Center Sponsored Research


Secure Base Scripts Assessment


Early major funding was devoted to the development and testing of the Secure Base Scripts Assessment. For a better understanding of this work, please see  abstracts of the special issue of Attachment and Human Development


These articles represent efforts of Harriet and Everett Waters and other independent research teams studying the emergence, maintenance, and implications of attachment representations. Taken together, these studies provide broad support for this new procedure and scoring system. The development of this more parsimonious method of assessment of attachment security has enabled researchers to more fully understand and capture important aspects of secure base knowledge for adults and also provide evidence for the relevance of secure base scripts in the socialization of child secure base behavior.


This has been an important aspect of the overall mission of the CMHP. As we better understand the attachment representations that people form in relationship with their child, efforts can be more focused toward increasing responsive parenting.















Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall. PATTERNS OF ATTACHMENT has been reissued in hard and paper binding June 2015. Includes new preface and new appendices. This is considered to be the fourth most influential of the 20 Studies That Revolutionized Child Psychology.






The Secure Base Script:                                      

How Early Attachment Experience Is Represented in the Mind


This monograph length report of recent research describes several years of work on script-like representations of early secure base experience. In collaboration with students and colleagues they have completed a number of studies examining links between adults' script-like attachment representations and their AAI classifications, their infants' Strange Situations classifications, and co-construction of children's attachment representations. The report also includes data on the cross-cultural generality of script-like attachment representations, the development of attachment representations in adolescence, and on generalized versus relationship specific attachment representations.


This work is a significant contribution to our understanding of the cognitive architecture of attachment representations. The specificity and economy of the assessments developed in this work are proving helpful in basic and applied research. The methods also have potential for use in screening and other clinical applications.


The Adult Attachment Interview has focused attention on the roles mental representations play in adolescent and adult relationships. It has also made possible tests of a wide ranging hypotheses about the long term stability of attachment security, cross-generational transmission of individual differences, and the importance of attachment security in marriage.


Although conceptualized in terms of "attachment working models" and "states of mind with respect to attachment", the AAI provides only a sample of verbal behavior from which the coder makes inferences about the organization of underlying representations. Neither the architecture nore the content of the underlying representation is specified or directly measured.


This project begins with an explicit definition of a cognitive structure called the "secure base script". The elements of the script are: (1) Parent and child (or two adults) are interacting constructively, (2) something interferes or interrupts the interaction, (3) the child (or one partner) is distressed, (4) help is requested, (5) help is offered, (6) the offer of help is accepted, (7) the help is effective, (8) distress is relieved, and (9) constructive interaction is re-established. This script summarizes the common temporal-causal sequences experienced in secure base interactions throughout infancy, childhood, and beyond.


Dr. Waters has adapted a method she developed for research on the development of prose production skills to assess adolescents' and adults knowledge of the secure base script. Subjects are presented with a set 10-14 prompt words that suggest a secure base story line. Subjects are asked to build a brief story around the prompt words. Those for whom the secure base script is familiar and accessible immediately (if not necessarily consciously) assimilate the prompt word set to this familiar cognitive structure and tell a story organized around the secure base script. E.g. the prompt words mother, baby, blanket, play, bump, cry, etc. suggests a story in which mother and baby are playing on a blanket; baby somehow bumps something and begins to cry, etc. In contrast, subjects who do not know the secure base script might tell a story in which a mother takes her baby to the dry cleaning store to pick up a blanket; on the way they pass some children playing; the mother watches them instead of the road and bumps into the car ahead of her, etc.


This method is extremely easy to administer and score and provides highly reliable scores on the subject's knowledge of the secure base script. In addition, it can be adapted to assess generalized (a mother and her child) or specific (my mother and me) representations. Data comparing script knowledge using mother-child and adult-adult prompt word sets has shown that infant-parent and adult-adult relationships access a single secure base representation, not different representations for the two types of relationship. This is of considerable theoretical importance in research on the notion that infant-mother relationships are protypes for later love relationships.


