The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI)
The AAI in Research and Media
- How the Adult Attachment Interview Became the Most Important Development in Attachment Research
- Ten Clinical Uses of the Adult Attachment Interview
Why Do We Use the AAI?
When attachment theory was blossoming, it didn’t provide an accompanying toolbox of tactics and techniques, though it did offer a new therapeutic attitude, justifying deep, soul-felt work, which offered a genuinely new beginning towards treatment for adult attachment disorder.
Psychodynamic therapists certainly understood the enduring impact of childhood experiences, but even if they’d been fascinated by attachment studies, it was still an open question how these early mother–child bonds might play out in adult psychopathology.
Beginning in the 1970s and throughout the ’80s, Mary Main–a research psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley–began interviewing parents and studying their interactions with their babies.
In those days, the groundbreaking innovations influencing clinical practice came not from the attachment literature, but from the iconoclastic rebels promulgating the gospel of family systems theory.
In the study, they found that attachment rejection or trauma in a mother’s childhood was systematically related to the same sort of attachment issues between her and her child.
From this kind of attachment research, Main and her colleagues devised an interview method—the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI).
This interview contained 20 open-ended questions about people’s recollections of their own childhood, including:
- Think of five adjectives that reflect your relationship with your mother.
- What’s the first time you remember being separated from your parents?
- Did you ever feel rejected?
- Did you experience the loss of someone close to you?
- How do you think your experience affected your adult personality?
More important than the specific content gathered from this attachment research—which could be more or less accurate—was the way people responded.
Whether their personal narratives were coherent or confused, whether they dismissed the questions with short, uninformative answers, or whether they rambled on pointlessly provided real—and ultimately, empirically validated—insights about their state of mind, emotional processes, and capacity to form relationships.
Main’s goal, she said, was to “surprise the unconscious” into revealing itself. Furthermore, the AAI has, over the years of repeated use, been found capable of targeting, with more than 80 percent predictability, how a child of the adult interviewee would be attached to his/her parent.
While other variants of adult attachment measures have been developed, the AAI set the stage for an empirically validated way of following the transmission of attachment patterns from generation to generation—documenting a kind of psychic lineage from parent to child to grandchild.
In fact, according to psychology researchers Howard and Miriam Steele in Clinical Applications of the Adult Attachment Interview, the AAI was “the single most important development in attachment research over the last 25 years.“
Mary Sykes Wylie and Lynn Turner
We offer the AAI and Dr. Bein is also trained in scoring Reflective Functioning (RF), which is one of the highest correlates we have with secure attachment.
Experience of Close Relationships Scale (ECR-R)
Basic Description of Measure
A 36-item measure of adult attachment style. For each item, the subject indicates on a 1 to 7 scale, whether they Strongly Disagree or Strongly Agree with the item, respectively. The ECR-R measures individuals on two subscales of attachment: Avoidance and Anxiety. In general, Avoidant individuals are uncomfortable with intimacy and pursue independence; while Anxious or Preoccupied individuals tend to fear rejection and abandonment.
Findings: After analyzing the data, a number is yielded that represents the degree to which the subject is endorsing either anxious or avoidant items. Any score that is a 5 or above is considered clinically relevant and usually indicative some degree of impairment in functioning.
Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-10)
Brief Description of Measure
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) is a classic stress assessment instrument. The tool, while originally developed in 1983, remains a popular choice for helping us understand how different situations affect our feelings and our perceived stress. The questions in this scale ask about your feelings and thoughts during the last month. In each case, you will be asked to indicate how often you felt or thought a certain way. Although some of the questions are similar, there are differences between them and you should treat each one as a separate question. The best approach is to answer fairly quickly. That is, don’t try to count up the number of times you felt a particular way; rather indicate the alternative that seems like a reasonable estimate.
Similar to the ECR-R, the PSS gives a number of items that the subject is to endorse on a 0 to 4 scale; 0 = Never, 1 = Almost Never, 2 = Sometimes, 3 = Fairly Often, and 4 = Often.
The AAI vs Self Report Measures
Adapted from Phillip R. Shaver
University of California, Davis
R. Chris Fraley
“…what is most important for you to know is that self-report measures of romantic attachment and the AAI were initially developed completely independently and for quite different purposes. (One asks about a person’s feelings and behaviors in the context of romantic or other close relationships; the other is used to make inferences about the defenses associated with an adult’s current state of mind regarding childhood relationships with parents. In principle, these might have been substantially associated, but in fact they seem to be only moderately related–at least as currently assessed. One kind of measure receives its construct validity mostly from studies of romantic relationships, the other from prediction of a person’s child’s behavior in Ainsworth’s Strange Situation. Correlations of the two kinds of measures with other variables are likely to differ, although a few studies have found the AAI to be related to marital relationship quality and a few have found self-report romantic attachment measures to be related to parenting (e.g., Rholes, Simpson, & Blakey, 1996; Rholes et al., 1997.) A meta-analytic review of the associations between self-report measures of attachment and the AAI is available in Roisman, Holland, Fortuna, Fraley, Clausell, & Clarke (2007).
In summary, we place the greatest weight on results deriving from multi-item dimensional measures because they have demonstrated the greatest precision and validity (Brennan et al., 1998; Fraley & Waller, 1998). We encourage researchers interested in romantic and other close peer relationships to continue to explore the old measures in order to determine what their advantages and limitations may be, but not to base their primary analyses on these measures. We also encourage researchers to continue to concern themselves with measurement issues in this domain. Although we believe that substantial progress has been made in measuring adult romantic attachment and dealing with the theoretical issues involved, there are many gaps waiting to be filled and improvements waiting to be made.”