him into one of three categories: secure attachment -the child feels safe with the mother and interacts with the stranger only in the presence of the mother, ambivalent attachment – the child cannot decide whether to forgive the mother for leaving him alone with the stranger and avoidant attachment – the child shows no distress when mother leaves or re-enters and does not interact with the stranger. This strength of attachment, according to Ainsworth, correspond to whether the mother is available to meet the child’s needs which gives the child sense of security and confidence about his future needs being met.

Mary Ainsworth taught at the John Hopkins University and later at the University of Virginia. She headed the Society for Research in Child Development from 1977 to 1979 and was a fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the British Psychological Association. She received the Award for Distinguished Professional Contribution to Knowledge and G Stanley Hall Award from APA. She was also awarded the Gold Medal for Scientific Contributions from American Psychological Association in 1998. Mary Ainsworth breathed her last on March 21, 1999 at the ripe age of eighty six years.

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