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Biography and Impact of Mary D. S. Ainsworth

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 3606 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Biography and Impact of Mary D. S. Ainsworth 

Early Life and Education

Mary Salter, later known as Mary D. S. Ainsworth, was born on December 1, 1913 in Glendale, Ohio to Mary and Charles Salter. She was the eldest daughter of three. When she was four years old, her father moved their family to Toronto, Canada where she spent her childhood and her early adulthood. Growing up, Mary and her family would go on weekly trips to the library, where she not only learned to read, but, at age 15, found a book that made her realization of wanting to become a psychologist (“Mary D. Salter Ainsworth,” 2013, p. 448). The book, Character and the Conduct of Life, allowed her to see how “one might look within oneself for some explanation of how one felt and behaved” (“Mary D. Salter Ainsworth,” 2013, p. 448). Mary continued on her path of wanting to become a psychologist at the University of Toronto, but not just for her Bachelor of Arts, but also her Master of Art and her PhD. While she was attending the University of Toronto, she was able to not only attend as a student, but she also became a teaching assistant to the head of the psychology department, Professor Edward A. Bott. Mary D.S. Ainsworth was greatly influenced by Professor Bott, but also Sperrin N.F. Chant, and William E. Blatz. Professor Bott allowed her to see science as “a state of mind,” while Sperrin N.F. Chant pushed Mary to realize how interesting and fascinating research was, especially in the field of psychology (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991, p. 334). William E. Blatz was her biggest influence, and mentor during her dissertation research.

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William E. Blatz’s and his security theory had caught Mary’s eye during her undergraduate years. During her dissertation research, she took that interest of Blatz and his security theory, and developed An Evaluation of Adjustment Based on the Concept of Security, where it was first mentioned of the secure base concept (Bretherton, & Main, 2000, p. 1148). Blatz’s work and her dissertation allowed her to further her career in not just clinical psychology, but later on her development with John Bowlby and James Robertson on Attachment theory, more specifically her Infant-Mother Attachment theory.


Ainsworth’s formative years at the University of Toronto coincided during the time period of the Great Depression. During the Great Depression, Ainsworth learned about messianic spirit which is a “belief that psychology is the touchstone for great improvements in the quality of life” (“Mary D. Salter Ainsworth,” 2013, p. 448). For Ainsworth, it gave her hope that she can improve the lives of those around her during this hard time through the career path that she was continuing onto. This messianic spirit inspired her further down her career path as she graduated from the University of Toronto, and began her career in the field of psychology.

After she received her degree, she became a lecturer at the University of Toronto in 1939 when she was turned down for a position at Queens University because she was a woman. Despite her being a lecturer for the University, she chose a different path in 1942, during the time of World War II. She joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps where she was appointed to be the Director of Personnel Selection, which began the start of her professional career later on in clinical psychology (Bretherton, 1994, p. 760). This position not only allowed her to help out during the war, but also her position as Superintendent of Women’s Rehabilitation in Department of Veteran’s Affairs because it deepened her knowledge of the clinical world, and progressed her clinical skills (“Distinguished Professional Contributions,” 1988, p. 248). The time period was a crucial time for the country, but this crucial time opened her eyes to the clinical world, and was just the start for the future ahead of her.


At a young age, Mary knew she had an infatuation with psychology. After her contribution to the war and the veterans, she knew that she would manifest her expertise in the world of clinical psychology. When the war was over, she went back to being a professor at the University of Toronto until 1950, where she got married to Leonard Ainsworth and moved with him to England where she was able to join the research team of John Bowlby (“Awards for Distinguished Scientific Contributions,” 1990, p. 450). John Bowlby created a research team that investigated the development of a child’s personality, during early childhood, when separated from his or her mother. This research not only updated psychoanalytic theories, but pushed her into developing studies of her own (“Distinguished Professional Contributions,” 1988, p. 249). Ainsworth had such an interest in this infant-mother relationship and to see how they interact, especially during a child’s first years of life. In 1954, she moved to Uganda where she was inspired to create study that would exemplify how this infant-mother interaction occurs during a child’s first year of life in non-Western cultures. From this study, she was able to see the development of attachment and the “use of the mother as a secure base” (Grossmann, K. E., Bretherton, I., Waters, E., & Grossmann, K., 2013, p. 443). She believed that “a child’s love for his mother was a secondary drive but accepted the claims of ethology that it was instinctive (Van Rosemalen, L., van der Horst, F. C. P., & van der Veer, R, 2016, p.31).

