The strange situation
This procedure was designed by Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues. The strange situation allows investigators to see how infants react to potentially stressful events; when a stranger enters a room and when the infant’s caregiver leaves the room. There also is interest in the way an infant reacts at reunion with the caregiver.
The strange situation usually involves the sequence detailed below.
This assessment of a child’s attachment security is carried out in an observation laboratory, with video cameras strategically placed so as to record the behaviour of mothers and their children. The laboratory contains two easy chairs, a low table, a play area, perhaps defined by a rug, and a set of toys.
After the mother and her child have settled, the mother sits reading a magazine and after a few minutes, a stranger enters and sits quietly on the free chair.
After an interval, the stranger starts talking in a friendly way with the mother, and after a while, moves to the floor and starts to play with the child.
Then, a little later, the mother gets up and leaves the room.
The stranger stays and tries to play with the child.
After a period, the mother then re-enters the room and returns to her chair. The stranger leaves the room.
Then, after a further interval, the mother gets up and leaves the room again, leaving the child alone.
After a period, the stranger enters, offers comfort to the child if necessary, and tries to play with the child again.
Finally, the mother returns, the stranger leaves the room, and mother and child remain in the room for a few more minutes.
The video recording of the whole session is then coded by trained observers following a detailed coding scheme. In particular they will look for instances of the infant seeking proximity to the mother, maintaining contact and showing signs of avoidance or resistant behaviour.
After careful consideration of the coding, a security classification is arrived at, defining the quality of the attachment.
There is a very detailed coding scheme that is used to observe and analyse infants’ behaviour in these sessions. In broad terms, an infant is described as having a ‘secure’ relationship with their caregiver if they are not too upset when this person leaves the room and are pleased when the caregiver returns. Infants who are very upset, angry or indifferent to the caregiver’s departure and return are described as having an ‘insecure’ relationship with their caregiver. Find out more about attachment theory in our course extract.
Methods of studying children
The collection of articles, videos, photos and audio exploring child development has been made possible by a partnership between the British Psychological Society and The Open University Child and Youth Studies Group.