Ongoing Training:


Harriet Waters has continued to offer training in the Scripts Assessment to researchers internationally. This happens several times over the course of the year.
























































Infant Attachment Security and 
Maternal Attachment Representations























































The Generality of Attachment Representations Across Cultures


Harriet Waters, Ph.D.            Ana Zevalos, Ph.D.





The cross-cultural generality of attachment theory is an enduring topic of discussion and controversy. Bowlby described the capacity to form secure base relationships as a species specific, part of every human infant's genetic endowment. At the same time, there is ample evidence that culture is an important factor in many aspects of parental care and adult-adult relationships. Early research on the cross-cultural relevance of Bowlby's theory focused almost exclusively on the Strange Situation. Some argued saw evidence for generality in the fact that the procedure seemed "scorable" in diverse cultures. Others argued that rates of secure, avoidant, and resistant classifications were importantly different across cultures.


In fact, Bowlby's theory neither predicts nor requires that the Strange Situation be scorable or valid across cultures. Nor does it require simlar rates of Strange Situation classifications across cultures. It does require that infants in every culture have the capacity to organize their behavior along the lines defined by the secure base concept. It also requires that the link between sensitivity, cooperation, etc. and coherent secure base behavior, demonstrated by Ainsworth, apply in all cultures. Posada (SRCD Monograph, 1985); Developmental Psychology, 1999, 2002) has provided strong positive support on both points.


Bowlby's theory also requires that individuals in every culture construct mental representations of their secure base experiences. Ana Zevallos and Harriet Waters are using the prompt-word secure base script assessment to test this hypothesis. The method is easily adapted for cross-cultural use and easily scored without knowledge of the culture involved. So far they have collected data from, Peru, Zimbabwe, Switzerland, The United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Turkey. In every case, it is quite clear that adults organize their early secure base experience in terms of the secure base script mentioned above. This is a useful support for an important prediction about the cross-cultural generality of Bowlby's attachment theory.




ADHD, Comorbidity, and Maternal Attachment Representations


Judith Crowell, M.D.   Sarit Guttman-Steinmetz, Ph.D.                   


If script-like representations of secure base experience are the architectural underpinnings of adult attachment representations, then the AAI and prompt-word secure base script assessments should be (a) significantly and substantially correlated and (b) have similar relations to other variables. AAI coherence is indeed significantly and substantially correlated with knowledge of and access to a sceure base script. This study examines the extent to which they have similar correlates in a child clinical population. Previous work by Crowell et al. has shown that rates of insecure AAI classifications are substantially elevated among mothers of children in a child out patient clinical sample. Interestingly, the effect was due almost exclusively to mothers whose children with ADHD plus and additional comorbid diagnosis of anxiety, conduct disorder, or depression. Insecure attachment was not elevated among mothers of children with ADHD alone or with speach and learning disorders. We expect the prompt-word secure base script assessment will yield the same pattern of results.



Theodore Waters, Ph.D.  

Dr. Waters has extended the work of his parents in furthering the understanding of the cognitive underpinnings of attachment representations. The following are abstracts and links to his studies:



The latent structure of secure base script knowledge.

Waters TE, Fraley RC, Groh AM, Steele RD, Vaughn BE, Bost KK, Veríssimo M, Coppola G, Roisman 



There is increasing evidence that attachment representations abstracted from childhood experiences with primary caregivers are organized as a cognitive script describing secure base use and support (i.e., the secure base script). To date, however, the latent structure of secure base script knowledge has gone unexamined-this despite that such basic information about the factor structure and distributional properties of these individual differences has important conceptual implications for our understanding of how representations of early experience are organized and generalized, as well as methodological significance in relation to maximizing statistical power and precision. In this study, we report factor and taxometric analyses that examined the latent structure of secure base script knowledge in 2 large samples. Results suggested that variation in secure base script knowledge-as measured by both the adolescent (N = 674) and adult (N = 714) versions of the Attachment Script Assessment-is generalized across relationships and continuously distributed.




Secure base representations in middle childhood across two Western cultures: Associations with parental attachment representations and maternal reports of behavior problems.

