1993, Vol. 100,
No. 4. 674‑701
Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent
A Developmental Taxonomy
Terrie E. Moffitt
A dual taxonomy is presented to reconcile 2
incongruous facts about antisocial behavior: (a) It shows impressive
continuity over age, but (b) its prevalence changes dramatically over age,
increasing almost 10‑fold temporarily during adolescence. This article
suggests that delinquency conceals 2 distinct categories of individuals, each
with a unique natural history and etiology: A small group engages in
antisocial behavior of 1 sort or another at every life stage, whereas a larger
group is antisocial only during adolescence. According to the theory of 1ife‑course‑persistent antisocial behavior, children's
neuropsychological problems interact cumulatively with their criminogenic
environments across development, culminating in a pathological personality.
According to the theory of adolescence‑limited
antisocial behavior, a contemporary maturity gap encourages teens to mimic
antisocial behavior in ways that are normative and adjustive.
on this article was supported by the Violence and Traumatic Stress Branch of
the National Institute of Mental Health (Grants MH43746, MH45070, and MH45548)
and by the Program on Human Development and Antisocial Behavior, a joint
project of the MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute of Justice.
During writing, I was hosted by the Institute for Personality Assessment and
Research of the University of California at Berkeley
the persistent help of Avshalom Caspi, this article would not have been done.
Other colleagues also helped to hone the ideas: Thomas Achenbach, Robert
Cairns, Felton Earls, David Farrington, Bill Henry, Ben Lahev, Richard Linster,
Rolf Loeber, Gerald Patterson, Steven Raudenbusch, Albert Reiss, Jr., Lee
Robins, Robert Sampson, Richard Tremblay, Christy Visher, and Jennifer White.
Ericka Overgard prepared the figures and edited the article.
article should be addressed to Terrie E. Moffitt, Department of Psychology,
University of Wisconsin at Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706‑1611.
are marked individual differences in the stability of antisocial behavior. Many people behave antisocially, but their
antisocial behavior is temporary and situational. In contrast, the
antisocial behavior of some people is very stable and persistent. Temporary,
situational antisocial behavior is quite common in the population, especially
among adolescents. Persistent, stable antisocial behavior is found among a
relatively small number of males whose behavior problems are also quite
extreme. The central tenet of this article is that temporary versus persistent
antisocial persons constitute two qualitatively distinct types of persons. In
particular, I suggest that juvenile delinquency conceals two qualitatively
distinct categories of individuals, each in need of its own distinct
course, systems for classifying types of antisocial persons have been
introduced before (e.g., American Psychiatric Association, 1987; Chaiken &
Chaiken, 1984; Hare, Hart, & Harpur, 1991; Jesness & Haapanen, 1982;
Lahey et al., 1990; Megargee, 1976; Moffitt, 1990a; Quay, 1966; Warren, 1969).
However, none of these
classifications has acquired the ascendancy necessary to guide mainstream
criminology and psycho‑pathology research. Indeed, "general"
theories of crime (e.g., Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990), comparisons of
delinquent versus nondelinquent groups (e.g., Feehan, Stanton, McGee,
Silva, & Moffitt, 1990), and arraying samples of subjects along antisocial
dimensions (e.g., Fergusson, Horwood, & Lloyd, 1991) remain the status
antisocial classification schemes may have failed to capture the imaginations
of social scientists because, although they provided more or less accurate
behavioral descriptions of antisocial subtypes, they offered relatively little
in the way of etiological or predictive validity (Morey, 1991). A
classification becomes a taxonomy if it engenders assertions about origins and
outcomes by weaving a nomological net of relationships between the taxa and
their correlates (Meehl & Golden, 1982). A taxon carries a network of
meaning over and above a behavioral description; it includes implications for
etiology, course, prognosis, treatment, and relations with other taxa.
Previous classifications of antisocial behavior have not been extended into
theories, and "it is theory that provides the glue that holds a classification
together and gives it both its scientific and its clinical relevance" (Millon,
1991, p. 257; Quine, 1977). In this article, I elaborate on the distinction
between temporary and persistent antisocial behavior and offer a pair of new
developmental theories of criminal behavior that are based on this
distinction. The theories are accompanied by refutable predictions.
correct, this simple typology can serve a powerful organizing function, with
important implications for theory and research on the causes of crime. For
delinquents whose criminal activity is confined to the adolescent years, the
causal factors may be proximal, specific to the period of adolescent development,
and theory must account for the discontinuity in their lives. In contrast, for
persons whose adolescent delinquency is merely one inflection in a continuous
lifelong antisocial course, a theory of antisocial behavior must locate its
causal factors early in their childhoods and must explain the continuity in
their troubled lives.
dual taxonomy (and its two theories) that I propose in this article is best
introduced with reference to the mysterious relationship between age and
antisocial behavior. This relationship is at once the most robust and least understood empirical observation in the
field of criminology.
Age and Antisocial Behavior
official rates of crime are plotted against age, the rates for both prevalence
and incidence of offending appear highest during adolescence; they peak
sharply at about age 17 and drop precipitously in young adulthood. The
majority of criminal offenders are teenagers; by the early 20s, the number of
active offenders decreases by over 50%, and by age 28, almost 85% of former
delinquents desist from offending (Blumstein & Cohen, 1987; Farrington,
1986). With slight variations, this general relationship between age and
crime obtains among males and females, for most types of crimes, during
recent historical periods and in numerous Western nations (Hirschi &
Gottfredson, 1983). A prototype of the empirical curve of criminal offenses
over age is shown in Figure 1.
recently, research on age and crime has relied on official data, primarily
arrest and conviction records. As a result, the left‑hand side of the
age‑crime curve has been censored. Indeed, in many empirical
comparisons between early‑onset and late‑onset antisocial
behavior, early has been
artifactually defined as mid‑adolescence on the basis of first police
arrest or court conviction (cf. Farrington, Loeber, Elliott, et al., 1990;
Tolan, 1987). However, research on childhood conduct disorder has now
documented that antisocial behavior begins long before the age when it is
first encoded in police data banks. Indeed, it is now known that the steep
decline in antisocial behavior between ages 17 and 30 is mirrored by a steep
incline in antisocial behavior between ages 7 and 17 (Loeber, Stouthamer‑Loeber,
Van Kammen, & Farrington, 1989; Wolfgang, Figlio, & Sellin, 1972).
This extension to the age‑crime curve is plotted in Figure 2.
Furthermore, we may venture across disciplinary boundaries to add
developmental psychologists' reports of childhood aggression (Pepler &
Rubin, 1991) and mental health researchers' reports of conduct disorder (Kazdin,
1987) to criminologists' studies of self‑reported delinquency and
official crime. So doing, it becomes obvious that manifestations of antisocial
behavior emerge very early in the life course and remain present thereafter.
the advent of alternate measurement strategies, most notably
self‑reports of deviant behavior, researchers have learned that arrest
statistics merely reflect the tip of the deviance iceberg (Hood &
Sparks, 1970; Klein, 1989). Actual rates of illegal behavior soar so high
during adolescence that participation in delinquency appears to be a normal
part of teen life (Elliott, Ageton, Huizinga, Knowles, & Canter, 1983).
With the liberty of some artistic license, the curved line plotted in Figure 3
may be taken to represent what is currently known about the prevalence of
antisocial behaviors over the life course.
there is widespread agreement about the curve of crime over age, there are few
convincing explanations for the shape of the curve. Until recently, scholars
still disagreed about whether the adolescent peak represented a change in
prevalence or a change in incidence: Does adolescence bring an increment in
the number of people who are willing to offend or does the small and constant
number of offenders simply generate more criminal acts while they are
adolescent? Empirical evaluations now suggest that the former explanation is
correct. In his English study of offense rates over age, Farrington (1983)
showed that the adolescent peak reflects a temporary increase in the number of
people involved in antisocial behavior, not a temporary acceleration in the
offense rates of individuals. This finding has been replicated in American
samples (Wolfgang, Thornberry, & Figlio, 1987). The small human figures
under the curve of Figure 3 portray these changes in prevalence.
whence the increase in the prevalence of offenders? One possibility is that
some phenomenon unique to adolescent development causes throngs of new
adolescent offenders to temporarily join the few stable antisocial
individuals in their delinquent ways. Figure 3 depicts the typological
thesis to be argued here. A small group of persons is shown engaging in
antisocial behavior of one sort or another at every stage of life. I have labeled
these persons life‑course‑persistent
to reflect the continuous course of their antisocial behavior. A larger
group of persons fills out the age‑crime curve with crime careers of
shorter duration. I have labeled these persons adolescence‑limited
to reflect their more temporary involvement in antisocial behavior. Thus,
timing and duration of the course of antisocial involvement are the defining
features in the natural histories of the two proposed types of offenders.
oft‑cited rules of thumb asserted by Robins (1978) seem to
simultaneously assert and deny the life‑course stability of antisocial
behavior: "Adult antisocial behaviour virtually requires
childhood antisocial behaviour [yet] most antisocial youths do not become antisocial adults" (p. 611). In fact, research has
shown that antisocial behavior is remarkably stable across time and
circumstance for some persons but decidedly unstable for most other people.
stability of antisocial behavior is closely linked to its extremity. The
extreme frequency of crime committed by a very few males is impressive; it has
been repeatedly shown that the most persistent 5% or 6% of offenders are
responsible for about 50% of known crimes (see Farrington, Ohlin, &
Wilson, 1986, for a review). In their study of 10,000 men, Wolfgang et al.
(1972) found that 6% of offenders accounted for more than half of the crimes
committed by the sample; relative to other offenders, these high‑rate
offenders began their criminal careers earlier and continued them for more
years. The relationship between stability and extremity is found in samples
of children as well. In his analysis of a sample of third‑grade boys,
Patterson (1982) found that the most aggressive 5% of the boys constituted the
most persistent group as well; 39% of them ranked above the 95th percentile on
aggression 10 years later, and 100% of them were still above the median.
Similarly, Loeber (1982) has reviewed research showing that stability of
youngsters' antisocial behavior across time is linked with stability across
that both forms of stability are characteristic of a relatively small group of
persons with extremely antisocial behavior.
in defiance of regression to the mean, a group of extremely antisocial
persons remain extreme on measures taken at later ages and in different
situations. Among other persons, however, temporary and situational
manifestations of antisocial behavior (even to severe levels) may be quite
point is vividly illustrated in a longitudinal investigation of a
representative cohort of 1,037 New Zealand children born in 1972‑1973.
In this sample, I compared the base rates of persistent and temporary
antisocial behavior problems (Moffitt, 1991). I identified a group of boys
whose antisocial behavior was rated above average at each of seven biennial
assessments (ages 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15). The boys were also rated as
very antisocial by three different reporting agents (parents, teachers, and
self). Five percent of the boys in the sample met these selection criteria.
As a group, their mean antisocial ratings were more than a standard deviation
above the norm for boys at every age. In contrast, fully two thirds of the
remaining boys were rated above average on antisocial checklists as well but
at only one or two ages or by only one reporter, illustrating that stability
cannot be inferred from cross‑sectional measures of extremity (Henry,
Moffitt, Robins, Earls, & Silva, 1993). A disproportionate amount of the
measured stability in the New Zealand sample could be attributed to the 5%
of boys whose antisocial behavior was both extreme and consistent. For
example, when these few boys were excluded from calculations, the 8‑year
stability coefficient for teacher ratings was reduced from .28 (R²
= .078) to .16 (R² = .025),
indicating that 5% of the sample accounted for 68% of the sample's stability.
(If antisocial behavior had been a stable characteristic throughout the
sample, with most boys retaining their relative standing in the group across
time, then excluding the top 5% of the sample should not have affected the
stability coefficient.) In summary, there appear to be noteworthy individual
differences in the stability of antisocial behavior.
I have already alluded to the small number of persons in the general
population whose antisocial behavior is life‑course‑persistent.
In fact, epidemiological research has shown that there is remarkable
uniformity in the prevalence rates of different manifestations of severe
antisocial behavior: Regardless of their age, under 10% of males warrant an
"official" antisocial designation. For example, about 5% of
preschool boys are considered by their parents or caretakers to be "very
difficult to manage" (McGee, Partridge, Williams, & Silva, 1991). The
prevalence of conduct disorder among
elementary‑school‑aged boys has been found to be between 4% and 9%
in several countries (Costello, 1989; Rutter, Tizard, & Whitmore, 1970).
