Theory of Mind and attachment styles in people with psychotic disorders, their siblings, and controls

Karin Pos*, Agna A. Bartels-Velthuis, Claudia J. P. Simons, Nikie Korver-Nieberg, Carin J. Meijer, Lieuwe de Haan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Objective: Impaired Theory of Mind (ToM) and insecure (adult) attachment styles have been found in persons with schizophrenia as well as in their healthy siblings. ToM refers to the ability to infer mental states of self and others including beliefs and emotions. Insecure attachment is proposed to underlie impaired ToM, and comprises avoidant (discomfort with close relationships, high value of autonomy) and anxious (separation anxiety, dependency on others) attachment. Insight into the association between attachment style and ToM is clinically relevant, as it enhances our understanding and clinical approach to social dysfunction in schizophrenia. Therefore, we studied the association between insecure attachment styles and ToM in patients with schizophrenia, their siblings, and healthy controls. Methods: A total of 111 patients with a diagnosis in the schizophrenia spectrum, 106 non-affected siblings and 63 controls completed the Psychosis Attachment Measure, the Conflicting Beliefs and Emotions, a subsection of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, and the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire-Short Form. Severity of symptoms was assessed with the Community Assessment of Psychic Experiences and the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale. Results: After controlling for sex, intelligence, history of trauma and symptom severity, avoidant attachment was significantly associated with cognitive as well as with affective ToM, showing U-shaped associations, indicating better ToM performance for patients with lower or higher levels of avoidant attachment compared to medium levels. Anxious attachment in patients was associated with more problems in cognitive ToM. Conclusion: The results from this study support the idea that an anxious attachment style is associated with worse ToM performance in patients. Results also suggested a potential protective role of higher levels of avoidant attachment on ToM. These findings bear clinical relevance, as activation of (insecure) attachment mechanisms may affect interpersonal relations, as well as therapeutic working alliance. Further clarification is needed, especially on associations between ToM and avoidant attachment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-180
JournalAustralian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015


  • Attachment
  • schizophrenia
  • social cognition


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