Waters, Theodore E. A.; Bosmans, Guy; Vandevivere, Eva; Dujardin, Adinda; Waters, Harriet S.

Developmental Psychology, Vol 51(8), Aug 2015, 1013-1025.



Recent work examining the content and organization of attachment representations suggests that 1 way in which we represent the attachment relationship is in the form of a cognitive script. This work has largely focused on early childhood or adolescence/adulthood, leaving a large gap in our understanding of script-like attachment representations in the middle childhood period. We present 2 studies and provide 3 critical pieces of evidence regarding the presence of a script-like representation of the attachment relationship in middle childhood. We present evidence that a middle childhood attachment script assessment tapped a stable underlying script using samples drawn from 2 western cultures, the United States (Study 1) and Belgium (Study 2). We also found evidence suggestive of the intergenerational transmission of secure base script knowledge (Study 1) and relations between secure base script knowledge and symptoms of psychopathology in middle childhood (Study 2). The results from this investigation represent an important downward extension of the secure base script construct. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved)




Mothers As Observers


Debbie Leung, Ph.D.


Most previous research on maternal care has focused on maternal sensitivity to signals and cooperation vs. interference with ongoing behavior. This new line of research is examining the relation between mothers' attachment representations and their ability to (a) evaluate videotaped examples of mother-infant interaction, (b) learn to score sensitivity and cooperation vs. interference, and (c) generalize training to different ages and behavioral content. We hope the work will provide insights into the processes underlying sensitive cooperative care. We will also explore links between such skills an mothers' ability to serve effectively as a co-therapist.




Commentaries On Attachment Assessment



Everett Waters, Ph.D.


In addition to participating in a number of the studies above, Dr. Waters has recently worked with a number of Consortium members to prepare commentaries on current issues in attachment assessment. One such commentary follows up discussions from the Consortium's Summer 2002 Adult Attachment conference. Issues discussed include (a) whether a developmental perspective is integral to adult attachment theory in the Bowlby tradition, (b) whether attachment theory should be focused on secure base related phenomena or strive to be a general theory of personality, relationships, emotion, and psychopathology, (c) lack of coherence across different modes of assessment, (d) trait and relationship conceptualizations of attachment individual differences, and (e) differing views of attachment and emotion.


A second commentary discussed the theoretical and empirical underpinnings for the "patterns of attachment" concept. As experimental psychologists have demonstrated, humans are prone to see discrete types and patterns where there are none and to simplify experience for storage by reducing complex arrays to a few key features. Accordingly, classification schemes should always be suspect. One of the most useful lines of argument in support of a proposed taxonomy is a detailed discussion of mechanisms that could produce such structure. Attachment theorists have rarely considered whether there are mechanisms that could plausibly explain discrete patterns of attachment. In any event, nothing in the logic of Bowlby's attachment theory predicts or requires that individual differences in attachment security organize into distinct categories. Both dimensional and categorical assessments have their uses. The choice in any particular context has more to do with psychometric and design issues than with attachment theory.

Consortium Associates


Everett Waters co-edited a special issue of Attachment and Human Development on Maternal Sensitivity




Attachment in Cross-Cultural Perspective



German Posada, Ph.D.


This research focuses on the development of child-parent relationships in consideration of context and is guided by attachment theory. Overall, the research has addressed questions concerning unexamined core theoretical assumptions about (the cross-cultural generality of) child-parent attachment relationships, the study of attachment relationships beyond infancy in early childhood, and the validation of age-appropriate methodologies to assess parental secure base support, child secure-base behavior, and parent and children’s organization of information about secure base relationships in early childhood.


Specifically, I have investigated the cross-cultural generality of the secure-base phenomenon in infancy. In a collaborative study, information gathered in 7 different countries provided empirical support for the cross-cultural generality of the secure-base phenomenon. It also showed that, despite their generality, child-mother secure-base relationships are organized in diverse ways both within and across cultures. I have also investigated the generality of the association between maternal sensitivity and infant security. Results indicate that the link exists in a cultural context different from Western industrialized countries and in samples from different social classes. I am currently examining this further in a study of infant carrying practices and maternal care in Colombia.