About 6% of boys are first arrested by police as preteens (Moffitt &
Silva, 1988c; Wolfgang et al., 1972); such early arrest is important because
it is the best predictor of long‑term recidivistic offending. The rate
of conviction for a violent offense in young adult males is between 3% and
6% (Moffitt, Mednick, & Gabrielli, 1989), and about 4% of male adolescents
self‑report sustained careers of serious violence (three or more violent
offenses per year for 5 years; Elliott, Huizinga, & Morse, 1986). Finally,
the prevalence of men with antisocial personality disorder is estimated at
about 4% to 5% (Davison & Neale, 1990; Robins, 1985).
is possible, of course, that the persons who constitute these epidemiological
statistics at different ages are all different individuals. However, the
longitudinal data suggest otherwise: It is more likely that the remarkable
constancy of prevalence rates reflects the reoccurrence of the same
life‑course‑persistent individuals in different antisocial
categories at different ages. Robins (1966, 1978) has shown that there are
virtually no subjects with adult antisocial personality disorder who did not
also have conduct disorder as children. White, Moffitt, Earls, Robins, and
Silva (1990) found notable continuity from disobedient and aggressive
behavior at age 3 to later childhood conduct disorder and thence to arrest by
police in the early teen years. Loeber (1982) reviewed research that pinpoints
a first arrest between ages 7 and 11 as particularly important for predicting
long‑term adult offending. Hare and McPherson (1984) have reported that
a conviction for violence in the early 20s is characteristic of almost all
men who become diagnosed with antisocial (psychopathic) personality
are still gaps in the epidemiological database; each of the earlier cited
studies connected only two or three points in the life course. Nonetheless,
the consistency is impressive: A substantial body of longitudinal research
consistently points to a very small group of males who display high rates of
antisocial behavior across time and in diverse situations. The professional
nomenclature may change, but the faces remain the same as they drift through
successive systems aimed at curbing their deviance: schools,
juvenile‑justice programs, psychiatric treatment centers, and prisons.
The topography of their behavior may change with changing opportunities, but
the underlying disposition persists throughout the life course.
a few males evidence antisocial behavior that emerges in toddlerhood and is
persistent thereafter, the majority of boys who become antisocial first do so
during adolescence (Elliott, Knowles, & Canter, 1981). This tidal wave of
adolescent onset has been studied in the aforementioned representative sample
of New Zealand boys (Moffitt, 1991). Between ages 11 and 15, about one third
of the sample joined the delinquent lifestyles of the 5% of boys who had shown
stable and pervasive antisocial behavior since preschool. As a group, these
adolescent newcomers to antisocial ways had not formerly exceeded the
normative levels of antisocial behavior for boys at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, or 11.
Despite their lack of prior experience, by age 15, the newcomers equaled their
preschool‑onset antisocial peers in the variety of laws they had broken,
the frequency with which they broke them, and the number of times they
appeared in juvenile court (Moffitt, 1991). On the basis of such common1y used
indexes, of adolescent delinquency, the two delinquent groups were
indistinguishable. Thus, if the sample was viewed only as an adolescent cross
section, researchers would lose sight of the two delinquent groups' very
different developmental histories, seeing only delinquents and nondelinquents.
researchers and practitioners cannot yet effectively assign individual
delinquent adolescents to meaningful subtypes on the basis of
cross‑sectional "snapshots" of their antisocial behavior
during adolescence (Loeber & LeBlanc, 1990; Moffitt, 1990a). Again, the
New Zealand sample provides an example: At age 15, both the
childhood‑persistent and adolescent‑onset groups had members who
scored more than 5 standard deviations above the mean on self‑report
delinquency, and by age 19 both groups had some members with more than 50
convictions for crimes in the New Zealand courts. Elliott and Huizinga (1984)
reported similarly poor classification in a representative sample of
American teens. They attempted to discriminate, at the time of first arrest,
individual future career offenders from adolescence‑limited offenders.
Discrimination could not be improved beyond chance by entering the kinds of
information typically available to officials: type of current offense, age,
sex, race, class, involvement with delinquent peers, and attitudes toward
deviance. Addition of measures of the extremity of self‑reported
delinquency and emotional problems improved prediction only 7% beyond chance.
Earlier, I noted that the stability of antisocial behavior implies its
extremity but that extremity does not imply stability, measures of the frequency
or seriousness of adolescent offending will not discriminate very well
between life‑course‑persistent and adolescence-limited
delinquents. On the basis of their study and others, Elliott and Huizinga
concluded that there is "no effective means for discriminating between
the serious career offenders and nonserious offenders" (p. 98). A notable
feature of the taxonomy introduced in this article is that knowledge of a
subject's preadolescent behavior is required
for making the differential diagnosis between the
life‑course‑persistent and adolescence-limited types of
antisocial teenager. Longitudinal designs are needed to collect the lifetime
repeated measures that are needed to distinguish individual differences in the
developmental course of antisocial behavior.[i]
have argued in this section that juvenile delinquency conceals two
categories of people. A very large group participates in antisocial behavior
during adolescence. A much smaller group, who continues serious antisocial
behavior throughout adulthood, is the same group whose antisocial behavior
was stable across the years from early childhood.
The categories remain hypothetical types, because no longitudinal study has
yet repeatedly measured antisocial behavior in a representative sample of
the same individuals from preschool to midlife. I describe in the next
sections the two hypothetical types of antisocial youth:
life‑course‑persistent and adolescence‑limited. I argue that
the two groups differ in etiology, developmental course, prognosis, and,
importantly, classification of their behavior as either pathological or
normative. The goal of this article is to proffer a description of the two
types in the form of a set of testable predictions.
account of the life‑course‑persistent antisocial type follows
this plan: In the first section, Continuity
of Antisocial Behavior Defined, I provide a definition and description
of persistent antisocial behavior. In the second section, Beginnings: Neuropsychological Risk for Difficult Temperament and
Behavioral Problems, I present the hypothesis that persistent antisocial
behavior has its origins in an interaction between children's neuropsychological
vulnerabilities and criminogenic environments. In the third section, Maintenance
and Elaboration Over the Life Course: Cumulative Continuity Contemporary Continuity,
and Narrowing Options for Change, I introduce the cumulative and
contemporary processes that maintain antisocial behavior across time and that
expand antisocial behavior into a pervasive adult life‑style. In the
fourth section, I summarize the theory's perspective on continuity, and in the
fifth section, I make a case that life‑course‑persistent
antisocial behavior is a form of psychopathology.
of Antisocial Behavior Defined
implied by the label, continuity is the hallmark of the small group of
life‑course‑persistent antisocial persons. Across, the life
course, these individuals exhibit changing manifestations of antisocial
behavior: biting and hitting at age 4, shoplifting and truancy at age 10,
selling drugs and stealing cars at age 16, robbery and rape at age 22, and
fraud and child abuse at age 30; the underlying disposition remains the same,
but its expression changes form as new social opportunities arise at
different points in development. This pattern of continuity across age is
matched also by cross‑situational consistency:
Life‑course‑persistent antisocial persons lie at home, steal
from shops, cheat at school, fight in bars, and embezzle at work (Farrington,
1991; Loeber, 1982; Loeber & Baicker‑McKee, 1989; Robins, 1966,
1978; White et al., 1990).
The concept of behavioral coherence, or heterotypic
continuity, is invoked here to extend observations of continuity beyond
the mere persistence of a single behavior to encompass a variety of antisocial
expressions that emerge as development affords new opportunities. Heterotypic
continuity refers to continuity of an inferred trait or attribute that is
presumed to underlie diverse phenotypic behaviors (Kagan, 1969). As Kagan and
Moss (1962) suggested, a specific behavior in childhood might not be
predictive of phenotypically similar behavior later in adulthood, but it may
still be associated with behaviors that are conceptually
consistent with the earlier behavior.
of heterotypic continuities have been reported by Ryder (1967), who found that
childhood aggression, physical adventurousness, and nonconformity were related
to adult sexual behavior. Another example of coherence is provided in a 22-year
follow‑up study of men and women who had been rated as aggressive by
their peers in late childhood (Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz, & Walder, 1984).
As adults, the men were likely to commit serious criminal acts, abuse their
spouses, and drive while intoxicated, whereas the women were likely to punish
their offspring severely. Another example of personality coherence is the
finding that the developmental antecedents of erratic work histories may be
found in phenotypically dissimilar attributes of difficult temperament in
childhood (Caspi, Elder, & Bem, 1987). In addition, in their hallmark
study, West and Farrington (1977) observed that stealing, alcohol abuse,
sexual promiscuity, reckless driving, and violence were linked across the life
course. The prognosis for the life‑course‑persistent person is
bleak: Drug and alcohol addiction: unsatisfactory employment, unpaid debts;
homelessness; drunk driving; violent assault; multiple and unstable
relationships; spouse battery; abandoned, neglected, or abused children; and
psychiatric illness have all been reported at very high rates for offenders
who persist past the age of 25 (Farrington
& West, 1990; Robins, 1966; Sampson & Laub, 1990). Thus, this
theory of life‑course-persistent antisocial behavior predicts
continuity across the entire life course but allows that the underlying
disposition will change its manifestation when age and social
circumstances alter opportunities.
reports of the continuity of antisocial styles from childhood to young
adulthood abound, the outcomes of antisocial individuals during midlife have
seldom been examined. The pattern of official crime over age (Figure 1)
implies that criminal offending all but disappears by midlife,[ii]
but there is no reason to expect that life‑course‑persistents
miraculously assume prosocial tendencies after an antisocial tenure of
several decades. Indeed, criminal psychopaths decrease their number of
arrestable offenses at about age 40, but the constellation of antisocial
personality traits described by Cleckley (1976) persists in male samples at
least until age 69 (Harpur & Hare, 1991).
As I argue in the third section of this article (Maintenance),
an analysis of the cumulative developmental forces underlying the
continuity of aggression from childhood to adulthood will predict continuity
on into midlife as well. Beyond young adulthood, the antisocial disposition of
life‑course‑persistents may be expressed in a form that is
simply not yet well measured by epidemiological surveys of official crime: One
such possibility is neglect and abuse of family members. Consistent with
this hypothesis, Farrington and West (1990) found that half of the persistent
offenders in the Cambridge longitudinal study self‑reported having hit
their spouses when they were interviewed at age 32. Fagan and Wexler (1987)
reviewed studies showing that spouse battery is often preceded by a history of
violence against strangers. Also, crime statistics show that, whereas property
crimes peak in the teen years and drop thereafter, family violence offenses
show a steady increase with age (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1986). Research is
needed that follows offenders into late adulthood while measuring multiple
indicators of an antisocial life‑style.
Neuropsychological Risk for Difficult
and Behavioral Problems
some individuals' antisocial behavior is stable from preschool to adulthood
as the data imply, then investigators are compelled to look for its roots
early in life, in factors that are present before or soon after birth. It is
possible that the etiological chain begins with some factor capable of
producing individual differences in the neuropsychological functions of the
infant nervous system. Factors that influence infant neural development
are myriad, and many of them have been empirically linked to antisocial
possible source of neuropsychological variation that is linked to problem
behavior is disruption in the ontogenesis of the fetal brain. Minor physical
anomalies, which are thought to be observable markers for hidden anomalies in
neural development, have been found at elevated rates among violent
offenders and subjects with antisocial personality traits (Fogel, Mednick,
& Michelson, 1985; E. Kandel, Brennan, & Mednick, 1989; Paulhus &
Martin, 1986). Neural development may be disrupted by maternal drug abuse,
poor prenatal nutrition, or pre-or postnatal exposure to toxic agents (Needleman
& Beringer, 1981; Rodning, Beckwith, & Howard, 1989; Stewart, 1983).
