study of attachment stranger experiment

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In a stranger situation, Ainsworth & Bell's main points were that an infant will adjust to the new environment; monkeys as well as humans will form an attachment to anything or anyone that will care for their basic needs; and that monkey infants and human infants react the same to separation and reuniting. Their study showed that it bothers children more that the mom is gone from the room than the fact they are in a strange environment or with a stranger. I agree that a child will gradually feel enough of a secure attachment to go exploring more if they have a stable home and mother, positive feelings within the family, and social support from friends. Caregivers can hold infants when they are feeding, plus talk and play with them, to help the infant build an attachment to their caregiver.

Attachment is an emotional bond that develops between infant and caregiver that provides the infant with emotional security. By the second half of the first year, infants should have become attached to familiar people who have cared for their need for physical care and stimulus (Berk, 2010). The way to attain this attachment is a topic of great speculation of theoretical debate (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Why is it important for children to form an attachment? If a child that has formed an attachment to someone is placed in a room with a stranger, what would happen?

The theory of attachment was first developed by John Bowlby. Bowlby noticed that infants would go to great lengths (e.g., crying, clinging, or frantically searching) to either avoid getting separated from their parents, or to become near a missing parent again. During his time, psychoanalytic writers believed that these childhood actions were due to immature defense strategies that were being used to prevent emotional pain; but Bowlby saw that those actions are common to several mammals, and wondered if these behaviors could be an evolutionary action (Fraley, 2004).

Using the ethological theory, Bowlby theorized that these attachment behaviors, such as crying and searching for a parent, were responses in various settings due to being separated from a primary attachment model; someone who gave support, protection, and care. Because human infants are like other mammal infants, they are helpless and unable to feed or protect themselves; they need to depend on the more mature adults for their care. Bowlby explained that as history evolved, infants who could remain near an attachment figure (i.e., by looking cute or by showing other attachment behaviors) likely survived to an adult age. He continued by explaining how a system controlled by motivation, the attachment behavioral system, was naturally and gradually created by natural selection, to control how close infants were to an attachment figure (Fraley, 2004).

This project will summarize the experiment by Ainsworth & Bell, 1970, including the findings of the research; and give what I think are the four main points. I will support why I agree and disagree with some of their main points, and suggest different interventions that can be used to help children develop healthy attachments.

  The purpose of the article by Ainsworth & Bell was to explain the unique features of the ethological-evolutionary concept of attachment in regards to strange situations or people (1970). In other words, can the attachment theory be supported by empirical (observation or experiment) evidence? The authors hypothesized that an infant felt more secure when he was in a room with his mother, so that he would be more willing to explore in a strange environment. He wouldn't be afraid of anything strange because the mother (his security) was with him. They wanted to see how the attachment and exploring behaviors of the child changed if: a stranger was nearby, the child was separated from the mother, and when the child was reunited with the mother (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).

The design that was used in the 1970 Ainsworth & Bell article was structured observation. This is where the research was done in a laboratory, so that the infants were in unfamiliar surroundings, and every participant had an equal opportunity to display a response to both the strange area and unfamiliar people. The infants were exposed to these unfamiliar variables with and without the mom nearby, to observe how they would respond. This was also a Naturalistic study, because the interaction of different behaviors was observed over many different situations. It was a short cut method, though, because they exposed the child, with and without the mom, to different stresses in the lab; which produced powerful results (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).

The stranger-situation procedure

Ainsworth & Bell used 56 white middle class infants who were almost 1 year old. The researchers wanted to see how the infants used their mom as a home base of security to explore from, with the fear of a stranger not felt with the mom nearby. They wanted to see how attachment behaviors might increase more than the exploration behaviors if/when they were frightened by the stranger coming, and when they were separated from the mom and then reunited with her again. The exploratory behaviors of the infant were observed, and how they were affected by the presence or not of the mother. Several behaviors associated with the attachment, and how they balance with the exploration, could be created and observed; including new and frightening environments. The results from this are compared to other types of studies. This procedure report is only one example of how the balance changes between the exploring and the attachment behaviors in the ethologocal-evolutional view of the attachments (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970)


1. Exploratory behaviors decreased each time the mom left the room; they also decreased when a stranger was nearby. They increased when the mom came back and wanted to play. These behaviors stayed low when a stranger wanted to play, and was at the lowest without the mom and stranger nearby. 

2. The most crying happened when the mom left. Being alone, or with a stranger in the room was not always a cause of alarm by itself; but crying happened when these were paired with the mom leaving. 

3.  The search behavior during separation was seen most when the infant was alone, and less with strangers. It varied with infants, depending on how close each sat by the door. 

4.  Proximity seeking and contact: the behaviors by the infant to stay near an adult had been weak when the mother was near; but went up after he was separated from his mom. Some infants were allowed to be comforted a little bit by the strangers.

 5. There were some contact resistance and proximity avoidance behaviors after the mom left and then returned the infant wanted to be held by the returned mom, but resisted her comfort, because the infants were mad at the mom for leaving them. Those who resisted the mother didn't resist the strangers, and vice versa (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).

