Mary Ainsworth: Biography and Contributions

Mary Ainsworth was a Canadian psychologist who, along with John Bowlby, developed one of the psychological theories that has most helped to understand early social development: the theory of attachment.

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Mary Ainsworth was a Canadian psychologist who, along with John Bowlby, developed one of the psychological theories that has most helped to understand early social development: the theory of attachment. This theory was formulated focused on children at first. Although Ainsworth, in the 60s and 70s, introduced new concepts that, in the 80s, would lead to an expansion focused on adults.

She was one of the most cited psychologists throughout the twentieth century and, even today, her brilliant theory is the pillar on which numerous psychology studies are built. Her work is studied in universities around the world, she received numerous recognitions, despite the fact that she lived in an era in which women were quite restricted in their professional role.

Ainsworth already showed some concern in his first steps in the university and began to reflect on the attachment relationship of children with the mother figure. From there, the theory that would stand out its name in the history of psychology would be born.

However, Ainsworth’s life was not limited only to study, to submerge between questions and papers, but it was much more dynamic than you would expect for a woman of her time.

Her life

Mary Ainsworth was born in the United States, but her family moved to Toronto, Canada,  being a girl. She graduated in Development Psychology from the University of Toronto and obtained her Doctorate in 1939. After finishing her studies, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, spent four years in the army and reached the rank of Major.

Soon after, she got married and moved with her husband to London. That’s when he starts working at the Tavistock Institute with psychiatrist John Bowlby. Both open the way to an investigation based on the experience of separating children from their mothers.

In 1953, he moved to Uganda and started working at the African Institute of Social Research in Kampala, where he continued his research on children’s early relationships with their mothers.

After a while, he obtained a position at the John Hopkins Institute in the United States and, later, at the University of Virginia, where he continued to develop his attachment theory until his professional retirement in 1984.

Theory of attachment

John Bowlby is considered the father of attachment theory. Bowlby’s studies showed that children have innate exploratory behavior. But if they feel unprotected or in danger, their first reaction is to seek the support of the mother or primary caregiver.

Mary Ainsworth departed from Bowly’s base on control systems, but added a new concept: the strange situation.

“In hatred, as in love, we grow as the thing we care for. What we hate we graft on our own soul.”

-Mary Renault-

Mary Ainsworth investigated the relationship of children with their caregivers by adding the strange situation in different contexts. The strange situation was created by adding a strange person to the child in the context of mother-child relationship.

Based on the results obtained, Mary Ainsworth expanded the theory by connecting three attachment styles: secure attachment, insecure-avoidant attachment and insecure-ambivalent attachment. The theory was later extended by other researchers. The set of rereadings, comments and additions is the result of the attachment theory we know today.

Mary Ainsworth and the different types of attachment

The attachment theory was later expanded with a fourth type of attachment. What Mary Ainsworth defined and characterized were, only, the three types mentioned above. Next, we describe what exactly each of them consists of:

  • Secure attachment: it is generated when the child feels loved and protected. Even if the caregiver is absent and the child lives with some anguish the momentary separation, he knows that he can trust that his caregiver will return.
  • Insecure attachment: these children respond with intense anguish to the separation of the mother or the caregiver. It seems that this type of attachment is the result of poor maternal or primary caregiver availability. These children learn that their mother will not always be there when they need it.
  • Ambivalent attachment: develops when the primary caregiver fails to meet the needs of the child repeatedly and constantly. They are children who develop a great feeling of distrust and learn not to seek help in the future.

An important task

Mary Ainsworth became very aware of the importance of developing a healthy relationship of maternal attachment. In addition to the influence that this could have on the child as a future adult.

He often spoke out in favor of the need to develop and implement programs that would help women to combine their professional career with motherhood. Well, at that time, it was almost impossible for women to conjugate what we see today with total normality.

Access to academic studies, research, the world of work, etc. It seemed not to be too compatible with domestic chores and, consequently, of wife and mother, which were the dictates of society. For this reason, Mary Ainsworth can be considered as one of the precursors of the work-life balance programs for mothers.

As a woman researcher, I knew that her work could not only be relegated to the studio, there was something to vindicate, something that could help many women in the future so that, like her, they could choose their path. Thus, we are before a scientist who was interested in aspects of women that psychology left aside.

Finally, Mary Ainsworth died in 1999, aged 86, after a lifetime dedicated to developing one of the most important psychological theories we have today.