 When she was done with her study in Uganda, she decided to create another study in Baltimore, where she ended up moving to in 1955. By 1961, she extended her work from Uganda into her Baltimore study that observed infant-mother interactions over the child’s first year, and it led to her discovery of the different types of maternal care: sensitivity-insensitivity, cooperation-interference, acceptance rejection, and accessibility-neglecting (Grossmann, K. E., Bretherton, I., Waters, E., & Grossmann, K., 2013, p. 444). After her work in these studies, many considered her the co-founder of the attachment theory, alongside John Bowlby. Many theorists and researchers looked up to her for her work, and continued to pursue studies that would further the attachment theory they both formed over the years. She helped her students to independent work that would allow them to form their own ideas on attachment, and would even allow other researchers to use her unpublished data to improve their own work.

Ideas, Theories, & Schools of Thought

Ainsworth falls under the psychoanalytic school of thought because of her and Bowlby’s research and studies on personality development of a child through infant-mother attachment. The psychoanalytic school of thought was made up of Freud’s theory of behavior being influenced by the unconscious mind, and him identifying the human mind to be comprised of the id, ego, and superego. For Mary Ainsworth, her focus was on the id because of it pertaining to the personality component of the mind. Through her studies, Mary was able to see that babies don’t love a mother because they have to or because psychoanalytic theories indicate a certain behavior during a certain point in time of an individual, but she felt that babies would grow to have this love and comfort with their mother because she cares for that child and satisfies his or her needs (Bretherton, 1994, p. 762). She furthered her research through what she is most known for, her Strange Situation study. The Strange Situation study showed that an infant’s behavior to the mother can fall under one of three patterns: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-resistant (Tracy & Ainsworth, 1981, p.1341). Mothers who provided more affection and care for the needs of their child exemplified the child to have a secure attachment, and the child would be happy and not crying once the mom came back into the room. On the other hand, the children who were either not bothered by the separation from the mother or was angry when the mother left expressed the child to be anxious-avoidant or anxious-resistant (Ainsworth, 1979, p. 934). Mary Ainsworth’s work has overlapped with John Bowlby’s investigations, but Bowlby worked to improve and update psychoanalytical theories. In Ainsworth’s case, she unintentionally worked into the psychoanalytic school of thought until she realized her emphasis and further development of personality development pertained to id. Unfortunately, her work has been accused of “being out of touch with current changes in lifestyles,” but many still agree with her work and believe that an infant’s interaction with their mother during their first year of life is critical.

Published Works

From her lectures with her students at the University of Toronto, to her skills put to the test at John Hopkins University, and publications of her work, Mary Ainsworth has contributed to the field of psychology. In 1958, she published Measuring Security in Personal Adjustment alongside with her husband, at the time. It further discussed Blatz’s security theory but she gathered from it, and further studied.  She published Deprivation of Maternal Care in 1962, which discusses the deprivation of maternal care towards a child can affect that child’s life later on. She also published her work, in 1967, on her data and results to her study in Uganda. The name of this publication was Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Despite many not knowing her from this study, once people know about Mary Ainsworth they later discover her work in Uganda, and her observations of mother-infant interactions.

Ainsworth, M. S. (1979). Infant-mother attachment. American Psychologist,34(10), 932-937.

