The Life Of Psychologist Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth was an important scientist and psychologist. She further developed Bowlby’s attachment theory. She was also interested in all aspects of women and human beings in general that psychology seemed to overlook at the time.
The Life of Psychologist Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth was an American-Canadian psychologist. Together with John Bowlby, she developed one of the most wonderful and supportive psychological theories of early social development: the attachment theory.

Initially they developed this theory only concerning children. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Ainsworth introduced new concepts that expanded this theory to include adults.

She was one of the most cited psychologists throughout the twentieth century. In fact, her brilliant theory remains to this day the pillar on which numerous researchers and psychologists have based their investigations.

Universities around the world use her work as an example. Moreover, she has received many recognitions despite living in an era where women were very limited in their professional roles.

During her college years, Mary Ainsworth began to think about the attachment relationship that children usually form with the mother figure.

However, Ainsworth’s life was not all about studies and questions. In fact, her life was much more dynamic than we would expect from a woman of her time. Let’s dig a little deeper into her life.

The work of Mary Ainsworth

The Life of Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth was born in the United States. However, her family moved to Toronto, Canada when she was a little girl. She graduated in Developmental Psychology from the University of Toronto.

She received her doctorate in 1939. After finishing her studies, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and spent four years in the military.

Shortly afterwards she married and moved to London with her husband. At that time, she began working at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations with psychiatrist John Bowlby. The two scientists began conducting experiments in which they separated children from their mothers.

In 1953 she moved to Uganda. There she went to work at the East African Institute of Social Research. There she continued her research into the early relationships between mother and son.

After a while she obtained a position at John Hopkins University in the United States. She later went on to work at the University of Virginia. There she continued to work on her theory of attachment until her occupational retirement in 1984.

The attachment theory

John Bowlby is considered the father of attachment theory. Bowlby’s studies have shown that children have innate exploratory behaviors.

However, if they feel unprotected or in danger, their first reaction is to seek the support of their mother or their primary caregiver. To this theory Mary Ainsworth has added a new concept: the strange situation.

Mary Ainsworth explored the relationship between children and their caregivers by adding “the strange situation” in multiple different contexts. The “strange situation” consisted in adding a strange person in the context of the mother-son relationships.

Based on the results she obtained, Mary Ainsworth then expanded the theory by adding three attachment styles: secure attachment, insecure-avoidant attachment, and insecure-ambivalent/defensive attachment.

Later, other researchers expanded her theory further. The attachment theory we know today is the result of the additions of other psychologists.

The different suture types

Mary Ainsworth and the different attachment types

Later, a fourth attachment type was added to attachment theory. However, Mary Ainsworth identified and described only these three types:

  • Secure attachment : When the child feels loved and protected. Even though the caregiver is absent and the child feels a certain uneasiness when they are separated, they are sure that their caregiver will return soon.
  • Insecure-avoidant attachment : When the child reacts with intense fear to separation from the mother or caregiver. This attachment type appears to be the result of limited maternal or primary caregiver availability. Children with this attachment type learn that their mother will not always be there when they need it.
  • Insecure-ambivalent/defensive attachment : This type of attachment develops when the primary caregiver fails to consistently meet the child’s needs. These children develop a great sense of mistrust and learn not to look for help in the future.

The excellent work of Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth became very aware of the importance of developing a healthy relationship with the mother figure. She thought that this was important because it could have an influence on the child in the future.

She championed programs that would help women work and be mothers at the same time. Frankly, at the time, it was almost impossible for women to do this. Today, however, we see this every day.

Access to university studies, research programs, the world of work, and so on did not seem to reconcile with household chores, especially those imposed by society (being a wife and mother).

For this reason, many consider Mary Ainsworth to be one of the frontrunners in work-life balance programs for mothers.

As a female researcher she knew that her work had to transcend the academic world. She wanted to help future women to choose their own individual life path.

Mary Ainsworth died in 1999 at the age of 86. She had devoted her whole life to the development of one of the most important psychological theories.

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