Even brain insult suffered because of complications during delivery has been
empirically linked to later violence and antisocial behavior in carefully
designed longitudinal studies (E. Kandel & Mednick, 1991; Szatmari,
Reitsma‑Street, & Offord, 1986). In addition, some individual
differences in neuropsychological health are heritable in origin (Borecki
& Ashton, 1984; Martin, Jardine, & Eaves, 1984; Plomin, Nitz, &
Rowe, 1990; Tambs, Sundet, & Magnus. 1984: Vandenberg, 1969). Just as
parents and children share facial resemblances, they share some structural and
functional similarities within their nervous systems. After birth, neural
development may be disrupted by neonatal deprivation of nutrition,
stimulation, and even affection (Cravioto & Arrieta, 1983; Kraemer, 1988;
Meany, Aitken, van Berkel, Bhatnagar, & Sapolsky, 1988). Some studies have
pointed to child abuse and neglect as possible sources of brain injury in the
histories of delinquents with neuropsychological impairment (Lewis, Shanok,
Pincus, & Glaser, 1979; Milner & McCanne,
1991; Tarter, Hegedus, Winsten, & Alterman, 1984).
is good evidence that children who ultimately become persistently antisocial
do suffer from deficits in neuropsychological abilities. I have elsewhere
reviewed the available empirical and theoretical literatures; the link between
neuropsychological impairment and antisocial outcomes is one of the most
robust effects in the study of antisocial behavior (Moffitt, 1990b; Moffitt
& Henry, 1991; see also Hirschi & Hindelang, 1977). Two sorts of
neuropsychological deficits are empirically associated with antisocial
behavior: verbal and "executive" functions. The verbal deficits of
antisocial children are pervasive, affecting receptive listening and reading,
problem solving, expressive speech and writing, and memory. In addition,
executive deficits produce what is sometimes referred to as a comportmental
learning disability (Price, Daffner, Stowe, & Mesulam, 1990), including
symptoms such as inattention and impulsivity. These cognitive deficits and
antisocial behavior share variance that is independent of social class, race,
test motivation, and academic attainment (Moffitt, 1990b; Lynam, Moffitt,
& Stouthamer-Loeber, 1993). In addition, the relation is not an artifact
of slowwitted delinquents' greater susceptibility to detection by police;
undetected delinquents have weak cognitive skills too (Moffitt & Silva,
evidence is strong that neuropsychological deficits are linked to the kind of
antisocial behavior that begins in childhood and is sustained for lengthy
periods. In a series of articles (Moffitt, 1990a; Moffitt & Henry, 1989;
Moffitt & Silva, 1988b), I have shown that poor verbal and executive
functions are associated with antisocial behavior, if it is extreme and
persistent. In these studies, adolescent New Zealand boys who exhibited
symptoms of both conduct disorder and attention‑deficit disorder with
hyperactivity (ADDH) scored very poorly on neuropsychological tests of
verbal and executive functions and had histories of extreme antisocial
behavior that persisted from age 3 to age 15. Apparently, their
neuropsychological deficits were as long standing as their antisocial
behavior; at ages 3 and 5 these boys had scored more than a standard deviation
below the age norm for boys on the Bayley and McCarthy tests of motor coordination
and on the Stanford‑Binet test of cognitive performance. Contrast
groups of boys with single diagnoses of either conduct disorder or ADDH did
not have neuropsychological deficits or cognitive‑motor delays, but
neither were their behavior problems stable over time.
a study designed to improve on measurement of executive functions (White,
Moffitt, Caspi, Jeglum, Needles, & Stouthamer‑Loeber, in press), we
gathered data on self‑control and impulsivity for 430 Pittsburgh youths.
Twelve measures were taken from multiple sources (mother, teacher, self, and
observer) by using multiple methods (rating scales, performance tests,
computer games, Q sorts, and videotaped observations). A linear composite of
the impulsivity measures was strongly related to the 3‑year longevity of
antisocial behavior, even after controlling for IQ, race, and social class.
Boys who were very delinquent from ages 10 to 13 scored significantly higher
on impulsivity than both their nondelinquent and temporarily delinquent
age‑mates. Taken together, the New Zealand and Pittsburgh longitudinal
studies suggest that neuropsychological dysfunctions that manifest
themselves as poor scores on tests of language and
self‑control‑-and as the inattentive, overactive, and impulsive
symptoms of ADDH‑-are linked with the early childhood emergence of
aggressive antisocial behavior and with its subsequent persistence.
Neuropsychological variation and the "difficult " infant.
describing how neuropsychological variation might constitute risk for
antisocial behavior, it is useful to define what is meant here by
neuropsychological. By combining neuro with
psychological, I refer broadly to the extent to which anatomical
structures and physiological processes within the nervous system influence
psychological characteristics such as temperament, behavioral development,
cognitive abilities, or all three. For
example, individual variation in brain function may engender differences
between children in activity level, emotional reactivity, or
self‑regulation (temperament); speech, motor coordination, or impulse
control (behavioral development); and attention, language, learning, memory,
or reasoning (cognitive abilities).
with neurological difficulties severe enough to constitute autism, severe
physical handicap, or profound mental retardation are usually identified and
specially treated by parents and professionals. However, other infants have
subclinical levels of problems that affect the difficulty of rearing them, variously
referred to as difficult temperament, language or motor delays, or mild
cognitive deficits. Compromised neuropsychological functions are associated
with a variety of consequences for infants' cognitive and motor development as
well as for their personality development (Rothbart & Derryberry, 1981).
Toddlers with subtle neuropsychological deficits may be clumsy and awkward,
overactive, inattentive, irritable, impulsive, hard to keep on schedule,
delayed in reaching developmental milestones, poor at verbal comprehension,
deficient at expressing themselves, or slow at learning new things (Rutter,
1977, 1983; Thomas & Chess, 1977; Wender, 1971).
(1983) has described an empirical test of the proposed relationship between
neurological damage and difficult behavior in infancy. She studied a sample of
66 low‑birth‑weight infants from intact middle‑class
families. Symptoms of brain dysfunction detected during neurological
examinations were significantly related to an index of difficult temperament
taken at ages 1, 2, and 3 (Thomas & Chess, 1977; the index comprised
rhythmicity, adaptability, approach‑withdrawal, intensity, and mood).
The parents of the children with neurological impairment and difficult
temperament more often sought help from child psychiatrists as their children
grew up, and the most frequent presenting complaints were immaturity,
overactivity, temper tantrums, poor attention, and poor school performance.
Each of these childhood problems has been linked by research to later
antisocial outcomes (cf. Moffitt, 1990a, 1990b). Importantly, the
impairments of the children with neural damage were not massive; their mean IQ
score was 96 (only 4 points below the population mean). Hertzig's study showed
that even subtle neurological deficits can influence an infant's temperament
and behavior, the difficulty of rearing the infant, and behavioral problems
in later childhood.
Child‑environment covariation in nature: A source of interactional
continuity. Up to this point, I have emphasized in this article the
characteristics of the developing child as if environments were held
constant. Unfortunately, children with cognitive and temperamental
disadvantages are not generally born into supportive environments, nor do they
even get a fair chance of being randomly assigned to good or bad environments.
Unlike the aforementioned infants in Hertzig's (1983) study of temperament
and neurological symptoms, most low‑birth weight infants are not born
into intact, middle‑class families.
Vulnerable infants are disproportionately found in
environments that will not be ameliorative because many sources of neural
maldevelopment co‑occur with family disadvantage or deviance.
because some characteristics of parents and children tend to be correlated,
parents of children who are at risk for antisocial behavior often
inadvertently provide their children with criminogenic environments (Sameroff
& Chandler, 1975). The intergenerational transmission of severe antisocial
behavior has been carefully documented in a study of three generations (Huesmann
et al., 1984). In that study of 600 subjects, the stability of individuals'
aggressive behavior from age 8 to age 30 was exceeded by the stability of
aggression across the generations: from grandparent to parent to child.
Thus, with regard to risk for antisocial behavior, nature does not follow a 2
X 2 design with equal cell sizes.
and children resemble each other on temperament and personality. Thus, parents
of children who are difficult to manage often lack the necessary psychological
and physical resources to cope constructively with a difficult child (Scarr
& McCartney, 1983; Snyder & Patterson, 1987). For example,
temperamental traits such as activity level and irritability are known to be
partly heritable (Plomin, Chipuer, & Loehlin, 1990). This suggests that
children whose hyperactivity and angry outbursts might be curbed by firm
discipline will tend to have parents who are inconsistent disciplinarians; the
parents tend to be impatient and irritable too. The converse is also true:
Empirical evidence has been found for a relationship between variations in
parents' warmth and infants' easiness (Plomin, Chipuer, & Loehlin, 1990).
and children also resemble each other on cognitive ability. The known
heritability of measured intelligence (Plomin, 1990; Loehlin, 1989) implies
that children who are most in need of remedial cognitive stimulation will have
parents who may be least able to provide it. Moreover, parents' cognitive
abilities set limits on their own educational and occupational attainment
(Barrett & Depinet, 1991). As one consequence, families whose members have below‑average cognitive capacities
will often be least able financially to obtain professional interventions or
optimal remedial schooling for their at‑risk children.
the social and structural aspects of the environment may be stacked against
children who enter the world at risk. Plomin and Bergeman (1990) have shown
that there are genetic components to measures that are commonly used by
developmental psychologists to assess socialization environments. For
example, the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment scale, the
Moos Family Environment scales, and the
and Rahe scales of stressful life events all revealed the influence
of heritable factors when they were examined with behavior genetic
research designs (Plomin & Bergeman, 1990). Vulnerable children are often
subject to adverse homes and neighborhoods because their parents are
vulnerable to problems too (cf. Lahey et al., 1990).
Importantly, although examples from behavior genetics research have
been cited in the previous three paragraphs, the perverse compounding of
children's vulnerabilities with their families' imperfections does not require
that the child's neuropsychological risk arise from any genetic disposition.
In fact, for my purposes, it is immaterial whether parent‑child
similarities arise from shared genes or shared homes. A home environment
wherein prenatal care is haphazard, drugs are used during pregnancy, and
infants' nutritional needs are neglected is a setting where sources of
children's neuropsychological dysfunction that are clearly environmental
coexist with a criminogenic social environment.
child‑problem parent interactions and the emergence of antisocial
believe that the juxtaposition of a vulnerable and difficult infant with an
adverse rearing context initiates risk for the
life‑course‑persistent pattern of antisocial behavior. The
ensuing process is a transactional one in which the challenge of coping with a
difficult child evokes a chain of failed parent‑child encounters (Sameroff
& Chandler, 1975). The assertion that children exert important effects on
their social environments is useful in understanding this hypothetical
process (Bell & Chapman, 1986). It is now widely acknowledged that
personality and behavior are shaped in large measure by interactions between
the person and the environment (cf. Buss, 1987; Plomin, DeFries, &
Loehlin, 1977; Scarr & McCartney, 1983). One form of interaction may play
a particularly important role both in promoting an antisocial style and in
maintaining its continuity across the life course: Evocative interaction
occurs when a child's behavior evokes distinctive responses from others (Caspi
et al., 1987).
with neuropsychological problems evoke a challenge to even the most
resourceful, loving, and patient families. For example, Tinsley and Parke
(1983) have reviewed literature showing that low‑birth‑weight,
premature infants negatively influence the behavior of their caretakers;
they arrive before parents are prepared, their crying patterns are rated as
more disturbing and irritating, and parents report that they are less satisfying
to feed, less pleasant to hold, and more demanding to care for than healthy
babies. Many parents of preterm infants hold unrealistic expectations about
their children's attainment of developmental milestones, and these may
contribute to later dysfunctional parent‑child relationships (Tinsley
& Parke, 1983). More disturbing, an infant's neurological health status
has been shown to be related to risk for maltreatment and neglect (Friedrich
& Boriskin, 1976: Frodi et al., 1978; Hunter, Kilstrom, Kraybill, &
Loda, 1978; Milowe & Lowrie, 1964; Sandgrund, Gaines, & Green, 1974).
studies have shown that a toddler's problem behaviors may affect the
parents' disciplinary strategies as well as subsequent interactions with
adults and peers (Bell & Chapman, 1986; Chess & Thomas, 1987). For
example, children characterized by a difficult temperament in infancy are more
likely to resist their mothers' efforts to control them in early childhood (Lee & Bates, 1985). Similarly, mothers of
difficult boys experience more problems in their efforts to socialize their
children. Maccoby and Jacklin (1983) showed that over time these mothers
reduce their efforts to actively guide and direct their children's behavior
and become increasingly less involved in the teaching process. In a study of
unrelated mothers and children, K. E. Anderson, Lytton, and Romney (1986)
observed conduct‑disordered and nonproblem boys interacting with mothers
of conduct‑disordered and nonproblem sons in unrelated pairs. The
conduct‑disordered boys evoked more negative reactions from both types
of mothers than did normal boys, but the two types of mothers did not differ
from each other in their negative reactions. It may well be that early
behavioral difficulties contribute to the development of persistent
antisocial behavior by evoking responses from the interpersonal social environment,
responses that exacerbate the child's tendencies (Goldsmith, Bradshaw, &
Rieser‑Danner, 1986; Lytton, 1990). "The child acts; the
environment reacts; and the child reacts back in mutually interlocking
evocative interaction" (Caspi et al., 1987, p. 308).