In this article, Ainsworth discusses Bowlby’s ethological-evolutionary attachment theory. This theory implies an important part for humans, especially as an infant and the bond that is forming with the mother/caregiver. However, Ainsworth believes there to be further research to indicate the attachment behavior between mother-infant interaction. Ainsworth partakes in forming a study to express the different types of behavior patterns between mothers and infants. Ainsworth discovers that the mothers of avoidant babies were more rejecting, angry, and restrictive on their affection towards their child. She then realizes that the avoidant infant is being avoidant as a defense mechanism. Because of this mother-infant interaction, she realizes that the bond between the two is important because it allows the child to build a relationship and feel a sense of protection and comfort. The interaction between the two also leads to the infant building ‘expectations’ of the mother that could affect future relationships.

Ainsworth, M. S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist,44(4), 709-716.

Ainsworth discusses two main major topics within this article: attachment theory focusing on a ‘basic system of behavior’ which guides research, but also about long-lasting interpersonal relationships that could involve an affectional bond. When Mary discusses this basic behavior system, she is referring to the behavior of parents. With this basic behavior system, attachment behavior is able to provide an infant with the expectations of how their caregiver will care for them. Attachment allows the child to venture away from his “secure base” to explore the world because they know that they have that protection from their caregiver.

During adulthood, the child not only knows their relationship with their caregivers, but finds new relationships whether it be with a sibling, grandparent, or even a teacher. Even though, these relationships are different from the primary attachments, it provides a way for a child to expand on their relationships and find new relationships that they can attach to and feel a sense of security whether it is temporary or not. When a child has a secure attachment and they begin their journey in adulthood, they have an easier time gaining autonomy because the caregiver knows that she has done her best to care for her son, and for him to be able to find his way in the real world.

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Ainsworth also discusses, as mentioned earlier, this idea of affectional bonds. Affectional bonds are, hopefully, long last relationships that are “dyadic,” and allows for the two individuals to grow. These affectional bonds provide an individual with the desire to feel a new sense of closeness with the other individual involved. This closeness can be the start of a relationship through sexual attraction and could later lead to marriage.

Besides the type of relationship that can lead to marriage, Mary S. Ainsworth analyzes other relationships that can provide an affectional bond such as bonds with friends, and siblings. At a young age, children seem to socialize not just with those their age, but also with strangers who later become more familiar in their life. When these children get older, they form friendships, and sometimes those friendships have this protective factor that allows the friendship to feel secure for each individual involved. With siblings, Ainsworth believes that they can play a parental role especially if the individual is younger than their siblings. She talks about this parental role with siblings, and how it allows for the same secure attachment if the primary caregiver is not present. The older sibling, who is caring for their younger sibling, can even gain a further progression their secureness.

Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist,46(4), 333-341.

John Bowlby and Mary S. Ainsworth both had an interest in personality development, specifically the interaction between parents and children. Bowlby was a child psychiatrist until the war broke in 1939 where he served as a consultant psychiatrist. After the war ended, he decided to focus on early separation between a mother and her infant, especially during the firsy years of life. On the other hand, Ainsworth focused on William E. Blatz’s security theory for her dissertation research. Within her dissertation she was able to put together scales that indicated an extent to which a person was codependent on their parents and peers for security, which not only discussed this idea of a secure base concept, but influenced her work later on.

Bowlby and Ainsworth worked on a research together for a while, where there was evidence indicating the lack of interaction with the caregiver and infants. After spending time together on research for Bowlby’s study into attachment theory, Ainsworth decided to further study this attachment between mothers and infants by studying them in Uganda, when her and her husband moved there. Meanwhile, Bowlby came to realize when a caregiver or attachment figure is no present, separation anxiety occurs. He believed that this separation anxiety would continue later on for the individual unless the figure terminated this attachment behavior. Just like Bowlby, Ainsworth discovered this maternal deprivation and decided to write about it. Bowlby and Ainsworth both eventually came to the conclusion that it is important for mothers to interact with their infant, and keep close bodily contact because it will lead to babies feel a sense of secureness and building a working model of the mother.

Tracy, R. L., & Ainsworth, M. S. (1981). Maternal affectionate behavior and infant-mother attachment patterns. Child Development,52(4), 1341- 1343.