Another aspect of my research focuses on the development of child-parent relationships after infancy. I am currently investigating the role of secure base support in maintaining the organization of secure-base behavior in early childhood. Also, I am studying the relations between child secure base behavior and the organization of information about secure base relationships in both children and their mothers from a cross-cultural perspective. Finally, another aspect of my research focuses on methodological issues in the study of child-mother attachment relationships. I am interested in the development of tools and strategies to facilitate observations of child-mother interactions in naturalistic contexts (i.e., home, parks, and hospitals). 





The Origins and Underpinnings of Trust


Bulent Turan, Ph.D.


Following attachment theory, one aspect of the knowledge structure about close relationships includes knowledge about a partner’s likely future supportiveness or responsiveness. A knowledgeable person should recognize cues indicating that the partner will be there for support at times of distress. Therefore, we developed a measure that could be used to assess this aspect of a person’s knowledge. First, a large number of possible indicators were obtained from a sample of respondents. These indicators were then evaluated by another group. The group consensus was used to evaluate the quality of each indicator. Analyses strongly suggested that this knowledge has a prototype structure. If this is the case, the prototype structure should affect information processing in this domain. To test this hypothesis, a false recognition study is being conducted.


The cues that were rated highest corresponded well to those predicted by attachment theory. This hypothesis was also formally tested asking participants to rate how similar each cue is to the caregiving styles proposed to predict secure attachment of a baby (responsive caregiving that consists of sensitivity, acceptance, respect for autonomy, and cooperation; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Participants were also asked to rate how desirable each cue is in a relationship. The ratings for similarity to responsive caregiving and informativeness of trustworthiness produced very similar clusters (cluster analysis) and a very similar factor structure (factor analysis). However, the cluster and factor analyses produced a completely different picture for ratings of “desirability in a relationship”, suggesting that our findings are not solely due to how positive and desirable each item is viewed.




The secure base script and the task of caring for elderly parents: implications for attachment theory and clinical practice


Authors: Chen; Waters; Hartman; Zimmerman; Miklowitz; Waters

Source: Attachment & Human Development, Volume 15, Number 3, 1 May 2013, pp. 332-348(17)

Publisher: Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group




This study explores links between adults’ attachment representations and the task of caring for elderly parents with dementia. Participants were 87 adults serving as primary caregivers of a parent or parent-in-law with dementia. Waters and Waters’ (2006) Attachment Script Assessment was adapted to assess script-like attachment representation in the context of caring for their elderly parent. The quality of adult–elderly parent interactions was assessed using the Level of Expressed Emotions Scale (Cole & Kazarian, 1988) and self-report measures of caregivers’ perception of caregiving as difficult. Caregivers’ secure base script knowledge predicted lower levels of negative expressed emotion. This effect was moderated by the extent to which participants experienced caring for elderly parents as difficult. Attachment representations played a greater role in caregiving when caregiving tasks were perceived as more difficult. These results support the hypothesis that attachment representations influence the quality of care that adults provide their elderly parents. Clinical implications are discussed.



AAI coherence predicts caregiving and care seeking behavior: Secure base script knowledge helps explain why

Authors: Waters1; Brockmeyer2; Crowell3

Source: Attachment & Human Development, Volume 15, Number 3, 1 May 2013, pp. 316-331(16)

Publisher: Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group



Previous research has demonstrated significant links between the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) and secure base use and support in marital interactions. The mechanisms underlying such findings have not been examined in detail. This paper examines the hypothesis that script-like attachment representations shape both attachment narratives and attachment-related caregiving behavior and thus helps explain the correlation between them. Crowell et al. (2002) reported that AAI transcript coherence is significantly related to adults’ caregiving and care seeking in couple problem solving interactions. In a random selection of 60 cases from that study, we assessed the extent to which interviewees conceptualized their early attachment experiences in terms of a secure base script. A series of regression analyses demonstrated that approximately 80% of the correlation between AAI coherence and laboratory caregiving and care seeking reported by Crowell et al. (2002) is accounted for by secure base script knowledge. Scoring secure base script knowledge from AAI transcripts is a useful step toward understanding links between early experience, adult attachment representations, and adults’ ability to provide and seek support in close relationships.



