Mary Ainsworth taught us how to understand our children and ourselves

by Klaus and Karin Grossmann*

21 March 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Mary Ainsworth, born Salter. She was a psychologist from Toronto, born 1 December 1913 in Glendale, Ohio, USA. She would have been 106 years old in 2019. Two coincidences determined her scientific career, which have fundamentally changed the way of our knowledge and our adequate and enlightened way to deal with our children today. First, in 1950 she accompanied her husband Leonard to London, where he took up a PhD position. Mary was a wife with no formal employment. In an ad in The London Times, a certain John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst, advertised a research position for a project on the impact of early mother-child separations on personality development.

John Bowlby

John Bowlby, 6 years older than Mary Ainsworth, was in the final stages of a comprehensive report for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva on the importance of maternal care for the mental development of children who were separated from their parents mostly due to political events. The report was published in 1951; it appeared in German only 22 years later, in 1973. A version of 1965 that was easy for laypersons to read experienced numerous new editions, including the later German translation (see Grossmann, 2018). On Mary Ainsworth this did not seem to have made any particular impression at first. After three years, she left Bowlby’s working group at the end of 1953 and went with her husband to Kampala, Uganda – the second coincidence – again without having a job there herself.
In London she had been a colleague of James Robertson, a former stoker and man for all technical matters at the Anna Freud Institute. Under the aegis of Anna Freud, he had developed into an outstanding observer of small children who, after involuntary separation from their mothers, mourned apathetically and were unable to cope adaptively and healthily with the usual demands of a children’s home. His written reports were of unprecedented quality. A revolutionary film about Laura, a two-year-old girl in hospital, at the time without consolation from her parents due to strict visiting regulations, marked the end of the institutional separation of children and mothers. A movement emerged, “Child in Hospital”, which was actively taken up in numerous countries and regional associations. Other films about the suffering of unintentionally separated small children in a children’s home (“John”) and in the domestic care of Joyce Robertson (“Kate”, “Thomas”, “Jane”) still impress today (Robertson & Robertson, 1975).

Mary Ainsworth (picture American Psychological Association)

Ainsworth’s early findings in Toronto

In Toronto, Mary Ainsworth had worked clinically and on the projective Rorschach test. She was influenced by the “security theory” of her teacher William Blatz. It says: Early in development, family security forms an essential basis. A child needs this in order to develop new skills and interests, otherwise it is all too easily unsettled and thereby impaired. In her later observations and empirical studies, Mary Ainsworth has clarified this and demonstrated that mental security arises essentially from the quality of parental response to children’s signals of needs and interests. These means of expression are part of the disposition of natural history of every healthy human new born to communicate in infancy long before speaking. The more reliable the behaviour of their educators is to their needs, the better small children develop a sense of security. To do this, the educators must perceive the child’s intentions, recognize them, interpret them correctly, and answer them promptly and correctly. In this way, they become persons of attachment. Mary Ainsworth called this “sensitivity to the infants’ signals”. The predominant theoretical environment at that time was the social learning theory, which was based on the affirmation of childlike behaviour through rewards – “social reinforcement”. However, this was not sufficient for the wealth of social interaction that took place in reality.

Connection of different approaches in Uganda

Around 1953 in Uganda, Ainsworth observed on her own initiative 26 families with babies aged 1–24 months, every 2 weeks for 2 hours per visit and up to 9 months. This was the time when the two coincidences mentioned – Bowlby in London and the informal observations in Kampala – fortunately merged into their revolutionary findings.
A lifelong correspondence with John Bowlby began. Mary Ainsworth recognized the value of John Bowlby’s way of thinking, which was shaped by Darwin’s theory of evolution and included the more recent findings of behavioural ethology. She recalled her own evaluations of James Robertson’s precise observation protocols in London. And she saw the advantage of the observation method of psychoanalyst Anna Freud. She was so impressed by all this that even back then in London she planned to use the method of naturalistic observations herself, if she ever had the opportunity. Her greatest scientific achievement was probably the application of Charles Darwin’s basic principle to the interaction of small children: First observations and questions, secondly explanatory models are constructed from them, and thirdly the appropriateness of the model is examined on the basis of new data, ideally with the aid of experimentally obtained data (Bowlby, 1990, p. 336).

