Mary Ainsworth and Child Psychology

Mary Ainsworth working with a child
JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado Archive Photos/Getty Images

Mary Ainsworth (December 1, 1913 – March 21, 1999) was a developmental psychologist perhaps best known for her Strange Situation assessment and contributions to the area of attachment theory. Ainsworth elaborated on Bowlby's research on attachment and developed an approach to observing a child's attachment to a caregiver.

Based on her research, she identified three major styles of attachment that children have to their parents or caregivers. In a 2002 review ranking the most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century, Ainsworth was listed as the 97th most influential psychologist, based on frequency of journal citation, introductory psychology textbook citation, and survey response.

Mary Ainsworth Was Best Known For

The Impact of Her Early Life

Mary Ainsworth was born in Glendale Ohio. When she was 15, she read William McDougall's book Character and the Conduct of Life, which inspired her lifelong interest in psychology.

She went on to attend the University of Toronto in the honors psychology program. After earning her BA in 1935, her MA in 1936 and her Ph.D. in 1939, she spent several years teaching at the University of Toronto before joining the Canadian Women's Army Corp in 1942.

In 1950, she married Leonard Ainsworth and moved to London. After returning to the U.S., Ainsworth took a position at John Hopkins University. She divorced in 1960 and underwent therapy that contributed to her interest in psychoanalytic theory. She began teaching at the University of Virginia and remained at the school for the remainder of her career.

Her Research on Attachment

During her time in England, Ainsworth worked at the Tavistock Clinic with psychologist John Bowlby, where she researched maternal-infant attachments. After leaving this position, she spent time conducting research on mother-child interactions in Uganda.

After returning to the U.S. to teach at John Hopkins, she began working on creating an assessment to measure attachments between mothers and children. It was here that she developed her famous "Strange Situation" assessment, in which a researcher observes a child's reactions when a mother briefly leaves her child alone in an unfamiliar room.

The way the child behaves during the separation and upon the mother's return can reveal important information about attachment.

Based on her observations and research, Ainsworth concluded that there were three main styles of attachment: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-resistant. Since these initial finding, her work has spawned countless studies into the nature of attachment and the different attachment styles that exist between children and caregivers.

Major Contributions to Psychology

Mary Ainsworth's research on attachment has played an important role in our understanding of child development. While her work is not without its own controversies, such as the extent to which early attachment styles contribute to later behavior, her observations have inspired an enormous body of research on early childhood attachment.

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  1. Hong YR, Park JS. Impact of attachment, temperament and parenting on human development. Korean J Pediatr. 2012;55(12):449-54. doi:10.3345/kjp.2012.55.12.449

Additional Reading
  • Main, M. Mary D. Salter Ainsworth: Tribute and portrait. Psychoanalytic Inquiry. 1999;19(5):682-736. doi:10.1080/07351699909534273
  • O'Connell, AN, & Rusoo, NF.  Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology. New York: Columbia University Press; 1983.