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Attachment: Strange Situation | AQA A-Level Psychology


Last updated 22 Dec 2023

This topic quiz tests A-Level Psychology students' knowledge and understanding of the Strange Situation attachment studies.

Click to access this quiz: Attachment: Strange Situation | AQA A-Level Psychology

Attachment: Strange Situation - An Academic Summary

The Strange Situation, developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s, is a standardized procedure used to assess attachment styles in infants between 9 and 18 months old. It's widely recognized as a cornerstone of attachment theory and continues to be influential in developmental psychology and related fields.


The Strange Situation involves eight brief episodes, with the infant, caregiver, and a stranger interacting in an unfamiliar playroom. The episodes involve separations and reunions, observing how the infant responds to these shifts in proximity and emotional availability:

  1. Caregiver and infant alone: The caregiver and infant play freely.
  2. Stranger enters: The stranger joins the play, observing the interaction.
  3. First separation: The caregiver leaves the room briefly.
  4. Reunion: The caregiver returns and interacts with the infant.
  5. Second separation: The stranger leaves, and the caregiver leaves again, leaving the infant alone.
  6. Second reunion: The caregiver returns and interacts with the infant.
  7. Stranger plays with infant: The stranger interacts with the infant while the caregiver observes.
  8. Final reunion: The caregiver returns and the stranger leaves.

Attachment Classification:

Based on the infant's behavior during these episodes, Ainsworth identified three main attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment: Infants use their caregiver as a secure base to explore the environment, show some distress during separation, but are easily comforted upon reunion. They show positive emotions and engagement with both caregiver and stranger.
  • Insecure-avoidant attachment: Infants show little to no distress during separation, avoid or show minimal interaction with the caregiver upon reunion, and may even seem indifferent to the stranger. They primarily focus on exploring the environment, suggesting limited reliance on the caregiver for emotional support.
  • Insecure-resistant attachment: Infants show extreme distress during separation, become clingy and demanding upon reunion, and may show anger or ambivalence towards the caregiver. They exhibit difficulty exploring the environment due to heightened separation anxiety.

Later research:

  • A fourth attachment style, disorganized attachment, was later identified for infants exhibiting inconsistent or contradictory behaviors during the Strange Situation, often reflecting exposure to trauma or disorganized caregiving patterns.
  • The Strange Situation has been adapted for use with older children and in different cultural contexts.

Strengths and Limitations:

  • The Strange Situation provides a controlled and standardized way to assess attachment, fostering reliable research and comparisons.
  • It offers valuable insights into early parent-child relationships and their potential impact on later development.
  • However, some critics argue that the procedure can be overly stressful for infants and may not capture the full complexity of attachment dynamics in real-world settings.


The Strange Situation remains a significant tool in understanding attachment, offering valuable insights into early relationships and their potential impact on future development. While limitations exist, it continues to be a cornerstone of attachment research and informs interventions aimed at supporting healthy parent-child bonds.

Further Resources:

  • Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, E. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Smitsman, A. W. (1995). Attachment, emotion regulation, and psychopathology in adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 791-824.
  • Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Psychological Development, 7(1), 1-11.

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