a sequence of interactions would be most likely to produce lasting
antisocial behavior problems if caretaker reactions were more likely to
exacerbate than to ameliorate children's problem behavior. To my knowledge,
students of child effects have not yet tested for interactions between child
behavior and parental deviance or poor parenting, perhaps because very disadvantaged
families are seldom studied with such designs. Nonetheless, some data suggest
that children's predispositions toward antisocial behavior may be exacerbated
under deviant rearing conditions. In the New Zealand longitudinal study, there
was a significant interaction effect between children's neuropsychological
deficit and family adversity on one type of delinquent act; aggressive
confrontation with a victim or adversary. Among the 536 boys in the sample,
the 75 boys who had both low neuropsychological test scores and adverse home
environments earned a mean aggression score more than four times greater than
that of boys with either neuropsychological problems or adverse homes
(Moffitt, 1990b). The index of family adversity included parental
characteristics such as poor mental health and low intelligence as well as
socioeconomic status. Behaviorgenetic adoption studies of antisocial
behavior often report a similar pattern of findings, wherein the highest rates
of criminal outcomes are found for adoptees whose foster parents, as well as
their biological parents, were deviant (e.g., Mednick, Gabrielli, &
Hutchings, 1984). Thus, children's predispositions may evoke exacerbating
responses from the environment and may also render them more vulnerable to
the child who "steps off on the wrong foot" remains on an
ill‑starred path, subsequent stepping‑stone experiences may
culminate in life‑course‑persistent antisocial behavior. For life-course‑persistent
antisocial individuals, deviant behavior patterns later in life may thus
reflect early individual differences that are perpetuated or exacerbated by
interactions with the social environment: first at home, and later at
school. Quay (1987) summarized this as "this youth is likely to be at
odds with everyone in the environment. and most particularly with those who
must interact with him on a daily basis to raise, educate, or otherwise
control him. . . . This pattern is the most troublesome to society, seems
least amenable to change, and has the most pessimistic prognosis for adult
adjustment" (p. 12 1).
inauspicious beginnings do not complete the story. In the New Zealand study,
for example, a combination of preschool measures of antisocial behavior and
cognitive ability was able to predict 70% of the cases of conduct disorder at
age 11 but at the cost of a high false‑positive rate (White et al.,
1990). The next section explores the specific interactional processes that
nourish and augment the life‑course‑persistent antisocial style
and Elaboration Over the Life Course:
Continuity, Contemporary Continuity, and
Options for Change
the previous section, the concept of evocative person‑environment
interaction was called on to describe how children's difficult behaviors might
affect encounters with their parents. Two additional types of interaction may
help to explain how the life‑course‑ persistent individual's
problem behavior, once initiated, might promote its own continuity and
pervasiveness. Reactive interaction occurs when different youngsters exposed to
the same environment experience it, interpret it, and react to it in
accordance with their particular style. For example, in interpersonal
situations where cues are ambiguous, aggressive children are likely to
mistakenly attribute harmful intent to others and then act accordingly (Dodge
& Frame, 1982). Proactive interaction
occurs when people select or create environments that support their styles.
For example, antisocial individuals appear to be likely to affiliate
selectively with antisocial others, even when selecting a mate. Some evidence
points to nonrandom mating along personality traits related to antisocial
behavior (Buss, 1984), and there are significant spouse correlations on
conviction for crimes (e.g., Baker, Mack, Moffitt, & Medruck, 1989).
three types of person‑environment interactions can produce two kinds
of consequences in the life course: cumulative
consequences and contemporary
consequences (Caspi & Bern, 1990). Early individual differences may
set in motion a downhill snowball of cumulative continuities. In addition,
individual differences may themselves persist from infancy to adulthood,
continuing to influence adolescent and adult behavior in a proximal
contemporary fashion. Contemporary continuity arises if the
life‑course‑persistent person continues to carry into adulthood
the same underlying constellation of traits that got him into trouble as a
child, such as high activity level, irritability, poor self‑control, and
low cognitive ability.
roles of cumulative and contemporary continuities in antisocial behavior
have been explored by Caspi, Bern, and Elder (1989; Caspi et at., 1987), using
data from the longitudinal Berkeley Guidance Study. They identified men who
had a history of temper tantrums during late childhood (when tantrums are
not developmentally normative). Then they traced the continuities and
consequences of this personality style across the subsequent 30 years of the
subjects' lives and into multiple diverse life domains: education,
employment, and marriage. A major finding was that hot‑tempered boys who
came from middle‑class homes suffered a progressive deterioration of
socioeconomic status as they moved through the life course. By age 40, their
occupational status was indistinguishable from that of men born into the
working class. A majority of them held jobs of lower occupational status than
those held by their fathers at a comparable age. Did these men fail
occupationally because their earlier ill‑temperedness started them down
a particular path (cumulative consequences) or because their current ill-temperedness
handicapped them in the world of work (contemporary consequences)?
consequences were implied by the effect of childhood temper on occupational
status at midlife: Tantrums predicted lower educational attainment, and
educational attainment, in turn, predicted lower occupational status.
Contemporary consequences were implied by the strong direct link between
ill‑temperedness and occupational stability. Men with childhood tantrums
continued to be hot‑tempered in adulthood, where it got them into
trouble in the world of work. They had more erratic work lives, changing jobs
more frequently and experiencing more unemployment between ages 18 and 40. Ill-temperedness
also had a contemporary effect on marital stability. Almost half (46%) of
the men with histories of childhood tantrums had divorced by age 40 compared
with only 22% of other men.
I describe in detail some of the patterns of interaction between persons and
their social environments that may promote antisocial continuity across time
and across life domains (Caspi & Moffitt, in press‑b). Two sources
of continuity deserve emphasis here because they narrow the options for
change. These processes are (a) failing to learn conventional prosocial
alternatives to antisocial behavior and (b) becoming ensnared in a deviant
life‑style by crime's consequences. These concepts have special
implications for the questions of why life-course‑persistent
individuals fail to desist from delinquency as young adults and why they are
so impervious to intervention.
restricted behavioral repertoire. This
theory of life-course‑persistent antisocial behavior asserts that the
causal sequence begins very early and the formative years are dominated by
chains of cumulative and contemporary continuity. As a consequence, little
opportunity is afforded for the life‑course-persistent antisocial
individual to learn a behavioral repertoire of prosocial alternatives. Thus,
one overlooked and pernicious source of continuity in antisocial behavior is
simply a lack of recourse to any other options. In keeping with this
prediction, Vitaro, Gagnon, and Tremblay (1990) have shown that aggressive
children whose behavioral repertoires consist almost solely of antisocial
behaviors are less likely to change over years than are aggressive children
whose repertoires comprise some prosocial behaviors as well.
persons miss out on opportunities to acquire and practice prosocial
alternatives at each stage of development. Children with poor
self‑control and aggressive behavior are often rejected by peers and
adults (Coie, Belding, & Underwood, 1988; Dodge, Coie, & Brakke, 1982;
Vitaro et al., 1990). In turn, children who have learned to expect rejection
are likely in later settings to withdraw or strike out preemptively,
precluding opportunities to affiliate with prosocial peers (Dodge &
Newman, 1981; Dodge & Frame, 1982; LaFrenier & Sroufe, 1985; Nasby,
Hayden, & DePaulo, 1980). Such children are robbed of chances to practice
conventional social skills. Alternatively, consider this sequence of
narrowing options: Behavior problems at school and failure to attain basic
math and reading skills place a limit on the variety of job skills that can
be acquired and thereby cut off options to pursue legitimate employment as
an alternative to the underground economy (Farrington, Gallagher, Morley,
Ledger, & West, 1986; Maughan, Gray, & Rutter, 1985; Moffitt, 1990a).
Simply put, if social and academic skills are not mastered in childhood, it is
very difficult to later recover lost opportunities.
ensnared by consequences of antisocial behavior. Personal characteristics such as poor
self‑control, impulsivity, and inability to delay gratification
increase the risk that antisocial youngsters will make irrevocable decisions
that close the doors of opportunity. Teenaged parenthood, addiction to drugs
or alcohol, school dropout, disabling or disfiguring injuries, patchy work
histories, and time spent incarcerated are snares
that diminish the probabilities of later success by eliminating
opportunities for breaking the chain of cumulative continuity (Cairns &
Cairns, 1991; J, Q. Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). Similarly, labels accrued
early in life can foreclose later opportunities; an early arrest record or a
"bad" reputation may rule out lucrative jobs, higher education, or
an advantageous marriage (Farrington, 1977; Klein, 1986; West, 1982). In
short, the behavior of life‑course‑persistent antisocial persons
is increasingly maintained and supported by narrowing options for
with life‑course‑persistent persons have met with dismal results
(Lipton, Martinson, & Wilks, 1975; Palmer, 1984; Sechrest, White, &
Brown, 1979). This is not surprising, considering that most interventions are
begun relatively late in the chain of cumulative continuity. The forces of
continuity are formidable foes (Caspi & Moffitt, in press‑a). After
a protracted deficient learning history, and after options for change have
been eliminated, efforts to suppress antisocial behavior will not automatically
bring prosocial behavior to the surface in its place. Now‑classic
research on learning shows conclusively that efforts to extinguish undesirable
behavior will fail unless
alternative behaviors are available that will
attract reinforcement (Azrin & Holz, 1966). My analysis of
increasingly restricted behavioral options suggests the hypothesis that
opportunities for change will often be actively transformed by
life‑course‑persistents into opportunities for continuity:
Residential treatment programs provide a chance to learn from criminal peers,
a new job furnishes the chance to steal, and new romance provides a partner
for abuse. This analysis of life‑course‑persistent antisocial behavior
anticipates disappointing outcomes when such antisocial persons are thrust
into new situations that purportedly offer the chance "to turn over a new
Reason for Persistence: Traits, Environments, and
to some accounts of behavioral continuity, an ever-present underlying trait
generates antisocial outcomes at every point in the life span (e.g.,
Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). By other accounts, antisocial behavior is
sustained by environmental barriers to change (e.g., Bandura, 1979, pp.
217‑224). In this theory of life‑course‑persistent
antisocial behavior, neither traits nor environments account for continuity.
the theory begins with a trait: variation between individuals in
neuropsychological health. The trait is truly underlying in that it seldom
comes to anyone's attention unless an infant is challenged by formal
examinations; it is manifested behaviorally as variability in infant
temperament, developmental milestones, and cognitive abilities.
the theory brings environments into play. Parents and other people respond to
children's difficult temperaments and developmental deficits. In nurturing
environments, toddlers' problems are often corrected. However, in
disadvantaged homes, schools, and neighborhoods, the responses are more likely
to exacerbate than amend. Under such detrimental circumstances, difficult
behavior is gradually elaborated into conduct problems and a dearth of
prosocial skills. Thus, over the years, an antisocial personality is slowly
and insidiously constructed. Likewise, deficits in language and reasoning
are incrementally elaborated into academic failure and a dearth of job
skills. Over time, accumulating consequences of the youngster's personality
problems and academic problems prune away the options for change.
theory of life‑course‑persistent antisocial behavior emphasizes
the constant process of reciprocal interaction between personal traits and
environmental reactions to them. The original attribute is thus elaborated
on during development, to become a syndrome that remains conceptually
consistent, but that gains new behavioral components (Caspi & Bern, 1990).
