Sunday, 29 July 2012 23:34

Mary Ainsworth: World Ideas

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Mary Ainsworth was born in Glendale, Ohio, in December of 1913 (Biography, 2002). Ainsworth had two younger sisters and "a close-knit family" (O'Connell, 1983, 201). According to O'Connell, both of her parents graduated from Dickenson College. Her father earned a Master's degree in history. Ainsworth's mother taught for a while then started training to become a nurse, but was soon called home to care for her sick mother. Five years after her mother graduated, she married Ainsworth's father and became a homemaker. When Ainsworth was five, her father was transferred to a job in Canada working at a manufacturing firm, so the entire family moved there (O'Connell, 1983). According to O'Connell, her father soon became President of his branch. Weekly trips to the library were a regular family event for Ainsworth. Ainsworth says that her parents placed "high value on a good liberal arts education" and it was assumed that her and her sisters would go to college (O'Connell, 201, 1983).

At age fifteen, Ainsworth read William McDougall's book entitled Character and the Conduct of Life, which led her to a career as a psychologist (O'Connell, 1983). According to O'Connell, Ainsworth had not previously realized that a person could look within oneself to explain how one behaved and felt rather than focus on how external forces shape behavior.

Ainsworth enrolled at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1929 (O'Connell, 1983). According to O'Connell, Ainsworth entered the honors psychology curriculum where only four other students accompanied her. Ainsworth earned her BA in 1935, her Master's degree in 1936, and her PhD in developmental psychology in 1939, all from the University of Toronto (Biography, 2002).

Ainsworth taught at the University of Toronto for a few years before joining the Canadian Women's Army Corp in 1942 during World War II (Arcus, 1998). Ainsworth even reached the rank of Major in 1945 (Biography, 2002). After the army, Ainsworth returned to Toronto to teach personality psychology and conduct research (Arcus, 1998). According to Arcus, Ainsworth married Leonard Ainsworth in 1950. The couple moved to London so that Leonard could finish his graduate degree at University College. In England, Ainsworth joined the research team at Tavistock Clinic in England where John Bowlby was the project director (Timeline). Here, Ainsworth was involved with a research project investigating the effects of maternal separation on children's personality development (Arcus, 1998). Ainsworth and Bowlby soon realized that before they could access the effects on personality development stemming from the disruption of the mother-child bond, they needed to first understand the development of normal mother-child relationships (McCarty, 1998). Ainsworth and Bowlby found evidence that a child's lack of a mother figure leads to adverse developmental effects (Timeline).

Ainsworth's earlier interest in security was developed further at the Tavistock Clinic and she planned to conduct a longitudinal field study of mother-infant interaction in order to further examine the development of normal mother-child relationships in a natural setting (Arcus, 1998).

Ainsworth got her chance to conduct this study in 1954 when she left the Tavistock Clinic to do research in Africa (Timeline). Ainsworth's husband had accepted a position at the East African Institute of Social Research in Uganda (Arcus, 1998). According to Arcus, this was where Ainsworth studied the interactions of mothers and their infants. This data was published years later after she became a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. Ainsworth found that while the majority of the mother-infant interactions involved comfort and security, some were tense and conflicted. Ainsworth also found evidence that suggested the patterns of interactions between mothers and their infants were related to the level of responsiveness that the mothers showed their infants. Ainsworth developed the "Strange Situation," which was a procedure to assess differences in infants' reactions to a series of separations and reunions with their mothers (Arcus, 1998). According to Arcus, when administering the "Strange Situation," the researcher takes a mother and child of approximately one year old into an unfamiliar room with toys. There is a series of separations and reunions where the mother and child are first alone in the room and then the researcher enters, and after a few minutes, the mother leaves. A few minutes later, the mother returns and the researcher observes the child's reaction to this return.

Three major differences in reactions were recorded when Ainsworth was developing this method: anxious/avoidant (the child may not be distressed when the mother leaves and may avoid her when she returns), securely attached (the child is distressed by the mother's departure and seeks comfort from her when she returns), and anxious/resistant (the child stays close to the mother in the first few minutes alone and becomes highly distressed by her departure, only to seek comfort when she returns, but then reject her closeness) (Arcus, 1998). These three differences form the major types of attachment of Ainsworth's attachment theory: anxious/avoidant, secure, and anxious/resistant.