The author's main point was that there are: (A) "a complex interaction between attention behaviors, the response to new objects or situations, and the responses to separation from attachment objects and their reunion" (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970. p.60). In other words, an infant will eventually adjust to new situations, with new people or places, and from being separated from their mom. (B) In this study by Ainsworth & Bell, monkeys will attach to even inanimate or non human forms which will supply their comfort or needs (1970). (C) The response of monkey infants to separation is very similar to the behavior of children 8 months to 3 years; when they are separated from their primary caregiver for days, weeks or months. The authors are suggesting that once the child is reunited with its primary caregiver, they will show over-affection and become very clingy for a longer period than expected; just focusing on the mother, and ignoring other people and things around them in the environment. This will usually throw off the attachment exploration balance (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). (D) The infants were not as stressed from being in a strange environment or with a stranger as they were with the mother leaving (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).

I agree with (A): that a child will gradually feel enough of a secure attachment to go exploring more; if they have a stable home and mother, positive feelings within the family, and social support from friends (Beck, 2010). The children I work with that have an attachment to their primary caregiver are able to leave their mom without throwing a tantrum, because they have built the appropriate bonding attachment when they were younger. I also agree with (D) above: that children who are thrown in a new surrounding with a new unfamiliar person will tend to be more mad at their mom, because the mom left them; more than because of whom they left them with or where; because being in a strange situation or with a stranger is not threatening by themselves. It is when these situations are combined with the mother leaving that they cry (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970. P. 57).

For example, I work in a Methodist Nursery on Sundays, and many parents will come from out of state (new environment) and drop their kids in the nursery with an unfamiliar person; with the child crying, screaming, and throwing a tantrum. After the mom leaves, the child can be settled down. They are playing fine until the mom comes for them. They do not acknowledge their mom, but will ignore her and will continue to play. Ainsworth & Bell term this as contact- resisting and proximity of avoiding behaviors; because the child wants to be held but they are mad at the parent, so they are resisting contact (1970. p. 59).

I disagree with C above: that infant human are like animal infants who will form an attachment to whomever or whatever will provide them with their basic needs. According to Bowlby, animals will attach to cloth covered wire moms holding a bottle to feed it (Ainsworth & Bell, 1979). . The reason I disagree with this is that an infant will not create an attachment to a "person" who only provides for basic survival skills without the emotional affection. According to Behaviorists, an infant bonds with a person that not only attends to their minimum basic needs, but also shows affection with smiles, hugs, physical affection and other emotions (Beck, 2010). According to Maslow's Hierarchy Needs, a person needs to have their psychological and basic needs met before they can build an attachment to anyone (Simons, Drinien, & Drinnien, 1987). If a child is fed by being given a bottle and diaper-changed, then put in a crib without holding, talking to them, playing, and responding to their feelings, it will tend to not build this attachment to their primary caregiver; because they are unsure and insecure about this surrounding.

For an example, I worked with a family that the children were being taken care of by the mom. She did not build a bond with the children because she was on drugs, and did not know how to respond to them. She was finally caught and jailed, due to drugs. Her daughter, Lily, (named changed) does not have a bonding attachment with her mom. When she was put in a foster home with a person that fed her nutritious food, held her, talked to her, gave her back rubs, and responded to her cries, Lily ended up building an attachment to her foster mom. Lily called her "mom," and would scream when her foster mom would leave her home with the other children, or was not by her at all times. The regular mom got out of prison, and at visitations Lily would not respond to her natural mom; she would cry when her foster mom made her go into the room with her mom, and then when it was time to leave, Lily would not give her natural mom a hug. Lily would then go and hug her foster mom and say, "Take me home mom" (personal conversation with Anggie Patrick, used with permission, August 15, 2010).

There are some things one can do to help your infant form an attachment: when you feed them, you should hold them in your arms and talk to them. If you are bottle-feeding them, don't prop the bottle in the crib, but hold the child and the bottle. Talk to the child as you are feeding them, and look in their eyes as you are doing so; this will help the child look back at you and continue to have eye contact throughout their life. When a child is crying, attend to their needs: not only to change or feed them when they cry, but also when they need attention; this will help your child know they are heard, and that their needs will be met. It is okay to allow the child to cry a little, but not all the time and for extensive periods of time; that would cause the child to not trust that they are being heard, and he needs to know that the world is a very trusting place. If it is an older child such as an adoptive child or foster child, then if you tell them you will be back in 15 minutes, you need to be back in 15 minutes. If you tell them you will fix them lunch after you get off the phone, then fix them lunch, or do other things as you say you will. This will help them know they can trust you and that "everyone" is not going to lie to them. One other thing that you can do: when playing with your child, explain everything your child is doing, so they know they are being paid attention to.

In conclusion, the purpose of the article was to see if the attachment theory could be supported with an observation and experiment. The author's hypothesis supported that when a child is attached to their mom and is in a secure relationship plus a caring environment, they are secure enough to feel comfortable in exploring and being around strangers. Even with a strong attachment, they will cry when a parent leaves, but the crying will usually be short term and the child can be comforted by someone else. The author's main points were that an infant will adjust to the new environment; monkeys will form an attachment to anything that will care for their basic needs; monkey infants and human infants react the same to separation from then reuniting with their moms. It bothers children more that the mom is gone than being in a strange environment or with a stranger. It is important for infants to build an attachment with a caregiver (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). There are things we can do to provide our children a reason to form an attachment with us. By doing so, it will give their infant the best chance for acquiring the necessary skills to live a successful and happy life.