You are here

Video Clip: The Strange Situation

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

In the strange situation, children are observed responding to the comings and goings of parents and unfamiliar adults in their environments.

On the basis of their behaviors, the children are categorized into one of four groups, where each group reflects a different kind of attachment relationship with the caregiver. A child with a secure attachment style usually explores freely while the mother is present and engages with the stranger. The c hild may be upset when the mother departs but is also happy to see the mother return. A child with an ambivalent (sometimes called insecure-resistant) attachment style is wary about the situation in general, particularly the stranger, and stays close or even clings to the mother rather than exploring the toys. When the mother leaves, the c hild is extremely distressed and is ambivalent when she returns. The child may rush to the mother but then fail to cling to her when she picks up the child. A child with an avoidant (sometimes called insecure-avoidant) attachment style will avoid or ignore the mother, showing little emotion when the mother departs or returns. The child may run away from the mother when she approaches. The c hild will not explore very much, regardless of who is there, and the stranger will not be treated much differently from the mother.

Finally, a child with a disorganized attachment style seems to have no consistent way of coping with the stress of the strange situation—the child may cry during the separation but avoid the mother when she returns, or the child may approach the mother but then freeze or fa ll to the floor. Although some cultural differences in attachment styles have been found (Rothbaum, Weisz, Pott, Miyake, & Morelli, 2000), 1 research has also found that the proportion of children who fall into each of the attachment categories is relatively constant across cultures (see Figure 6.3).

Figure 6.3 Proportion of Children With Different Attachment Styles 

Thgrapshows thapproximate proportion of childrewho have each of thefour attachment styles. These proportionare fairly constant acroscultures.

You might wonder whether differences in attachment style are determined more by the c hild (nature) or more by the parents (nurture). Most developmental psychologists believe that socialization is primary, arguing that a child becomes securely attached when the mother is available and able to meet the needs of the child in a re sponsive and appropriate manner, but that the insecure styles occur when the mother is insensitive a nd responds inconsistently to the child’s needs. In a direct test of this idea, Dutch researcher Dymphna van den Boom (1994) 2 randomly assigned some babies’ mothers to a training session in which they learned to better respond to their children’s needs. The research found that these mothers’ babies were more likely to show a secure attachment style in comparison to the mothers in a control group that did not receive training.

But the attachment behavior of the c hild is also likely influenced, at least in part, by temperament, the innate personality characteristics of theinfant. Some children are warm, friendly, and responsive, whereas others tend to be more irritable, less manageable, and difficult to console. These differences may also play a r ole in attachment (Gillath, Shaver, Baek, & Chun, 2008; Seifer, Schiller, Sameroff, Resnick, & Riordan, 1996). 3Taken together, it seems safe to say that attachment, like most other developmental processes, is affected by an interplay of genetic and socialization influences.

Research Focus: Using a Longitudinal Research Design to Assess the Stability of Attachment

You might wonder whether the attachment style displayed by infants has much influence later in life. In fact, research has found that the attachment styles of children predict their emotions and their behaviors many years later (Cassidy & Shaver, 1999). 4 Psychologists have studied the persistence of attachment styles over time using longitudinal research designs—research designs iwhich individualithe sample are followeancontacted over an extendeperioof time, ofteover multipldevelopmental stages.

In one such study, Waters, Merrick, Treboux, Crowell, and Albersheim (2000) 5 examined the extent of stability and change in attachment patterns from infancy to early adulthood. In their research, 60 middle-class infants who had been tested in the strange situation at 1 year of age were recontacted 20 years later and interviewed using a measure of adult attachment. Waters and colleagues found that 72% of the infants received the same secure versus insecure attachment classification in early adulthood as they had received as infants. The adults who changed categorization (usually from secure to insecure) were primarily those who had experienced traumatic events, such as the death or divorce of parents, severe illnesses (contracted by the parents or the children themselves), or physical o r sexual abuse by a family member.

In addition to finding that people generally display the same attachment style over time, longitudinal studies have also found that the attachment classification received in infancy (as assessed using the strange situation or other measures) predicts many childhood and adult behaviors. Securely attached infants have closer, more harmonious relationship with peers, are less anxious and aggressive, and are better able to understand others’ emotions than are those w ho were categorized as insecure as infants (Lucas-Thompson & Clarke-Stewart, (2007). 6 And securely attached adolescents also have more positive peer and romantic relationships than their less securely attached counterparts (Carlson, Sroufe, & Egeland, 2004). 7

Conducting longitudinal research is a very difficult task, but one that has substantial rewards. When the sample is large enough and the time frame long enough, the potential findings of s uch a study can provide rich and important information about how people change over time and the causes of those changes. The drawbacks o f longitudinal studies include the cost and the difficulty of finding a large sample that can be tracked accurately over time and the time (many years) that it takes to get the data. In addition, because the results are delayed over an extended period, the research questions posed at the beginning of the study may become less relevant over time as the research continues.

Cross-sectionalresearchdesignsrepresent an alternative to longitudinal designs. In a cross- sectional research design, age comparisonare made between samples of different people at different ageat ontime. In one example, Jang, Livesley, and Vernon (1996) 8 studied two groups of identical and nonidentical (fraternal) twins, one group in their 20s and the other group in their 50s, to determine the influence of genetics on personality. They found that genetics played a more significant role in the older group of twins, suggesting that genetics became more significant for personality in later adulthood.

Cross-sectional studies have a major advantage in that the scientist does not have to wait for years to pass to get results. On the other hand, the interpretation of the results in a cross-sectional s tudy is not as clear as those from a longitudinal study, in which the same individuals are studied over time. Most important, the interpretations drawn from cross-sectional studies may be confounded by cohort effects. Cohort effects refer to the possibility that differenceicognition or behavior at two points itimmay be causeby differences that are unrelateto thchangeiage.The differences might instead be due to environmental factors that affect an entire aggroup. For instance, in the study by Jang, Livesley, and Vernon (1996) 9 that compared younger and older twins, cohort effects might be a problem. The two groups of adults necessarily grew up in different time periods, and they may have been differentially influenced by societal experiences, such as economic hardship, the presence of wars, or the introduction of new technology. As a result, it is difficult in cross-sectional studies such as this one to determine whether the differences between the groups (e.g., in terms of the relative roles of environment and genetics) are due to age or to other factors.


  • Babies are born with a variety of skills and abilities that contribute to their survival, and they also actively learn by engaging with their environments.
  • The habituation technique is used to demonstrate the newborn’s ability to remember and learn from experience.
  • Children use both assimilation and accommodation to develop functioning schemas of the world.
  • Piaget’s theory of cognitive development proposes that children develop in a specific series of sequential stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.
  • Piaget’s theories have had a major impact, but they have also been critiqued and expanded.
  • Social development requires the development of a secure base from which children feel free to explore. Attachment styles refer to the security of this base and more generally to the type of relationship that people, and especially children, develop with those who are important to them.
  • Longitudinal and cross-sectional studies are each used to test hypotheses about development, and each approach has advantages and disadvantages


  1. Give an example of a situation in which you or someone else might show cognitive assimilation and cognitive accommodation. In what cases do you think each process is most likely to occur?
  2. Consider some examples of how Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development might be used by teachers who are teaching young children.
  3. Consider the attachment styles of some of your friends in terms of their relationships with their parents and other friends. Do you think their style is secure?