Maternal sensitivity

The opportunity came 11 years later in Baltimore, where they had moved in 1955. Her marriage to Leonard Ainsworth was divorced in 1960 and she suffered greatly. In Baltimore, Mary Ainsworth had to familiarise herself with new professional requirements as a clinical psychologist. The sophisticated processing of the very detailed observation data from Uganda could be completed. The result was a convincing and verifiable explanatory model – Maternal sensitivity to the child’s expressing behaviour (Ainsworth, 1967). Step three of Darwin’s insight – to examine the adequacy of the model on the basis of new data – could thus be tackled.
In Baltimore – as before in Uganda – 26 mothers with their babies were observed every 3 weeks, mostly for 3 to 5 hours, with 5 committed employees over a total of 16 times during the first year of life. The course of all observations was then dictated, transcribed, i.e. in narrative language as learned by James Robertson. From these narratives, the quality of maternal sensitivity in responding to changes in the infant’s expression was calculated with the aid of various measuring scales.

The “strange situation”

The adequacy of the model sensitivity proved Ainsworth with a test situation. It records differences in the behavioural strategies of the then one-year-old infants to deal with short-term separations from their mothers during reunification. When, after short separations, they immediately approached their mothers, made close, loving contact, quickly calmed down, and soon explored again unimpaired, they appeared confident in the loving care of their mother. They moved quickly and smoothly, as Mary Ainsworth writes, between the mother as the comforting and reassuring “haven of safety” and as the supervising and supporting “secure base”, Blatz’s concept. Children of less sensitive mothers would have less successful strategies; they did not succeed or only late in establishing the reassuring closeness, especially in their distress due to separation. Ainsworth called this test “strange situation”.
It has been used by many researchers as a test of secure or insecure attachment. However, this is often too early, because a child‘s attachment development continues after the first year of life. Other figures of attachment can be added, especially fathers, but also older siblings or familiar figures, if they regularly and reliably devote themselves to the well-being of the child and deal with it sensitively.

New publications in developmental psychology

The investigations in Baltimore had a great echo in developmental psychology. The original report was recently republished – enriched by the scales of sensitivity (Ainsworth et al., 2015). Developmental psychology studies based on Mary Ainsworth’s findings and research and John Bowlby’s shared insights are numerous. In our longitudinal studies from birth until the age of 22, we also oriented ourselves on her research (Grossmann & Grossmann, 72017). The third edition of the Handbook of Attachment (Cassidy & Shaver, 2016) is dedicated to Bowlby and Ainsworth: “With respect and gratitude for the pioneering work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth”. It comprises 43 contributions by 79 authors on 1011 pages, an author index of 27 and a subject index of 28 pages. The refinement of the attachment theory ranges from a 1958 reference to Bowlby’s Nature of the Child’s Ties to his Mother to current neuropsychological imaging techniques. Further sections, each with several contributions, are from the field of biological aspects: Modern evolutionary theory, psychoneuroimmunology and neuroscience of attachment. Attachment development in infancy, childhood and adolescence up to old age is researched. Psychopathology and clinical applications, psychopathology in children, disorganisation in longitudinal section, the development of foster and adoptive children, mental differences, prevention and intervention on the communal level are also current research areas, inspired by Mary Ainsworth.
Clinical research deals, for example, with attachment in adult therapy and family therapy.