Through that process, relatively subtle childhood variations in
neuropsychological health can be transformed into an antisocial style that
pervades all domains of adolescent and adult behavior. It is this
infiltration of the antisocial disposition into the multiple domains of a life
that diminishes the likelihood of change.
in the life course does the potential for change dwindle to nil? How many
person‑environment interactions must accumulate before the
life‑course‑persistent pattern becomes set? I have argued that a
person‑environment interaction process is needed to predict emerging
antisocial behavior, but after some age will the "person" main
effect predict adult outcomes alone? An answer to these questions is critical
for prevention efforts. The well‑documented resistance of antisocial
personality disorder to treatments of all kinds seems to suggest that the
life-course‑persistent style is fixed sometime before age 18 (Suedfeld
& Landon, 1978). Studies of crime careers reveal that it is very unusual
for males to first initiate crime after adolescence, suggesting that if an
adult is going to be antisocial, the pattern must be established by late
adolescence (Elliott, Huizinga, & Menard, 1989).[iii]
At the same time, efforts to predict antisocial outcomes from childhood
conduct problems yield many errors (e.g., White et al., 1990). These errors
seem to suggest that antisocial styles become set sometime after childhood.
the extant longitudinal database does not provide a sound basis for
conclusions. Typically, childhood behavior problems are assessed at only one
time point from a single source, thereby lumping the many children who are
temporarily or situationally aggressive with the few children who are on a
persistent and pervasive trajectory. Outcomes are also typically assessed at a
single point, often during late adolescence when temporary delinquents and
future persisters are lumped together. According to my theory, such
predictive designs should yield large numbers of false positives and false
negatives. Analyses should ask, when between preschool and late adolescence
can stable‑pervasive antisocial
behavior problems best predict antisocial outcomes among adults?
Antisocial Behavior as
life‑course‑persistent antisocial syndrome, as described here, has
many characteristics that, taken together, suggest psychopathology. For
example, the syndrome is statistically unusual; much research converges to
suggest that it is characteristic of about 5% of males (Robins, 1985). Its
rarity is thus consistent with a simple statistical definition of
theoretical syndrome is also characterized by tenacious stability across time
and in diverse circumstances. This high probability response style is relied
on even in situations where it is clearly inappropriate or disadvantageous (Caspi
& Moffitt, in press‑b), especially if there is a very limited
repertoire of alternative conventional behaviors (Tremblay, 1991).
Life‑course-persistent antisocial behavior is thus maladaptive in the
sense that it fails to change in response to changing circumstances.
syndrome of life‑course‑persistent antisocial behavior described
here has a biological basis in subtle dysfunctions of the nervous system
(Moffitt, 1990b). (I reiterate my assertion that biological origins are in no
way deterministic. Rather, individual variations in nervous system health
provide raw material for subsequent person‑environment interactions.)
syndrome is associated with other mental disorders. There is good evidence
that such "comorbidity" is associated with long‑term
continuity. An impressive body of research documents an overlap between
persistent forms of antisocial behavior and other conditions of childhood
such as learning disabilities and hyperactivity (cf. Moffitt, 1990a). Three
studies (Elliott, Huizinga, & Menard, 1989; Farrington, Loeber, & Van
Kammen, 1990; Moffitt, 1990a) have now shown that the presence of multiple
behavioral disorders predicts persistence of illegal behavior over the course
of years. This proliferation of mental disorders is common among
life‑course‑persistent antisocial persons. For example, in the
Epidemiological Catchment Area (ECA) study of mental disorders among 19,000
adults, over 90% of the cases with antisocial personality disorder had at
least one additional psychiatric diagnosis. (Evidence of onset before
adulthood is required for the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder,
confirming persistence in the ECA cases.) The comorbid conditions that
disproportionately affected antisocial adults were mania, schizophrenia, drug
and alcohol abuse, depression, and anxiety disorders (Robins & Regier,
course, no one or two of these parameters is enough to warrant the
classification of life‑course‑persistent antisocial behavior as
psychopathology. Nonetheless, when taken together they form a more persuasive
argument that persons whose antisocial behavior is stable and pervasive over
the life course may constitute a category that is distinct from persons whose
antisocial behavior is short term and situational.
Limited Antisocial Behavior
account of the adolescence‑limited antisocial type will follow this
plan: In the first section, Discontinuity:
The Most Common Course of Antisocial Behavior, I provide a definition and
description of this ubiquitous form of antisocial behavior. In the second
section, Beginnings: Motivation,
Mimicry, and Reinforcement, I present three etiological hypotheses. Adolescence‑limited
antisocial behavior is motivated by the gap between biological maturity and
social maturity, it is learned from antisocial models who are easily mimicked,
and it is sustained according to the reinforcement principles of learning
theory. In the third section, I answer the question, Why doesn't every teenager become delinquent? In the fourth section, Desistence
From Crime: Adolescence‑Limiteds Are Responsive to Shifting
Reinforcement Contingencies, I explain how temporary delinquents come to
be exempted from the processes of continuity. In the fifth section, Adolescence‑Limited
Delinquency and Secular Change, I locate adolescence‑limited
delinquency in its recent historical context. In the sixth section, I make a
case that the antisocial behavior
of adolescence‑limited delinquents is best regarded as adaptive social
The Most Common Course of Antisocial
implied by the proffered label, discontinuity is the hallmark of teenaged
delinquents who have no notable history of antisocial behavior in childhood
and little future for such behavior in adulthood. However, the brief tenure
of their delinquency should not obscure their prevalence in the population
or the gravity of their crimes. In contrast with the rare life‑course-persistent
type, adolescence‑limited delinquency is ubiquitous. Several studies
have shown that about one third of males are arrested during their lifetime
for a serious criminal offense, whereas fully four fifths of males have police
contact for some minor infringement (Farrington, Ohlin, & Wilson, 1986).
Most of these police contacts are made during the adolescent year. Indeed, numerous rigorous self‑report studies have
now documented that it is statistically aberrant to refrain from crime dur‑
adolescence (Elliott et al., 1983; Hirschi, 1969; Moffitt & Silva, 1988c).
with the life‑course‑persistent type, adolescence-limited
delinquents show relatively little continuity in their antisocial behavior.
Across age, change in delinquent involvement is often abrupt, especially
during the periods of onset and desistence. For example, in my
aforementioned longitudinal study of a representative sample of boys, 12% of
the youngsters were classified as new delinquents at age 13; they had no prior
history of antisocial behavior from age 5 to age 11. Between age 11 and age
13, they changed from below the sample average to 1.5 standard deviations
above average on self‑reported delinquency (Moffitt, 1990a). By age 15,
another 20% of this sample of boys had joined the newcomers to delinquency
despite having no prior history of antisocial behavior (Moffitt, 1991). Barely
into mid‑adolescence, the prevalence rate of markedly antisocial boys
had swollen from 5% at age 11 to 32% at age 15. When interviewed at age 18,
only 7% of the boys denied all delinquent activities. By their mid‑20s,
at least three fourths of these new offenders are expected to cease all
offending (Farrington, 1986).
delinquents may also have sporadic, crime‑free periods in the midst of
their brief crime "careers." Also, in contrast with the
life‑course‑persistent type, they lack consistency in their
antisocial behavior across situations. For example, they may shoplift in
stores and use drugs with friends but continue to obey the rules at school.
Because of the chimeric nature of their delinquency, different reporters
(such as self, parent, and teacher) are less likely to agree about their behavior
problems when asked to complete rating scales or clinical interviews (Loeber,
Green, Lahey, & Stouthamer‑Loeber, 1990; Loeber & Schmaling,
observations about temporal instability and cross‑situational
inconsistency are more than merely descriptive. They have implications for a
theory of the etiology of adolescence-limited delinquency. Indeed, the
flexibility of most delinquents' behavior suggests that their engagement in
deviant life‑styles may be under the control of reinforcement and
their life‑course‑persistent peers, whose behavior was described
as inflexible and refractory to changing circumstances,
adolescence‑limited delinquents are likely to engage in antisocial
behavior in situations where such responses seem profitable to them, but they
are also able to abandon antisocial behavior when prosocial styles are more
rewarding. They maintain control over their antisocial responses and use
antisocial behavior only in situations where it may serve an instrumental
function. Thus, principles of learning theory will be important for this
theory of the cause of adolescence‑limited delinquency.
theory of adolescence‑limited delinquency must account for several
empirical observations: modal onset in early adolescence, recovery by young
adulthood, widespread prevalence, and lack of continuity. Why do youngsters
with no history of behavior problems in childhood suddenly become antisocial
in adolescence? Why do they develop antisocial problems rather than other
difficulties? Why is delinquency so common among teens? How are they able to
spontaneously recover from an antisocial life‑style within a few short
as the childhood onset of life‑course‑persistent persons compelled
me to look for causal factors early in their lives, the coincidence of puberty
with the rise in the prevalence of delinquent behavior compels me to look
for clues in adolescent development. Critical features of this developmental
period are variability in biological age, the increasing importance of peer
relationships, and the budding of teenagers' self‑conscious values,
attitudes, and aspirations. These developmental tasks form the building blocks
for a theory of adolescence‑limited delinquency.
Motivation, Mimicry, and Reinforcement
do adolescence‑limited delinquents begin delinquency? The answer
advanced here is that their delinquency is "social mimicry" of the
antisocial style of life‑course‑persistent youths. The concept of
social mimicry is borrowed from ethology. Social mimicry occurs when two
animal species share a single niche and one of the species has cornered the
market on a resource that is needed to promote fitness (Moynihan, 1968). In
such circumstances, the "mimic" species adopts the social behavior
of the more successful species to obtain access to the valuable resource. For
example, cowbird chicks, who are left by their mothers to be reared in the
nests of unsuspecting parent birds, learn to behave like the parent birds' own
true chicks and thus stimulate the parents to drop food their way. Social mimicry
may also allow some species to safely pass among a more successful group and
thus share access to desired resources. For example, some monkey species have
learned to mimic bird calls. One such species of monkeys, rufous‑naped
tamarins, is able to share the delights of ripe fruit after a tree has been located
by tyrant flycatchers, whose superior avian capacities in flight and distance
vision better equip them to discover bearing trees. Similarly, zebras are
sensitive to the social signals of impalas and gazelles and thus benefit
from the latter species' superior sensitivity to approaching predators (E.
0. Wilson, 1975).
social mimicry is to explain why adolescence‑limited delinquents begin
to mimic the antisocial behavior of their life-course‑persistent
peers, then, logically, delinquency must be a social behavior that allows
access to some desirable resource. I suggest that the resource is mature
status, with its consequent power and privilege.
modernization, biological maturity came at a later age, social adult status
arrived at an earlier age, and rites of passage more clearly delineated the
point at which youths assumed new roles and responsibilities. In the past
century, improved nutrition and health care have decreased the age of
biological maturity at the rate of three tenths of a year per decade (Tanner,
1978; Wyshak & Frisch, 1982). Simultaneously, modernization of work has
delayed the age of labor‑force participation to ever later points in
development (Empey, 1978; Horan & Hargis, 1991; Panel on Youth of the
President's Science Advisory Committee, 1974). Thus, secular changes in
health and work have lengthened the duration of adolescence. The ensuing gap
leaves modern teenagers in a 5‑ to 10‑year role vacuum (Erikson,
1960). They are biologically capable and compelled to be sexual beings, yet
they are asked to delay most of the positive aspects of adult life (see
Buchanan, Eccles, & Becker, 1992, for a review of studies of the
compelling influence of pubertal hormones of teens' behavior and personality).
In most American states, teens are not allowed to work or get a driver's
license before age 16, marry or vote before age 18, or buy alcohol before age
21, and they are admonished to delay having children and establishing their
own private dwellings until their education is completed at age 22, sometimes
more than 10 years after they attain sexual maturity. They remain financially
and socially dependent on their families of origin and are allowed few
decisions of any real import. Yet they want desperately to establish intimate
bonds with the opposite sex, to accrue material belongings, to make their own
decisions, and to be regarded as consequential by adults (Csikszentmihalyi
& Larson, 1984). Contemporary adolescents are thus trapped in a maturity
gap, chronological hostages of a time warp between biological age and
This emergent phenomenology begins to color the world for
most teens in the first years of adolescence. Steinberg has shown that,
between ages 10 and 15, a dramatic shift in youngsters' self‑perceptions
of autonomy and self‑reliance takes place.
Moreover, the timing of the shift for individuals is connected with
their pubertal maturation (Steinberg, 1987; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986;
Udry, 1988). At the time of biological maturity, salient pubertal changes
make the remoteness of ascribed social maturity painfully apparent to teens.
