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We present experimental and numerical results demonstrating the drastic influence of attractive forces on the behaviour of the atomic force microscope when operated in the resonant tapping tip mode in an ambient environment. It is often assumed that tapping is related to repulsive interaction. In contrast, we find that in general the attractive forces are the most dominant interaction in this mode of operation. We show that attractive forces in combination with the repulsive elastic type of forces cause points of instability in the parameter space constituted by: the cantilever swing amplitude, the frequency bias point, and the distance between the fixed end of the cantilever and the sample. These points of instability can result in disturbances during image acquisition on hard elastic surfaces. © 1997 American Institute of Physics.