Interactional and Contextual
Determinants of Attachment Security
Why do some infants develop secure attachments to their primary caregivers, whereas others establish insecure relationships? That is the central question to be addressed in this chapter. In certain respects, one might regard such a question as more North American than British. This is because even though John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, was concerned with the consequences of variation in the quality of early attachment, it was his Canadian colleague, psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who brought the topic of the origins of individual differences in infant–parent attachment security to center stage. Whereas Bowlby’s (1944, 1958) original thinking on the roots of security–insecurity was organized around the development of disorders (e.g., juvenile delinquency) and led to a focus on major separations from parents early in life, Ainsworth (1973) was the first to devote considerable empirical and theoretical energies to consideration of the determinants of secure and insecure infant–mother attachments in the normal, nonclinical population.
At the core of Ainsworth’s extension of Bowlby’s theory of attachment was the contention that a sensitive, responsive caregiver is of fundamental importance to the development of a secure as opposed to an insecure attachment bond during the opening years of life. According to Ainsworth, a caregiver capable of providing securityinducing, sensitive, responsive care understands the child’s individual attributes, accepts the child’s behavioral proclivities, and is thus capable of orchestrating harmonious interactions between self and infant (especially those involving the soothing of distress) on a relatively consistent basis. In elaborating on and thereby further developing Bowlby’s theory, Ainsworth never stated the belief that the development of the relationship between infant and mother is determined entirely by the mother. Nevertheless, Ainsworth was convinced that the developing relationship between child and adult is not shaped equally by the two individuals involved. Recognizing the greater maturity and power of the mother, Ainsworth attributed disproportionate influence to her rather than to the child.
Nonetheless, the notion of maternal sensitivity championed by Ainsworth in her efforts to account for individual differences in attachment security was defined in terms of what the child brings to the relationship and, more specifically, how the child behaves at a particular time. By definition, then, care that is sensitive and theorized to promote security in the child does not take exactly the same form for all children. Nor does it take the same form across all situations in the case of a particular child. This was why Ainsworth (1973) adopted the methodology of rating maternal behavior after extensive observation, rather than microcoding interactions on a moment-by-moment basis. To evaluate sensitivity accurately, she believed, it is best to observe a mother with her infant across a variety of situations and circumstances. Only in so doing can an observer learn, for example, whether a mother’s practice of permitting a mildly fussy infant to fall asleep on his or her own does or does not reflect a more general pattern of unresponsiveness. If such seemingly insensitive care is observed again when the infant awakes, then the label “in