This new awareness coincides with their promotion into a high school society
that is numerically dominated by older youth. Thus, just as teens begin to
feel the discomfort of the maturity gap, they enter a social reference group
that has endured the gap for 3 to 4 years and has already perfected some
delinquent ways of coping with it. Indeed, several researchers have noted that
this life‑course transition into high school society may place teens
at risk for anti-social behavior. In particular, exposure to peer models,
when coupled with puberty, is an important determinant of adolescence‑onset
cases of delinquency (Caspi, Lynam, Moffitt, & Silva, 1993; Magnusson,
1988; Simmons & Blyth, 1987).
youngsters are the vanguard of this transition.
Healthy adolescents are capable of noticing that the few
life‑course‑persistent youths in their midst do not seem to suffer
much from the maturity gap. (At a prevalence rate of about 5%, one or two such
experienced delinquents in every classroom might be expected.) Already adept
at deviance, life-course‑persistent youths are able to obtain
possessions by theft or vice that are otherwise inaccessible to teens who have
no independent incomes (e.g., cars, clothes, drugs, or entry into
adults‑only leisure settings). Life‑course‑persistent boys
are more sexually experienced and have already initiated relationships with
the opposite sex.[iv]
Life‑course‑persistent boys appear relatively free of their
families of origin: they seem to go their own way, making their own rules. As
evidence that they make their own decisions, they take risks and do dangerous
things that parents could not possibly endorse. As evidence that they have
social consequence in the adult world, they have personal attorneys, social
workers, and probation officers; they operate small businesses in the
underground economy; and they have fathered children (Weiher, Huizinga,
Lizotte, & Van Kammen, 1991). Viewed from within contemporary adolescent
culture, the anti-social precocity of life‑course‑persistent
youths becomes a coveted social asset (cf. Finnegan, 1990a, 1990b; Jessor
& Jessor, 1977; Silbereisen & Noack. 1988). Like the aforementioned
bird calls that were mimicked by hungry tamarin monkeys, antisocial
behavior becomes a valuable technique that is demonstrated by
life‑course‑persistents and imitated carefully by adolescence‑limiteds.
The effect of peer delinquency on the onset of delinquency is among the most
robust facts in criminology research (Elliott & Menard, in press; Jessor
& Jessor, 1977; Reiss, 1986; Sarnecki, 1986). However, is there evidence
consistent with a social mimicry interpretation? I describe the evidence
in the next section.
mimicry and the relationships between life‑course‑persistent and
adolescence‑limited delinquents. One
hypothesized by‑product of the maturity gap is a shift during early
adolescence by persistent antisocial youth from peripheral to more
influential positions in the peer social structure. This shift should occur as
aspects of the antisocial style become more interesting to other teens. In
terms of its epidemiology, delinquent participation shifts from being
primarily an individual psychopathology in childhood to a normative group
social behavior during adolescence and then back to psychopathology in adulthood.
Consider that the behavior problems of the few pioneering antisocial
children in an age cohort must develop on an individual basis; such early
childhood pioneers lack the influence of delinquent peers (excepting family
members). However, near adolescence, a few boys join the
life‑course‑persistent ones, then a few more, until a critical
mass is reached when almost all adolescents are involved in some delinquency
with age peers. Elliott and Menard (in press) have analyzed change in peer
group membership from age 11 to age 24 in a national probability sample. Their
data show a gradual population drift from membership in nondelinquent peer
groups to membership in delinquent peer groups up to age 17: the trend
reverses thereafter. For example, 78% of 11‑year‑olds reported no
or minimal delinquency among their friends. In contrast, 66% of
17‑year‑olds reported substantial delinquency on the part of the
friends in their group.
word friends in the previous
sentence seems to imply a personal relationship between
life‑course‑persistents and adolescence‑limiteds that is
implausible. Much evidence suggests that, before adolescence,
life‑course‑persistent antisocial children are ignored and
rejected by other children because of their unpredictable, aggressive behavior
(Coie et al., 1988; Dodge et al., 1982). After adolescence has passed,
life‑course‑persistent adults are often described as lacking the
capacity for loyalty or friendship (Cleckley, 1976; Robins, 1985). At first,
these observations may seem contrary to my assertion that
life‑course‑persistents assume social influence over youths who
admire and emulate their style during adolescence. However, it is important to
recall that social mimicry required no exchange of affection between the
successful birds and their monkey mimics. In this theory, adolescents who wish
to prove their maturity need only notice that the style of
life‑course‑persistents resembles adulthood more than it
resembles childhood. Then they need only observe antisocial behavior closely
enough and long enough to imitate it successfully. What is contended is that
adolescence‑limited youths should regard
life‑course‑persistent youths as models, and
life‑course‑persistent teens should regard themselves as magnets
for other teens. Neither perception need involve reciprocal liking between
A modeling role would imply that measures of exposure to delinquent
peers (e.g., knowledge of their delinquent behavior or time spent in proximity
to them) should be better predictors of self‑delinquency than measures
of relationship quality (e.g., shared attitudes or attachment to delinquent
peers). Few studies have parsed peer‑delinquency effects into separate
components, but two findings consistent with this prediction have been reported
from the National Youth Survey, a representative sample of more than 1,500
teens. Agnew (1991) examined relationship characteristics in interaction with
levels of peer delinquency. He argued that attachment to peers should
encourage deviance if peers are delinquent but discourage it if they are not.
Agnew's results showed that such interaction terms were good predictors.
However, the results also showed that time spent with delinquent peers was a
stronger unique predictor of self‑delinquency than the interaction
between peer attachment and peer crime. Warr and Stafford (1991) found that
the knowledge of friends' delinquent behavior was 2.5 to 5 times more
important for self‑delinquency than friends' attitudes about
delinquency. (This pattern has been replicated in another sample by Nagin
& Paternoster, 1991.) Moreover, the effect of peer delinquency was direct;
it was not mediated by influencing the respondents' attitudes to be more
like those of deviant peers. These findings are not consistent with the notion
that teens take up delinquency after pro‑delinquency attitudes are
transferred in the context of intimate social relations. Rather, Warr and
Stafford concluded that the data on peer effects are best interpreted in terms
of imitation or vicarious reinforcement.
magnet role would imply that children who were rejected and ignored by others
should experience newfound "popularity" as teens, relative to
their former rejected status. That is, life-course‑persistent youth
should encounter more contacts with peers during adolescence when other
adolescents draw near so as to imitate their life‑style. Some research
is consistent with this interpretation. For example, in a study of 450
students in middle school, aggressive youths who were rejected by their peers
reported that they did not feel lonely, whereas submissive rejected youths did
feel lonely (Parkhurst & Asher, 1992). Similarly, aggressive
seventh‑graders in the Carolina Longitudinal Study were rated as popular
as often as nonaggressive youths by both teachers and themselves and were as
likely as other youths to be nuclear members of peer groups (Cairns, Cairns,
Neckerman, Gest, & Gariepy, 1988). In their review of
peer‑relationship studies, Coie, Dodge, and Kupersmidt (1990) noted
that the relationship between overt aggression and peer rejection is weaker or
absent in adolescent samples compared with child samples. Findings such as
these suggest that aggressive teens experience regular contacts with peers,
however short‑lived. Similarly, in the Oregon Youth Study, rejection
by peers at age 10 was prognostic of greater involvement with delinquent peers
2 years later (Dishion, Patterson, Stoolmiller, & Skinner, 1991). Although
the Oregon researchers interpreted their results as suggesting that aggressive
children seek delinquent friends, their data are equally consistent with my
interpretation that aggressive youths begin to serve as a magnet for novice
delinquents during early adolescence. Definitive sociometric research must
follow up aggressive‑rejected children to test whether they develop
networks in adolescence that include late‑onset delinquents of the
from the Carolina Longitudinal Study have carefully documented that boys
with an aggressive history do participate in peer networks in adolescence
but that the networks are not very stable (Cairns et al., 1988). Consistent
with a social mimicry hypothesis, delinquent groups have frequent membership
turnover. In addition, the interchanges between network members are
characterized by much reciprocal antisocial behavior (Cairns et al., 1988).
Reiss and Farrington (1991) have shown that the most experienced
high‑rate young offenders tend to recruit different co‑offenders
for each offense.
serve as core members of revolving networks, by virtue of being role models or
trainers for new recruits (Reiss, 1986). They exploit peers as drug customers,
as fences, as lookouts, or as sexual partners. Such interactions among
life‑course‑persistent and adolescence‑limited delinquents
may represent a symbiosis of mutual exploitation. Alternatively,
life‑course‑persistent offenders need not even be aware of all of
the adolescence‑limited youngsters who imitate their style. Unlike
adolescence‑limited offenders, who appear to need peer support for
crime, life‑course‑persistent offenders are willing to offend
alone (Knight & West, 1975). The point is that the phenomena of
"delinquent peer networks" and "co‑offending"
during the adolescent period do not necessarily connote supportive friendships
that are based on intimacy, trust, and loyalty, as is sometimes assumed.
Social mimicry of delinquency can take place if experienced offenders
actively educate new recruits. However, it can also take place if motivated
learners merely observe antisocial models from afar.
of de1inquency by its "negative" consequences. For teens who become adolescence‑limited
delinquents, antisocial behavior is an effective means of knifing‑off
childhood apron strings and of proving that they can act independently to
conquer new challenges (Erikson, 1960). Hypothetical reinforcers for
delinquency include damaging the quality of intimacy and communication with
parents, provoking responses from adults in positions of authority, finding
ways to look older (such as by smoking cigarettes, being tattooed, playing the
big spender with ill‑gotten gains), and tempting fate (risking pregnancy,
driving while intoxicated, or shoplifting under the noses of clerks). None of
these putative reinforcers may seem very pleasurable to the middle‑aged
academic, but each of the aforementioned consequences is a precious resource
to the teenager and can serve to reinforce delinquency. Bloch and Niederhoffer
(1958) have offered an anthropological perspective: "It is almost as if
the contemporary young person, in the absence of puberty rituals and ordeals,
is moved to exclaim: If you don't care to test us, then we will test
ourselves!" (p. 28).
suggest that every curfew violated, car stolen, drug taken, and baby conceived
is a statement of personal independence and thus a reinforcer for delinquent
involvement. Ethnographic interviews with delinquents reveal that proving
maturity and autonomy are strong personal motives for offending (e.g.,
Goldstein, 1990). Such hypothetical reinforcing properties have not been
systematically tested for most types of delinquent acts. However,
epidemiological studies have confirmed that adolescent initiation of
tobacco, alcohol, and drug abuse are reinforced because they symbolize
independence and maturity to youth (D. Kandel, 1980; Mausner & Platt,
summary, in this narrative account of the etiology of adolescent‑onset
delinquency I have emphasized three conditions: motivation, mimicry, and
reinforcement. I have suggested that a secular change in the duration of
adolescence has generated an age‑dependent motivational state. In
addition, life‑course-persistent antisocial models must be available
so that their delinquent behaviors can be imitated. Finally, adolescents'
fledgling attempts to mimic antisocial styles will continue if they are
socially reinforced by the "negative consequences" of crime.
Doesn't Every Teenager Become Delinquent?
proffered theory of adolescence‑limited delinquency regards this sort
of delinquency as an adaptive response to contextual circumstances. As a
consequence, the theory seems to predict that every teen will engage in
delinquency. Data from epidemiological studies using the self‑report
method suggest that almost all adolescents do commit some illegal acts
(Elliott et al., 1983). In addition, even studies using official records of
arrest by police find surprisingly high prevalence rates (for a review see
Farrington, Ohlin, & Wilson, 1986). Nevertheless, some youths commit less
delinquency than others, and a small minority abstains completely.
