Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

Aligning, integrating and applying the behavioural sciences

Strange Situation #2

Part 2
Further validity issues
Gavin Bremner
(1994) has questioned the validity of the measures used in the Strange Situation. Earlier Jude Cassidy (1986) postulated that secure infants will not feel the need to maintain continual proximity. If this point were to be validated, it would undermine a key characteristic of the secure attachment style.

John Bates, Christine Maslin & Karen Frankel (1985) cast doubt on the validity of the Strange Situation studies when they found that attachment style at 12 months did not predict the presence of behaviour problems at 3 years of age – it being expected that securely-attached infants would be better adjusted socially and emotionally at later ages than insecurely-attached children. However, Alan Sroufe (1983) reported that infants rated as secure in their second year have been found later to be more popular, having more initiative, higher self-esteem, less aggression and demonstrating social leadership. (This suggests that a healthy PURPLE vMEME facilitates the development of healthy RED.) Correspondingly Inge Bretherton & Everett Waters (1985) suggested that insecurely attached children are more likely to be hostile and socially inadequate. The notion that early attachment type influences behaviour in later relationships – via the internal working model – receives support from Cindy Hazan & Phil Shaver’s Love Quiz studies (1987 and 1992) which are based on Ainsworth’s 3 attachment types.

Another validity question relates to the fact that the Strange Situation does not take into account the child’s temperament and the effect that might have on the attachment – see Caregiver Sensitivity vs Temperament Hypothesis. It has even been suggested that the procedure might be measuring temperament rather than attachment (Nathan Fox, Nancy Kimmerley & William Schafer, 1991) .

There is also the question as to whether the Strange Situation is testing the relationship between the caregiver and the infant rather than the resultant attachment type. Mary Main & Donna Weston (1981) found that children behaved differently in the Strange Situation according to whether they were with mother or father. This supported the earlier work of Michael Lamb (1977) who gave the instance of a secure attachment to the mother and an avoidant relationship with the father. However, most children tested through the Strange Situation with more than one attachment figure do appear to behave consistently. Marinus Van IJzendoorn, Abraham Sagi & Miryam Lambermon (1992) took the view that the best way of predicting later development was to effectively average the child’s multiple attachments (mother, father and, perhaps, childminder, for example). This suggests the Strange Situation is a valid procedure but that attachment type must be derived from more than one attachment relationship.

Ainsworth herself came to question how the Strange Situation was being used and interpreted. According to Robbie Duschinsky (2021), in private correspondence with Bowlby she worried that attachment was coming to be seen as somehow residing inside the child rather than being a quality of the child-caregiver relationship. She was concerned this would result in over-stated predictions across entire domains of the child’s life based on their behaviour in the Strange Situation.

Then there is the question as to whether the Strange Situation measures attachment…or the response to the Strange Situation! Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) found that attachment appeared much stronger when the Strange Situation procedure was carried out at the family home. Clearly this raises issues of ecological validity. Michael Lamb et al (1985) criticise the procedure for failing to take into account the mother’s behaviour, pointing out that some mothers/caregivers most likely behave differently towards their child in the laboratory than they would do at home, as they know they are being observed. Equally infants who show great separation protest in the Strange Situation might be less distressed by separation at home where they are in familiar surroundings and their PURPLE vMEME feels safer. Harriet Rheingold & Carol Eckerman (1973) had reported that, in natural settings where a child could approach a stranger in their own time, the child often smiled at the stranger and sometimes moved towards them.

However, Mary Ainsworth, Sylvia Bell & Donelda Stayton’s (1974) own analyses of home data found infants who had been resistant toward or avoidant of the mother on reunion in the Strange Situation had a less harmonious relationship with her at home than those (a majority) who sought proximity, interaction or contact on reunion. This suggests the qualities of the domestic relationship do transfer into the laboratory environment.

For all the criticisms and limitations, Lamb et al do acknowledge the Strange Situation to be “…the most powerful and useful procedure ever available for the study of socioemotional development in infancy.”

Type D: disorganised
However, Lamb et al do criticise Ainsworth for developing the criteria for her 3 attachment types from an initial study of just 26 American babies. They argue classification was developed too quickly from an inadequate sample.

Research by Mary Main & Judith Solomon (1990) led to the identification of a fourth type of attachment which they called Type D: disorganised. This type is characteristic of ‘high-risk’ families where children have perhaps been abused or neglected. A child showing disorganised attachment will appear confrontational and/or confused and apprehensive, with no consistent response to the events of the Strange Situation – eg: approaching the mother on her return and then avoiding her. Such children also tend to freeze or show stereotyped behaviours such as rocking. When Main reanalysed data she, Kaplan & Cassidy had collected, she found about 13% of infants they studied were disorganised. This 13% disorganised in their sample is greater than the 10% resistant usually found in the Ainsworth standard.

This raises the issue of whether Ainsworth made a serious category error in her initial classifications. It also leads to the question of how many avoidant and/or resistant classifications from the thousands of Strange Situation studies carried out would be recategorised disorganised if the data were to be reanalysed.

Back in 1978 Ainsworth – Main was her graduate student – had acknowledged difficulty in fitting all the infants observed into one of the 3 classifications (Ainsworth et al). In 1990 she acknowledged the validity of the disorganised category but cautioned that it should be treated as “open-ended, in the sense that subcategories may be distinguished”. She was concerned that the D classification might be too encompassing and might treat too many different forms of behaviour as if they were the same thing.

Type D and the effect of abuse and neglect on the infant brain has become a key area of research as it appears brain abnormalities can be caused by child abuse and neglect. This is particularly so in the limbic system which is associated with emotions. Abuse can cause disturbances that can lead to seizures and other abnormalities that show in the electrical activity measured by an electroencephalogram. In abuse cases investigated this way, the abnormality has been in the left hemisphere and has been linked to Depression and memory deficits.

Type D has been associated, to greater or lesser degree, with a number of psychopathologies. For example, Helen MacDonald et al (2008) have found a correlation between Type D attachment and the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Another related finding is that the corpus callosum is smaller in those who have been abused as children. A reduction in size of 24%-42% has been found in boys who have suffered neglect. In girls who have been sexually abused, a reduction of 18%-30% has been found. However, neglect of girls appears to have no effect on the size of the corpus callosum. It is thought that a reduction in size of the corpus callosum means less activity between the two hemispheres and this has been associated with changes in mood.

Go back…


Verification Captcha (human, not robot!) * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.