Other Center-Sponsored Research:


1) Dean Petters, Ph.D. received support to enable his collaboration with Everett Waters to further his understanding of the computer modeling of attachment. Please see his website for references to this work.


2) Markus Maier, Ph.D.  received support to further understand the attachment process by studying the unconscious representations of attachment utilizing the priming method of research. Following is an abstract of an illustrative paper:


Internal working models of attachment (IWMs) are presumed to be largely unconscious representations of childhood attachment experiences. Several instruments have been developed to assess IWMs; some of them are based on self-report and others on narrative interview techniques. This study investigated the capacity of a self-report measure, the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (IPPA; Armsden & Greenberg, 1987), and of a narrative interview method, the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI; George, Kaplan, & Main, 1985), to measure unconscious attachment models. We compared scores on the two attachment instruments to response latencies in an attachment priming task. It was shown that attachment organisation assessed by the AAI correlates with priming effects, whereas the IPPA scales were inversely or not related to priming. The results are interpreted as support for the assumption that the AAI assesses, to a certain degree, unconscious working models of attachment.


3)  Funding was provided to German Posada, Ph.D. and colleagues from Columbia, SA to further study the quality of maternal care that results from infants placed in ‘kangaroo care’ (keeping a pre-term infant in a sling and continually attached to the mother or other caretakers).



Additional Reference:

Carbonell, O. A., Plata, S. J., Peña P. A., Cristo, M. B., & Posada, G. (2010). Quality of maternal care: A comparison of preterm infants in kangaroo mother care and full-term infants in regular care. Universitas Psychologica, 9, 773-785




The purpose of this study was to examine the potential impact of an intervention program (Kangaroo Mother Care, KMC) on maternal sensitivity in a sample of high-risk adolescent mothers. Two mother-infant groups were compared: adolescent mothers with their preterm baby in kangaroo care and adolescent mothers with their full-term baby in regular care. Naturalistic observations at the home environment were conducted to assess maternal quality of care. No significant differences were found between both groups of dyads. Results are in line with the notion that KMC seems to play a protective role for adolescent mothers and their premature babies, given the additional risk factor of prematurity when compared to the full term group. These preliminary findings are stimulating and support further inquiry into effects of KMC on maternal sensitivity particularly in high-risk populations.






4) John Grienenberger, Ph.D., Kristen Kelly, Ph.D. and Arietta Slade, Ph.D.


A grant was also given by the Center for a study conducted by these authors. This study focused on a mother’s ability to understand her child’s mind; that is, what is it that he or she might be feeling or thinking at any given moment. This is the means by which the mother's own history of relationship with her parents, and the degree to which it was satisfactory or not, then becomes highly relevant to the child’s sense of self and his relationships to others. Thus, the degree to which a parent has the capacity to comprehend the developing mind of the child will then give the child a sense of his own mind.




This study examines the link between mental representations and maternal behavior within the intergenerational transmission of attachment. Maternal reflective functioning was hypothesized to predict the quality of mother – infant affective communication based on the AMBIANCE measure. Each of these measures was also considered as a predictor of the quality of infant attachment. The subjects were 45 mothers and their 10 – 14-month-old infants. Results supported each of the study’s major hypotheses. The AMBIANCE measure and the reflective functioning measure had a strong negative correlation. Thus, the level of disruption in mother–infant affective communication was inversely related to the level of maternal reflective functioning. The AMBIANCE measure was also shown to be a very good predictor of infant attachment. Mothers with high AMBIANCE scores were more likely to have infants classified as disorganized or resistant, whereas mothers with low AMBIANCE scores were more likely to have infants classified as secure. A linear regression analysis indicated that maternal behavior mediates the impact of maternal reflective functioning upon infant attachment. Implications for attachment theory and early intervention are explored.