Unfortunately, almost no research sheds light on the characteristics of
teens who abstain from antisocial behavior altogether. Speculations are thus
ill-informed by empirical observations. However, some predictions may be
derived from the present theory of adolescence-limited delinquency. The
predictions center on two theoretical prerequisites for adolescent‑onset
delinquency: the motivating maturity gap and antisocial role models. Some
youths may skip the maturity gap because of late puberty or early initiation
into adult roles. Others may find few opportunities for mimicking
life‑course‑persistent delinquent models.
youths who refrain from antisocial behavior may, for some reason, not sense
the maturity gap and therefore lack the hypothesized motivation for
experimenting with crime. Perhaps such teens experience very late puberty so
that the gap between biological and social adulthood is not signaled to them
early in adolescence. For example, Caspi and Moffitt (1991) have shown that
girls who do not menstruate by age 15 tend not to become involved in
delinquency; in fact they evidence fewer than normal behavior problems as
teens. Perhaps other abstainers belong to cultural or religious subgroups in
which adolescents are given legitimate access to adult privileges and
accountability. In his vivid ethnographic account of "old heads"
and teenaged boys in a poor black neighborhood, Anderson (1990) described how
mature community leaders drew certain boys into their own work and social
lives, deliberately and publicly initiating the boys into manhood (and
preventing delinquent involvement).
nondelinquent teens may lack structural opportunities for modeling antisocial
peers. Adolescent crime rates are generally lower in rural areas than in
inner‑city areas (Skogan, 1979, 1990). Teens in urban areas are
surrounded by a greater density of age peers (and have readier unsupervised
access to them through public transportation and meeting venues such as parks
and shopping malls) than are teens in relatively isolated rural areas. For
instance, Sampson and Groves (1989) determined that the strongest
community‑level correlate of local rates of robbery and violence was the
presence of "unsupervised groups of teenagers hanging out and making a
nuisance" (p. 789). In that study, more traditional community correlates
of crime, such as socioeconomic status, residential mobility, and ethnicity,
were mediated by the teenaged social scene. School structures may also
constrain or facilitate access to life-course‑persistent models. Caspi
et al. (1993) found that early puberty was associated with delinquency in
girls but only if they had access to boys through attending coed high schools.
Girls who were enrolled in girls' schools did not engage in delinquency. In
that study, the difference in delinquent involvement between coed and
single‑sex school settings could not be explained by any personal or
family characteristics that may have influenced how the girls came to be
enrolled in their schools; access to delinquent role models was clearly the
best explanation for the girls' behavior problems.
may also be excluded from opportunities to mimic antisocial peers because of
some personal characteristics that make them unattractive to other teens or
that leave them reluctant to seek entry to newly popular delinquent groups.
Shedler and Block (1990) found such an effect on the use of illegal drugs.
They compared the personality styles of three adolescent groups: teens who
abstained from trying any drug, teens who experimented with drugs, and teens
who were frequent heavy drug users. Adolescents who experimented were the best
adjusted teens in the sample. As expected, frequent users were troubled
teens who were alienated and antisocial. However, the abstainers were also
problem teens: They were "relatively tense, overcontrolled, emotionally
constricted,. . . sornewhat
socially isolated and lacking in interpersonal skills" (p. 618). This personality
style was not a consequence of failing to try drugs. Rather, it was an
enduring personality configuration. At age 7, these abstainers had been
prospectively described by raters as "overcontrolled, timid, fearful and
morose . . . , they were not warm and responsive, not curious and open to new
experience, not active, not vital, and not cheerful" (pp. 619‑620).
Similarly, Farrington and West (1990) reported that boys from criminogenic
circumstances who did not become delinquent seemed nervous and withdrawn and
had few or no friends. These provocative findings remind us that deviance is
defined in relationship to its normative context. During adolescence, when
delinquent behavior becomes the norm, nondelinquents warrant our scientific
summary, this theory of adolescence‑limited delinquency suggests that
adolescents who commit no antisocial behavior at all have either (a) delayed
puberty, (b) access to roles that are respected by adults, (c) environments
that limit opportunities
learning about delinquency, (d) personal characteristics that exclude them
from antisocial peer networks, or (e) all four. Research is needed to
determine whether or not abstaining from delinquency
is necessarily a sign of good adolescent adjustment.
From Crime: Adolescence‑Limiteds A re Responsive to Shifting
definition, adolescence‑limited delinquents generally do not maintain
their delinquent behavior into adulthood. The account of
life‑course‑persistent persons I made earlier in this article
required an analysis of maintenance factors. In contrast, this account of
adolescence‑limited delinquents demands an analysis of desistence: Why
do adolescence‑limited delinquents desist from delinquency? This
theory's answer: Healthy youths respond adaptively to changing contingencies.
If motivational and learning mechanisms initiate and maintain their delinquency,
then, likewise, changing contingencies can extinguish it.
with explaining the origins of crime, most theories of delinquency have
neglected to address the massive shift in the prevalence of criminal
involvement between adolescence and adulthood. Gove (1985) reviewed six of the
most influential theories of deviance: labeling theory, conflict theory,
differential association theory, control theory, anomie theory, and functional
theory. He concluded, "All of these theoretical perspectives either
explicitly or implicitly suggest that deviant behavior is an amplifying
process that leads to further and more serious deviance" (p. 118). A
general application of an amplifying process to all delinquency is
inconsistent with the empirical observation that desistence from crime is
the normative pattern.
motivation and shifting contingencies. In contrast with amplifying theories, the present maturity‑gap
theory does anticipate desistence. With the inevitable progression of chronological
age, more legitimate and tangible adult roles become available to teens.
Adolescence‑limited delinquents gradually experience a loss of
motivation for delinquency as they exit the maturity gap. Moreover, when aging
delinquents attain some of the privileges they coveted as teens, the
consequences of illegal behavior shift from rewarding to punishing, in their perception. An adult arrest record will limit their job
opportunities, drug abuse keeps them from getting to work on time, drunk
driving is costly, and bar fights lead to accusations of unfit parenthood.
Adolescence‑limited delinquents have something to lose by persisting
in their antisocial behavior beyond the teen years.
is some evidence that many young adult offenders weigh the relative rewards
from illegal and conventional activities when they contemplate future
offending. In a study of three samples, the effect of age on criminal
participation was mediated by young men's expectations about whether illegal
earnings would exceed earnings from a straight job (Piliavin, Thornton,
Gartner, & Matsueda, 1986). Important for this theory, research shows
that "commitment costs" are among the factors weighed by young
adults when they decide to discontinue offending. In the criminological
subfield of perceptual deterrence research, commitment costs are defined as
a person's judgment that past accomplishments will
be jeopardized or that future goals will be foreclosed (Williams &
Hawkins, 1986). Criminal behavior incurs commitment costs if it risks informal
sanctions (disapproval by family, community. or employer) as well as formal
sanctions (arrest or conviction penalty). Given that very few delinquent acts
culminate in formal sanctions, perceptual deterrence theories consider
informal sanctions as keys to deterrence. Paternoster and colleagues have
tested the proposed effects of commitment costs and informal sanctions in a
follow‑up study of 300 young adults. They found that criminal
offending 1 year later was best predicted by prospective indexes of
commitment costs (r = ‑.23) and informal sanctions (r = ‑.40). Those variables outdid gender, perceived risk of
arrest, grade point average, and peer attachment (Paternoster, Saltzman,
Waldo, & Chiricos, 1983).[v]
for change. Consistent
with this motivational analysis, the antisocial behavior of many delinquent
teens has been found to decline after they leave high school (Elliott &
Voss, 1974), join the army (Eider. 1986; Mattick, 1960), marry a prosocial
spouse (Sampson & Laub, 1990), move away from the old neighborhood (West,
1982), or get a full‑time job (Sampson & Laub, 1990). As these
citations show, links between the assumption of adult roles and criminal
desistence have been observed before. The issue left unaddressed by theory is
why are some delinquents able to desist when others are not? What enables
adolescence‑limited delinquents to make these (often abrupt) transitions
away from crime? Why do adolescence‑limited delinquents come to
realize that they have something to lose, whereas
life‑course‑persistent delinquents remain undeterred? Here, two
positions are advanced: Unlike their life‑course‑persistent
counterparts, adolescence‑limited delinquents are relatively exempt
from the forces of (a) cumulative and (b) contemporary continuity.
without a lifelong history of antisocial behavior, the forces of cumulative
continuity have had fewer years in which to gather the momentum of a downhill
snowball. Before taking up delinquency, adolescence‑limited offenders
had ample years to develop an accomplished repertoire of prosocial behaviors
and basic academic skills. These social skills and academic achievements make
them eligible for postsecondary education, good marriages, and desirable jobs.
availability of alternatives to crime may explain why some
adolescence‑limited delinquents desist later than others. (As shown in
Figure 1, the desistence portion of the age‑crime curve slopes
more gradually than the abrupt criminal initiation portion.) Although the
forces of cumulative continuity build up less momentum over the course of
their relatively short crime careers, many adolescence‑limited youths
will fall prey to many of the same snares that maintain continuity among
life‑course-persistent persons. Those whose teen forays into
delinquency inadvertently attracted damaging consequences may have more
difficulty desisting. A drug habit, an incarceration, interrupted education,
or a teen pregnancy are snares that require extra effort and time from which
to escape. Thus, this theory predicts that variability in age at desistence
from crime should be accounted for by the cumulative number and type of
ensnaring life events that entangle persons in a deviant life‑style.
in stark contrast with the earlier account of
life-course‑persistent offenders, personality disorder and
cognitive deficits play no part in the delinquency of
adolescence‑limited offenders. As a result, they are exempt from the
sources of contemporary continuity
that plague their life‑course‑persistent counterparts. In general,
these young adults have adequate social skills, they have a record of
average or better academic achievement, their mental health is sturdy, they
still possess the capacity to forge close attachment relationships, and they
retain the good intelligence they had when they entered adolescence. One study
of girls who grew up in
institutional care has illustrated that individual differences influence
which adolescents are able to attain prosocial outcomes in young adulthood
(Quinton & Rutter, 1988). In that study, some girls reared in institutions
were able to escape adversity for advantage through marriage to a supportive
husband, but a constellation of individual psychological attributes
determined which girls were able to marry well.
the crossroads of young adulthood, adolescence‑limited and
life‑course‑persistent delinquents go different ways. This happens
because the developmental histories and personal traits of adolescence‑limiteds
allow them the option of exploring new life pathways. The histories and traits
of life‑course‑persistents have foreclosed their options,
entrenching them in the antisocial path. To test this hypothesis. research
must examine conditional effects of individual histories on opportunities
for desistence from crime.
Delinquency and Secular Change
have suggested that adolescence‑limited delinquency is a byproduct of
modernization, an adolescent adaptation to a maturity gap engendered by the
opposing social forces of improved health and a smaller, better educated work
force. If this theory is correct,
then secular changes should have rendered the age-crime curve relatively
steeper with increasing modernization. The theory predicts that, in
contemporary preindustrial nations and in earlier historical periods, the
age‑crime curve should have a flatter kurtosis; in other words, it will
lack the characteristic sharp peak between the ages of 15‑18.
data support this prediction. Greenberg (1985) compared crime statistics from
the mid‑1800s to 1980s in the United States, France, Norway, and
Holland. He also made cross‑cultural comparisons between India and Uganda and more industrialized nations. The results show that the
steepness of the age‑crime curve is indeed greatest during recent times
and among modem nations. Farrington (1986) compared the relationship between
age and crime for English males using British Home Office statistics from
1938, 1961, and 1983. His results, reproduced in Figure 4, show that the rate
of offending by adolescents
increased considerably over this historical period.
factors may be influential in accounting for the changing nature of the
age‑crime curve (J. Q. Wilson, 1983). However, I suggest that many of
these factors are the very features of modernization and modernity invoked
in this theory of adolescence‑limited delinquency. The earlier age of
puberty and the extension of the period of childhood are generally overlooked
as by‑products of modernization, but they have important implications
for the experience of youths. The years between 1938 and 1983, covered in
the study by Farrington (1986), also witnessed an incremental displacement of
sons by their mothers as the family's secondary breadwinners (Modell,
Furstenberg, & Hershberg, 1976). The shift of work away from farms,
trades, and small family businesses to factories and service industries has
stopped adolescents from sharing the daily lives of older relatives. As
Anderson (1990) has observed, fewer and fewer "old heads" are
initiating young protégés into the adult world. Teens are less
well‑integrated with adults than ever before. What has emerged is an
age‑bounded ghetto (Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1985) from within
which it seems advantageous to mimic deviant behavior.
for this theory, additional data suggest that secular changes may have
influenced the age pattern of some crimes but not all. A comparison of the
age‑crime curve for data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports for 1940, 1960, and 1980 showed that the
adolescent peakedness of the curves for most crimes increased in a linear
fashion over the 40‑year period (Steffensmeier, Allan, Harer, &
Streifel, 1989). However, the authors noted that
the shift toward more peaked distributions is greater
for some types of offenses than for others. The shifts are comparatively small
for the person crimes and for those property offenses primarily involving
older offenders (e.g., fraud and forgery), while the shifts are moderate to
substantial for the youth‑oriented, low‑yield property offenses
(e.g., robbery and burglary), public order offenses, and the
substance‑abuse offenses. (p. 823)
finding of different curves for different offenses is consistent with the
distinction I have made between two hypothetical types of offenders. On the
one hand, life‑course-persistent offenders (with mild
neuropsychological impairment, poor self‑control, pathological
interpersonal relationships, weak connections to other people, and a lifelong
antisocial personality configuration) should account for violence against
persons as well as for crimes committed in late life. On the other hand,
adolescence‑limited offenders should account primarily for crimes that
serve to meet adolescents' lust for acknowledgment and privilege: theft,
vandalism, public order, and substance abuse.