In this article, Tracy was intrigued by Ainsworth’s idea of how mothers of anxious or avoidant infants expressed affection towards their babies. Ainsworth reports how mothers of securely attached infants are able to express affectionate behavior toward their child in their first year of life better than mothers of anxiously attached babies. It was important for Tracy to further Ainsworth’s original sample of mother-infant interaction at home.

The sample consisted of 26 middle-class mothers and their infants who were visited for 4-hours at three week intervals. There were three main patterns identified: Pattern A, which was the anxious/avoidant, Pattern B which exemplified secure attachment, & Pattern C which was classified as anxious/resistant. Along with trying to figure out which pattern the mother-infant fit under, Tracy was looking for common maternal affectionate acts that were coded. These categories ended up being kissing, hugging/cuddling, patting/stroking, and other.

After the three weeks, the results indicated that Pattern B was shown in 13 out of 26 babies. The mothers of pattern-B babies showed more affectionate behavior than the mothers of Pattern A or C. For Pattern A mothers, hugging/cuddling was less frequent in their maternal behavior than kissing, whereas for Pattern B the mothers expressed hugging/cuddling more consistently than kissing. Despite the differences in patterns and maternal behavior, Tracy found no significant differences among the mothers of the three groups of babies in regards to the frequency of total affectionate acts. In Ainsworth’s earlier study, she indicated that mothers of Pattern B had displayed more affectionate behavior frequently than mothers of Pattern A and C.

Conclusion and Personal Thoughts

Mary Ainsworth, being a co-founder of the attachment theory, has been able to open many theorists’ eyes to how important it is for an infant to have a secure relationship with their mother. Mary Ainsworth’s work has shown how a child’s personality can be affected by the environment they are raised in, more specifically the way the mother partakes in maternal care practices within the child’s first year of life. She has also exemplified how the relationship with the mother and the parents can affect future relationships, whether that would be with an acquaintance, a friend, a companion, or even a life-long partner. The negative side that is not really expressed is that it can be possible for an individual to have strong relationships with others despite the lack of interaction with their mother when they were a child. There is still research that needs to be to further implicate this attachment theory, and how it can pertain to psychoanalytic school of thought. Overall, Ainsworth’s work in personality theory is still fairly well done despite the negatives, but further strengthens this idea of personality within an individual.


  • Ainsworth, M. S. (1979). Infant-mother attachment. American Psychologist,34(10), 932-937. Retrieved from 10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.932.
  • Ainsworth, M. S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist,44(4), 709-716. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.44.4.709
  • Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist,46(4), 333-341. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.46.4.333
  • Awards for distinguished scientific contributions: Mary D. Salter Ainsworth and John Bowlby. (1990). American Psychologist,45(4), 450-453. doi:10.1037/h0091613
  • Bretherton, I., & Main, M. (2000). Mary Dinsmore Salter Ainsworth (1913–1999): Obituary. American Psychologist,55(10), 1148-1149. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.10.1148
  • Bretherton, L. (1994). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. A Century of Developmental Psychology.,759-775. doi:10.1037/10155-029
  • Distinguished professional contributions to knowledge: Mary D. S. Ainsworth. (1988). American Psychologist,43(4), 248-250. doi:10.1037/h0091980
  • Grossmann, K. E., Bretherton, I., Waters, E., & Grossmann, K. (2013). Maternal sensitivity: Observational studies honoring Mary Ainsworth’s 100thyear. Attachment & Human Development,15(5-6), 443-447. doi:10.1080/14616734.2013.841058
  • Mary D. Salter Ainsworth: An autobiographical sketch. (2013). Attachment & Human Development,15(5-6), 448-459. doi:10.1080/14616734.2013.852411
  • Tracy, R. L., & Ainsworth, M. S. (1981). Maternal affectionate behavior and infant-mother attachment patterns. Child Development,52(4), 1341-1343. doi:10.2307/1129529
  • Van Rosemalen, L., van der Horst, F. C. P., & van der Veer, R. (2016). From secure dependency to attachment: Mary Ainsworth’s integration of Blatz’s security theory into Bowlby’s attachment theory. History of Psychology, 19(1), 22-39. doi: 10.1037/hop0000015


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