A related paper by Grienenberger and Slade: 

Maternal Reflective Functioning, Mother-Infant Affective Communication, and Infant Attachment: Implications for Psychodynamic Treatment with Children and Families 




Tamara Kaminer, Ph.D.


Dr. Kaminer received support from the Center as a post-doctoral fellow to pursue her work on maternal support of exploration, which she entitled The Play Partnership: Maternal Support For Explorations of the Fantasy World.


The secure base phenomenon is one of the cornerstones of attachment theory. A great deal of research has examined links between maternal care and the ability in infancy and childhood to explore and master the physical environment. The present research extends this work by examining the caregiver's role in support of explorations into the realm of fantasy. Children and mothers are observed playing with a variety of toys that lend themselves to pretend play. We have developed a scoring system that evaluates both the child's interest and enthusiasm in delving into pretend play and the mother's support for such explorations.


The term play partnership refers to dyadic interaction in which the mother is facilitative but not intrusive and the child is curious and engaged and understands the conventions of pretend play. Although pretend play depends on the maturation of certain cognitive skills, it is also substantially a product of parent-child interaction. The lessons underpinning fluent and extensive pretend play include (a) knowledge of reciprocal roles and turn taking, (b) understanding that you can pretend behavior that you wouldn't really do, (c) the expectation that you can select and develop your own lines of play without intrusions or interference, (d) trust that mother will accept pretended behavior as playful and beyond sanction, and (e) confidence that mother will be available and supportive if the play takes an uncertain or frightening turn.


We are currently looking at the links between maternal attachment representations and the quality of the mother-child play partnership. We hope this work will cast light on an important new facet of the secure base phenomenon and also help us understand individual differences in mothers' ability to serve effectivley as a co-therapist.








Harriet Waters, Ph.D.

Stony Brook University

Everett Waters, Ph.D.

Stony Brook University


Research related to Scripts Assessment



The Cognitive Structure of Secure Base Scripts


Susan Brockmeyer, Ph.D.        David Corcoran, Ph.D.


One of the key limitations of the AAI is its failure to define a particular architecture for adult attachment representations. Our work suggests that important aspects of early attachment experience are represented as a script-like structure. Experimental psychologists have demonstrated that script-like structure has a number of distinctive effects on learning and memory.


We are using a variety of experimental paradigms including concept learning, prose production, free recall, and false recognition to validate the notion that attachment representations are literally (not metaphorically) script-like. We predict that subjects whose attachment experiences have been organized in terms of a secure base script will (a) learn more quickly to identify secure base versus non-secure base stories in a concept learning paradigm, (b) be much slower to produce passages from secure base prompt word sets presented in non-standard order, (c) have better recall for script-related propositions encountered in passages about close relationships, and (d) will be more likely to falsely recognize script relevant propositions in a recognition memory task.

Positive results in these studies would be strong evidence for the notion that the architecture of attachment representations is substantially organized around script-like temporal-causal structures. This would have important implications for the kinds of learning and memory processes involved in the development of attachment

representations and for the mechanisms through which they effect behavior.



David Corcoran, Ph.D.      Morgan Tini, Ph.D.


The prompt word secure base script assessment is among the strongest correlates of the AAI. However, this alone does not imply that the measures are interchangable. It is entirely possible for two measures to be highly correlated and yet have very different patterns of correlations with other variables.


The close association of a mother's AAI classification with her infant's Strange Situation classification is one of the most influential findings in adult attachment research. We are currently conducting a cross-sectional study to determine whether, like maternal AAI classifications, mothers' knowledge and access to the secure base s

script is associated with their infant's Strange Situation classifications. Preliminary analyses conducted for SRCD 2003 indicate that the script based measure and the Strange Situation parallel those of the AAI. This is important evidence that the notion of a secure base script is relevant to understanding the AAI. It also supports the use of the script assessment in research that focuses on the secure vs. insecure distinction and requires greater specificity and economy than the AAI can provide.


Previous research has shown that attachment self report measures are not substantially or consistently related to the AAI. Nor are they, in our data, related to offspring's Strange Situation classification. This is further evidence that the AAI and and the self report measures assess different constructs.