After two years in Uganda, Ainsworth and her husband moved to Baltimore where Leonard had found a position as a forensic psychologist (O'Connell, 1983). According to O'Connell, Ainsworth became a teacher at Johns Hopkins University and also provided psychological service for two days out of each week to Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. Ainsworth and her husband divorced in 1960, and this was very painful for Mary (O'Connell, 1983). According to O'Connell, she became depressed and sought psychoanalytic therapy. This type of therapy was a great influence on her career. She became very interested in the psychoanalytic literature, especially Freud.

At Johns Hopkins, Ainsworth confronted sex discrimination (O'Connell, 1983). According to O'Connell, her salary did not fit her age, experience, and contributions, and three chairmen had recommended her for annual increases in salary. Her income did not significantly increase until the pressures of affirmative action set in and after Ainsworth had written a letter to the Dean. Until 1968, women were also required to eat in a separate lunch room than the male faculty. The University claimed that this was so the women would not have to see their male counterparts in informal clothing at lunchtime.

After 1968, Ainsworth noted that a sort of reverse discrimination set in where women were high in demand as teachers and every university committee had to include a woman (O'Connell, 1983). In 1962, Ainsworth continued her research on attachment and security at Johns Hopkins (O'Connell, 1983). According to O'Connell, Ainsworth used the "Strange Situation" and observed infants and mothers in their natural setting. Ainsworth visited the homes of the mothers frequently and approximately 72 hours of observation for each infant occurred. As in the Uganda studies, Ainsworth found that infants used their attachment figures as secure bases from which to explore the world.

Ainsworth never had any children, but considered her colleagues and students as her family (O'Connell, 1983). According to O'Connell, John Bowlby and Ainsworth continued to work as partners in attachment research and theory. Ainsworth was included in the Tavistock Mother-Infant Interaction Study Group, which communicated with various developmental scientists of different nationalities and disciplines. In 1975, Ainsworth relocated to the University of Virginia to teach because some of her colleagues from John Hopkins had moved there, and also because there were many developmental psychologists there. Jim Deese, the chair of the department at Johns Hopkins, and a close colleague of Ainsworth's, had also relocated to Virginia. Ainsworth was a fellow of the American Psychological Association from 1972 to 1977 (Curriculum). According to the "Curriculum Vita," she was also a member of the British Psychological Association, the Eastern Psychological Association, the Virginia Psychological Association, and she served as President of the Society for Research in Child Development from 1977 to 1979.

Ainsworth also received many awards, including the G. Stanley Hall Award from the APA for developmental psychology in 1984 (Curriculum). According to the "Curriculum Vita," she also received the Award for Distinguished Professional Contribution to Knowledge from the APA in 1987 and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution award from the APA in 1989.

Ainsworth also published many articles and books, including Child Care and the Growth of Love (1965), Infancy in Uganda (1967), and Patterns of Attachment (1978) (Biography).

In 1998, the American Psychological Foundation awarded Ainsworth the Gold Medal for Scientific Contributions (McCarty, 1998). According to McCarty, Ainsworth was also a co-recipient of the first Mentoring Award in the developmental psychology division of the APA.

Ainsworth continued as Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia from 1984 to 1999 (Curriculum).

Mary Ainsworth died in 1999 at the age of eighty-six (Curriculum).


Arcus, D. (1998). Ainsworth, Mary (1913- ). Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. Retrieved December 1, 2002, from

Biography: Mary D. Salter Ainsworth (2002). The McGraw-Hill Companies. Retrieved December 1, 2002, from

Curriculum Vita: Mary Ainsworth. Curriculum Vitae and Reference Lists. Retrieved December 1, 2002, from

McCarty, R. (1998). Attached to Mary. The Monitor, 29 (8). Retrieved December 1, 2002, from

O'Connell, A.N., & Rusoo, N.F. (1983). Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology. New York: Columbia University Press.

Timeline of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Great Ideas in Personality. Retrieved December 1, 2002, from

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