Insecure Attachment and Lack of Regret for Committed Crimes: A Precursor to Lack of Remorse?

Insecure Attachment and Lack of Regret for Committed Crimes: A Precursor to Lack of Remorse?

In a sample of incarcerated Lebanese men, insecure attachment was associated with lower mentalizing capacities. Furthermore, these deficits in mentalizing capacity predicted lack of regret about the crime committed. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health | 2020, Vol. 19, No. 2, 183-197

Do Prisoners Mentalize Differently? Investigating Attachment and Reflective Functioning in a Sample of Incarcerated Lebanese Men


Rudy Abi-Habib, Lebanese American University
Nourhane Wehbe, Lebanese American University
Karim Badr, Lebanese American University
Pia Tohme, Lebanese American University


Insecure attachment and deficits in mentalizing have been consistently found to be correlated with increased delinquency, conduct disorder and antisocial behaviors. This has been explained by a distancing from the other’s needs and feelings or by an incapacity to consider the effects of one’s behaviors on others. The current study is the first to investigate the association between attachment and mentalizing in a sample of 172 incarcerated Lebanese men, between the ages of 19 and 65, looking for predictors of regret towards the crime committed. Results suggested a significant correlation between insecure attachment and lower mentalizing capacities in our sample. Furthermore, deficits in mentalization, more specifically hypomentalizing strategies, were found to predict a lack of regret towards the crime committed. Findings are discussed within the attachment and mentalization framework, considering cross-cultural influences, guiding future intervention and prevention programs within Lebanese prisons and at-risk groups.


Prison, reflective functioning, attachment, Lebanon, mentalizing

Summary of the Research

“Empathy can be understood as a multidimensional construct, including both a cognitive and an emotional component…The cognitive component, referring to the ability to put oneself in the other’s shoes and take into account his/her perspective, can be compared to mentalization…Empathy has been found to be modestly negatively correlated to aggression and acting out…with a higher effect size for cognitive rather than emotional empathy…It can therefore be argued that related constructs, such as emotion dysregulation or low mentalizing capacities could better explain aggressive behaviors….” (pp.183-184).

“Attachment theory, which focuses on the quality of the early parent-infant caregiving relationship, provides a framework explaining the development of conduct disorder in childhood and later antisocial behaviors in adulthood…Children whose parents are not emotionally available tend to develop an insecure attachment style (avoidant), in which one feels distance from any social institution/norm, becoming more likely to get involved in conduct problem behaviors…This type of attachment is characterized by a distorted image of the self, low self-esteem, and a difficulty in regulating affect, especially in highly emotional situations…Within samples of incarcerated men, a handful of studies converge in finding a high prevalence of insecure attachment…” (pp.183-184).

“Another line of research explaining violent and antisocial behaviors focused on the role of narcissism in mentalizing and promoting official offending…narcissistic traits do not impact one’s ability to understand what the other is feeling but impede one’s capacity to ‘feel with the other…’ In terms of mentalizing, it can be hypothesized that patients suffering from NPD [narcissistic personality disorder] tend not to mentalize as a way to retain a sense of self, rendering them more vulnerable to becoming violent…It has been theorized that aggression and violence, sometimes leading to crime, could be used by the narcissistic person as a way to defend against external threats to his view of himself…” (pp.184-185).

“This exploratory cross-sectional study aims to investigate attachment and reflective functioning in a sample of Lebanese incarcerated men. We expected to find a) a positive correlation between high mentalizing and similar measures such as empathy and emotion regulation, and a negative correlation between high mentalizing and attachment avoidance and anxiety, b) a negative correlation between high mentalizing and high narcissism. Given the importance of regret in predicting the possibility and severity of reoffending, the final aim was to explore whether mentalizing, attachment and narcissism scores relate to whether or not one regretted the crime committed” (p.186).

“Findings revealed an interaction between hypomentalizing strategies, avoidant attachment, low empathetic concern, and emotion regulation using expressive suppression, highlighting the concrete thinking and distancing strategies used by this population. Attachment theory was found to be associated with hypermentalizing strategies, explaining incarcerated men’s inability to take the other’s perspective, thus facilitating the resort to violent strategies…this study is the first to extend Western findings to Lebanon, providing further evidence to the relation between insecure attachment styles and low mentalizing capacities in incarcerated men. These strategies put them at increased risk of offending, due to a failure in mentalizing, which leads to in ability to link external behaviors with their effects on internal mental states of the self and the other..” (p.193).

Translating Research into Practice

“Findings emphasizing the role of hypomentalizing on the level of regret felt towards the crime committed provide a basis in guiding future intervention programs within Lebanese prisons. These should focus on increasing mentalizing capacities, as well as reducing avoidance strategies, based on providing alternative conflict resolution strategies where only one solution is entertained. Mentalization-based interventions could be applied to help incarcerated men lean towards more complex ways of understanding the mind, helping them realize what might have been going on for them at the time of the offense, promoting empathy towards the other; they may also allow them to entertain other solutions to the problem. This entails moving away from concrete deterministic thinking of ‘there is no other way’ towards acknowledging more complex solutions…These interventions have been found to be effective in reducing antisocial behavior in previous studies…and can be used to reduce the possibility of repeated offense in Lebanon” (p.192).

“A key finding relates to the roles of regret and the offender’s capacity to express remorse in decreasing the risk for future offense…interventions should also focus on acknowledging responsibility and possibly making amends, in line with a restorative justice perspective. These programs would emphasize the crucial role played by dynamic internal factors, tackling emotions, CU [callous unemotional] traits, and antisocial cognition, in an attempt to decrease recidivism…” (p.193).

“We argue in favor of the need to create a rehabilitative service within the Lebanese prison system, instead of the isolating and punitive one currently in use. One way of implementing this would be…to include a psychological screening at the time of incarceration, not only assessing for psychological disorders, but also assessing attachment and mentalizing capacities. This would enable trained psychologists to set up homogenous interventions for groups and individuals, based on the type of crime committed and the date of release. These interventions will aim at increasing mentalizing capacities in the prospect of social reinsertion and decreasing chances of re-offense. On a nationwide level, these results could also guide prevention programs in at-risk, low socio-economic populations…” (p.193).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Another hypothesis could be set forth in explaining high levels of hypomentalizing in this population. Taking into account the non-significant correlation between RFQu [Uncertainty about Mental States] and empathy, it can be argued that incarcerated men have the capacity to acknowledge the potential effect of committing a crime but distance themselves from their own feelings at the same time…In fact, [prior researchers] postulated that people suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder tend to have lower mentalizing capacities about themselves while being able to read the mind of others in order to deceive or exploit them. This misuse of mentalizing facilitates acting upon one’s impulses, even if it meant breaking the law. This concrete pre-mentalizing strategy could also lead to rationalization of the crime committed through self-entitlement and the justification that there was no other alternative…” (p.190).

“…from a cross-cultural point of view, it can be hypothesized that the moderate narcissism scores [in this sample] could reflect collectivist thinking which devalues this type of behavior as harmful to collective harmony…We propose further research investigating narcissistic traits in the general Lebanese population in order to better understand its relationship to potential violent behavior or crime. It could be posited that antisocial and criminal behaviors could be partly understood including other factors, such as supporting and providing for one’s family and putting others’ needs first. This is a prominent characteristic of collectivistic thought which counters narcissistic behaviors” (p.191).

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