Mary Ainsworth – a life for the attachment research

Mary Ainsworth has laid new and convincing foundations for the understanding of the emotional development from thr cradle to the grave, as Bowlby put it. She was skilled by her London experience in John Bowlby’s research laboratory in the early 1950s. Her lifelong collaboration with John Bowlby as a profound authority of childhood suffering and his insistence on evolutionary-biologically oriented empirical testing have laid a firm foundation for her work. We miss her researching spirit in order to understand attachment development beyond the first year of life as well as she taught it for the first year. But one thing is certain: Mary Ainsworth has given us a coherent understanding of the nature of newborn human beings who depend on their parents to develop a basic sense of mental security and self-confidence. This enables them to participate in culture, its linguistic representation and creative communication as a matter of course. In addition, she has laid the foundations for the linguistic recording of the attachment representations of adults, essentially as consequence of lifelong attachment experiences. Above all, however, she is the reliable godmother of a generally new estimation in living together with our children, who, as often was the case, are no longer “disciplined”, “conditioned”, “chastised”, but protected, supported, not threatened, understood in loving togetherness. They are able to grow up competent, self-determined and open to the world.
Many thanks, Mary Ainsworth!     •

*Klaus E. Grossmann, Prof Dr phil. Dipl. Psych., Emeritus of the University of Regensburg since 2003. Full Professor for Psychology in Bielefeld (since 1970) and in Regensburg (since 1977).

Karin Grossmann, Dr phil, Dipl. Psych., Senior Scientist, associate of the University of Regensburg. Research stays among others in the USA, Japan, Israel, Egypt, Papua New Guinea.

Numerous publications in German and English, for example: Karin Grossmann, Klaus E. Grossmann. “Bindungen – das Gefüge psychischer Sicherheit” (Attachments – the structure of mental security). Stuttgart 2012.
Together they received the Bowlby/Ainsworth Award of the New York Attachment Consortiums in 2006 and the Arnold-Lucius-Gesell-Prize of the “Theodor-Hellbrügge-Gesellschaft” in 2007.
The married couple Grossmann is one of the most renowned researchers in the field of attachment and human development. Since 1973, they have jointly devoted themselves to longitudinal and intercultural research on attachment and the synthesis of attachment theory and the development of culture and language in the child.

    Ainsworth, M.D.S. Infancy in Uganda. Infant care and the growth of love. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967
    Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E. & Wall, S. Patterns of attachment. A psychological study of the strange situation. Classic Edition, New York 2015
    Bowlby, J. Charles Darwin. A New Biography. London: Hutchinson, 1990
    Bowlby, J. Maternal Care and Mental Health. Bulletin of the World Health Organisation. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 3, Orig. 1951/1973, p. 355–534
    Bowlby, J. The Nature of the Child’s Ties to his Mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39, 1958, p. 350–373
    Bretherton, I. “Die Geschichte der Bindungstheorie.” (The History of the Attachment Theory): In: Spangler, G. & Zimmermann, P. (Edit.). Die Bindungstheorie. Grundlagen, Forschung und Anwendung. (Attachment Theory – Foundations, Research and Application). Stuttgart 1995, p. 27–49
    Cassidy, J. & Shaver, P.R. (Edit.). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. New York 2016
    Grossmann, Klaus E. John Bowlby: Child Care and the Growth of Love (1965). In: Lück, Helmut. Miller, Rudolf, Sewz, Gabriela (Edit.) Klassiker der Psychologie. Die bedeutenden Werke (Classics of Psychology. The Pivoting Works). 2nd, extended edition. Stuttgart 2018, p. 209–218
    Grossmann, K. & Grossmann, K.E. Bindungen – das Gefüge psychischer Sicherheit. (Attachments – the structure of mental security.) Completely revised 7th Edition. Stuttgart 2017
    Grossmann, K.E. & Grossmann, K. (Edit.) Bindung und menschliche Entwicklung. John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth und die Grundlagen der Bindungstheorie und Forschung, (Attachment and human development. John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and the foundations of the Attachment Theory and Research). 5th edition. Stuttgart 2017
    Grossmann, K.E. & Grossmann, K., Mary Ainsworth: Our Guide to Attachment Research. Attachment and Human Development, Vol. 1, 1999 p. 224–228
    Robertson, J & Robertson, J. Responses of small children to short separations from the mother in the light of new observations. In: Psyche, 29,
1975, p. 626-664    

(Translation Current Concerns)