Adult Attachment Interview

The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), developed by Mary Main and associates, has been identified as an effective, psychometrically sound instrument with which to measure an individual’s internal working model or state of mind regarding childhood attachment. The potentially detrimental influences of poor recall, social desirability, and naive lying associated with self-report measures of childhood attachment are substantially bypassed with the AAI. The AAI does not make classifications based primarily on reported events in childhood but rather on the thoughtfulness and coherency with which the adult is able to describe and evaluate these childhood experiences and their effects.

The AAI is a structured, semiclinical 20-question interview designed to elicit the individual’s account of his or her childhood attachment experiences, together with his or her evaluations of those experiences on present functioning. It explores the quality of these childhood relationships and the memories that might justify them. The AAI is transcribed verbatim, with all hesitations carefully recorded and with only the transcript used in the analysis of the interview.

The AAI results in five classifications of state of mind regarding childhood attachment, which parallel those derived from M. D. S. Ainsworth’s system, which is based on the “Strange Situation.” Briefly, this procedure entails having the child enter an unfamiliar laboratory setting with a stranger present, filled with toys, with his or her caregiver. The caregiver then leaves twice and returns twice over a 20-minute period. Based on their responses, individuals are classified into one of the five attachment categories described below. Individuals with a secure state of mind regarding attachment value relationships and grow to desire intimacy with others. Individuals classified as Dismissing tend to be devaluing of relationships. Such individuals may idealize relationships from their past but are cut off from related feelings or dismiss their significance. They may also be derogating of attachment in that they demonstrate a contemptuous dismissal of attachment relationships. Individuals with a preoccupied state of mind are described as confused and unobjective. They may seem passive, vague or angry, conflicted, and unconvincingly analytical. The Unresolved category deals specifically with loss and abuse, and the Cannot Classify category is used when an individual does not fit clearly into any of the other classifications. Individuals categorized into one of the two disorganized patterns (i.e., Unresolved or Cannot Classify) of attachment can always be assigned to a best-fitting organized (Secure, Dismissing, Preoccupied) classification as well. That is, all individuals are believed to have one overriding organized state of mind regarding childhood attachment.

Several studies have examined the psychometric properties of the AAI (see Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn and Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, 1996, for a summary). The AAI state-of-mind classifications are stable across 5-year periods, within 77% to 90%. One study found that individuals’ response to the Strange Situation at 1 year of age was highly correlated (80%) to their AAI classification 20 years later. The AAI has been found to be unrelated to measures of intelligence, to both long- and short-term memory, to discourse patterns when individuals are interviewed on other topics, to interviewer effects, and to social desirability. Meta-analytic work has also supported the use of the AAI across several populations, including high-risk groups.

Tania Stirpe and colleagues employed the AAI with various groups of sexual offenders, examining five groups of subjects: extrafamilial child molesters (child molesters), intrafamilial child molesters (incest offenders), and sexual offenders against adult females (rapists) and two nonsexual offender comparison groups (violent and nonviolent). In addition, groups were compared with reference to normative data on the AAI. Results indicated that the majority of sexual offenders were insecure in their state of mind regarding attachment, representing a marked difference from normative samples. Although insecurity of attachment was common to all groups of offenders rather than specific to sexual offenders, there were important differences between groups with regard to the type of insecurity. Most notable were the child molesters, who were much more likely to be Preoccupied in their state of mind regarding attachment. Rapists, violent offenders, and, to a lesser degree, incest offenders, were more likely to have a Dismissing state of mind regarding attachment. Although still most likely to be judged Dismissing, nonviolent offenders were comparatively more likely than the other groups to be Secure. There were no differences between groups when Unresolved and Cannot Classify AAI classifications were considered. These findings provide evidence for the specificity of insecure attachment with regard to sexual offending, over and above its possibly more general influence on criminality.

Implications and Areas for Future Study

Research using the AAI has implications for the assessment and treatment of sexual offenders. Identifying the state of mind regarding attachment, together with its associated beliefs and interpersonal strategies, may provide valuable insight into the motivational strategies underlying offenses. As S. W. Smallbone and associates have argued, the intimacy problems faced by an individual whose offending is characterized by a devaluing of attachment are very different from those faced by one who fears rejection and offends in an attempt to cultivate a “relationship” with the victim.

Research suggests that early insecure attachment experiences may place some men at risk for later offending. More specifically, some have suggested that these early experiences may contribute to sexual offending within a particular interpersonal context. Further research is required; however, the current empirical literature represents an important step in incorporating attachment theory into the etiology of sexual offending and in acknowledging that sexual offending may be constructively understood in terms of the relationship context in which it takes place. The AAI is the “gold standard” in attachment research but has rarely been used with forensic populations.


  1. Main, M., & Goldwyn, R. (1998). Adult attachment rating and classification systems: Adult attachment coding manual. Unpublished scoring manual, Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley.
  2. Smallbone, S., & Dadds, M. (1998). Childhood attachment and adult attachment in incarcerated adult male sex offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13(5), 555-573.
  3. Stirpe, T., Abracen, J., Stermac, L., & Wilson, R. (2006). Sexual offenders’ state-of-mind regarding childhood attachment: A controlled investigation. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 18, 289-302.
  4. van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J. (1996). Attachment representations in mothers, fathers, adolescents, and clinical groups: A meta-analytic search for normative data. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(1), 8-21.
  5. Ward, T., Hudson, S., Marshall, W., & Siegert, R. (1995). Attachment style and intimacy deficits in sexual offenders: A theoretical framework. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 7(4), 317-335.

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