FIGURE 4 HERE.]
Antisocial Behavior Is Not Pathological Behavior
an earlier section, it was contended that life‑course‑persistent
antisocial behavior represented an especially pernicious and tenacious form of
psychopathology. My view of adolescence‑limited delinquency is
strikingly different: Its prevalence is so great that it is normative rather
than abnormal. It is flexible and adaptable rather than rigid and stable: most
delinquent careers are of relatively short duration because the consequences
of crime, although reinforcing for youths caught inside the maturity gap,
become punishing to youths as soon as they age out of it. Instead of a
biological basis in the nervous system, the origins of
adolescence‑limited delinquency lie in youngsters' best efforts to cope
with the widening gap between biological and social maturity. Moreover,
neither this theory nor the empirical evidence suggests that there are links
between mental disorders and short‑term adolescent delinquency.
to this theory of adolescence‑limited delinquency, the behavior of
youths who make the transition to delinquent groups near adolescence is
readily understood as a group social phenomenon, it does not represent
individual‑level deviance. Quay (1987) concurred:
A second pattern . . . involves behavior of a less
overtly aggressive and interpersonally alienated nature. In fact, good peer
relations in the context of delinquency are at the core of this pattern. . . .
There is little, if any, reason to ascribe psychopathology to youths
manifesting this pattern: it may well represent an adjustive response to
environmental circumstances. (p. 131)
It is my stance that individual characteristics will
not predict adolescence‑limited offending; it is a product of an
interaction between age and historical period. True, past studies have reported
low to moderate correlations between adolescent delinquency and individual
difference variables (such as IQ). However, none of these studies excluded
life‑course‑persistent subjects before analysis. Thus, it
remains unclear whether the obtained correlations represent linear monotonic
relationships between variables or "outlier" effects of the extreme
scores of life‑course‑persistent subjects. For example, in the New
Zealand sample, the often‑reported 8‑point IQ difference (Hirschi
& Hindelang, 1977) between delinquents and nondelinquents obtains, but
it is the pooled result of a 1‑point mean deficit for
adolescence‑onset delinquents and a 17‑point mean deficit for
childhood‑onset delinquents. The same pattern obtains for measures of
reading achievement and impulsivity (Moffitt, 1990a: White et al., in press).
Evidence and the Alternatives
this theory of adolescence‑limited delinquency, I have made several
novel propositions. I have suggested that adolescence‑onset
delinquency constitutes social mimicry of a pathological type of antisocial
child. I have suggested that the motivation for such mimicry follows from a
maturity gap between biological adulthood and ascribed adulthood. I have
suggested that delinquent mimicry is reinforced by its own consequences while
a youth is inside the maturity gap. I have suggested that those consequences
lose their rewarding properties after youths age out of the gap, extinguishing
delinquency. All three of the components of this theory are needed to support
my assertion that adolescence‑limited delinquency is not
psychopathology. Because of the newness of this set of hypotheses, there is
yet no literature of studies specifically
designed to test them. Nonetheless, it was possible to glean from the
existing literature empirical evidence in support of most aspects of the
is some evidence for the mimicry component. A drift into delinquent peer
relationships does match the timing of the maturity gap. As predicted, most
teens appear to engage in delinquency because they are simply aware of
delinquent peer behavior, not because they share attitudes or close
friendships with delinquents. Conversely,
the most experienced early‑onset delinquents do interact with other
adolescents, albeit briefly‑and with their trademark antisocial style.
is some evidence for the motivational component. The maturity gap has widened
during this century, and, as predicted by the theory, the change has coincided
with a differential increase in teen crime. After puberty, youngsters'
thoughts do turn increasingly to proving their own adultness, and, as predicted
by the theory, the particular types of crimes that increased among
adolescents this century are ones that satisfy wishes for adult privileges.
is less evidence for the reinforcement component. Research suggests that
youngsters take up drug and alcohol use because it makes them feel
independent, but studies of the symbolic reward value of other delinquent
acts have not yet been reported. There is better evidence that the informal
consequences of crime become deterrents after young adults exit the maturity
gap. As predicted, young adults' desistence from crime is influenced by their
expectancies of informal sanctions from family, employer, and community.
date, almost no studies have discriminated childhood‑onset persistent
delinquents from adolescence‑onset delinquents and then examined the
specific correlates of delinquency in the latter group. Because the available
literature mixes the two types of delinquents. it is difficult to evaluate
the predictions from this theory against extant findings. However, in
evaluating the empirical foundation for this theory of
adolescence‑limited delinquency, it is, helpful to contrast the theory
with its most favored predecessors: control theories and social learning
theories of delinquency point to weak social controls, such as lax supervision
by adults or weak bonds to parents, as the causes of burgeoning delinquency
(e.g., Hirschi, 1969). The database for control theories is a
cross‑sectional correlation between measures of delinquency and
supervision in adolescent samples. Research has yet to demonstrate that
parenting practices change before teen's interest in problem behavior
More critical, control theories do not explain why antisocial behavior per se
is the outcome of weakened social control systems. Why do unsupervised teens
not mow lawns for the elderly? Why don't weakly attached youths gather in
groups to do more algebra homework? In answer, social control theories rely on
the philosophical assumption that all humans are inherently antisocial; crime
must thus emerge spontaneously, by default, whenever social controls are
weakened. A taxonomic theory cannot afford the luxury of this philosophical
premise about the universal mainsprings of human behavior. I offer instead an
answer that links individual motivation for crime to its ecological context:
Algebra homework does not make a statement about independence; it does not
assert that a youth is entitled to be taken seriously. Crime does. How do
pubescent teens come to know about antisocial behavior and its effects? I have
suggested that they vicariously observe the life‑styles of the life-course‑persistent
youths in their midst. Control theories assert that, in the absence of any
such models, innocents would invent delinquency.
on learning theory to explain juvenile delinquency, as I have done in this
section, is not unique. Social learning theories have suggested that
delinquency follows the learning of attitudes conducive to crime (e.g.,
Sutherland & Cressey, 1978). However, social learning theories of
delinquency have not asked, why do so many people learn the attitudes at the
same life stage? Why do they learn them so rapidly? What suddenly motivates
that learning? What reinforces it? Who are the "teachers"? Why are
deviant attitudes unlearned so readily a few years later? Social learning
theories describe aspects of the process by which an individual acquires
delinquent skills. However, without a motivational component, social
learning theories do not address the inescapable epidemiological facts about
adolescent delinquency. This developmental analysis of adolescence‑limited
delinquency invokes the maturity gap as an explanation for the motivation
and timing of adolescence‑limited delinquency. The concept of social
mimicry is borrowed to explain why healthy adolescents adopt the style of
youths who have been antisocial since early childhood. Thus, this narrative
attempts to answer some questions begged by earlier theories.
These Two Theories With Others
of antisocial behavior have been blessed with a number of thoughtful
theories. As a group, the theories have tended to be "general"
theories of crime; each extends its causal explanation to all offenders.
theories that summon sociological processes to explain crime and delinquency
have provided valuable insights about the proximal mechanisms that promote
juvenile delinquency (e.g., Becker, 1968; Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Hagan,
1987; Hirschi. 1969; Lemert, 1967; Shaw & McKay, 1942; Sutherland &
Cressey, 1978). However, sociologists have trained their lenses on the
adolescent age period, when the peak prevalence of criminal involvement
occurs, and when antisocial behavior is most easily studied with survey
methods (Hagan, Gillis, & Simpson, 1985; Sampson & Laub, 1992).
Historically, reliance on legal definitions of antisocial behavior and record
sources of data kept delinquency researchers focused on the adolescent onset
of illegal behavior. Consequently, many delinquency theories have failed to
address the stability of antisocial behavior that begins before adolescence, during early childhood. In addition, most
sociological theories invoke amplifying causal mechanisms that seem to ignore
the empirical facts about the enormous amount of desistence from crime that
happens soon after adolescence
(Gove, 1985). Causal factors such as low social class, unemployment,
cultural approval for violence, and deviant labels do not seem to remit
contemporaneously with that undeniable downward shift in the prevalence of
offenders during early adulthood.
theories that invoke causal variables from personality psychology or biology
have taught researchers much about how individual differences predispose
toward crime (e.g., Bowlby, 1988; Buikhuisen, 1987; Cloninger, 1987; Eysenck,
1977; Gorenstein & Newman, 1980; Mednick, 1977). However, these theories,
too, fail to provide a satisfying account, Because such theorists have trained
their lenses on early childhood and adulthood (often to the neglect of
adolescence), they have failed to anticipate the enormous surge in the
prevalence of antisocial involvement that occurs during
adolescence. Such theories typically rely on the stability of individual
differences in traits such as impulsivity, neuroticism, autonomic nervous
system reactivity, or low intelligence. Psychological theories cannot
explain the onset and desistence of adolescent delinquency without positing
compelling reasons for a sudden and dramatic population shift in criminogenic
traits followed by return to baseline a few years later.
the imperfect fit of many existing theories to the epidemiological facts,
data in partial support of each theory abound. The resulting stalemate has
engendered among students of crime a gentlemen's agreement to disagree. The
dual taxonomy described in this article argues that this compromise may be
needless. The competing theories may all be correct, but the processes they
describe may fit better for different types of delinquents or may operate at
different developmental stages in the natural history of antisocial behavior.
Among the many mechanisms touted by this developmental taxonomy, few are brand
new. What is new is the way in which many different theories of delinquency
have been integrated under a taxonomic umbrella.
this developmental taxonomy may serve to reconcile disagreements,
controversies, and misunderstandings in research on antisocial behavior. For
example, the developmental taxonomy may account for effects that appear,
disappear, and reappear as a function of the age of research subjects.
Behaviorgenetic studies have shown that childhood aggression and adult crime
are heritable, whereas juvenile delinquency is much less so (DiLalla &
Gottesman, 1989: Edelbrock, Rende, Plomin, & Thompson, in press). Other
correlates show also strong relationships to antisocial behavior when it is
measured in children and adults but only weak relationships to antisocial
behavior measured during adolescence. Such age‑related fluctuations in
effect size have been noticed for the associations among antisocial behavior
and social class (Elliott & Huizinga, 1983), gender (Smith & Visher,
1980), and reading problems (B. Maughan, personal communication, October 1990;
disappearing effects yield (unnecessary) controversy; they may be an
inadvertent consequence of mixing apples with oranges when using adolescents
as research samples. I have here proposed that the ratio of
life‑course‑persistents to their social mimics will differ as a
function of the age of the research sample. Samples of antisocial children
and adults should contain relatively more life‑course‑persistent
subjects, but in samples of delinquent teens, adolescence‑limited
subjects will far outnumber their persistent peers. Consequently, effect
sizes for the correlates of persistent antisocial behavior should be
attenuated in adolescent samples, and developmental interpretations of cross-sectional
data will be confounded. Note one implication: Juvenile delinquents may not
be the best group to study if researchers wish to detect the correlates of
persistent crime or antisocial psychopathology.
to the theory, natural histories of antisocial behavior should be found at
predictable prevalence rates in samples followed from childhood until
adolescence. Less than 10% of males should show extreme antisocial behavior
that begins during early childhood and is thereafter sustained at a high
level across time and across circumstances, throughout childhood and
adolescence. A much larger number of males, a majority, should show similar
levels of antisocial behavior during the adolescent age period but should
fail to meet research criteria for a childhood history of stable and pervasive
problem behavior. Teenaged males who abstain from any and all delinquency
should be relatively rare. False‑positive subjects, who meet criteria
for a stable and pervasive antisocial childhood history and yet recover
(eschew delinquency) after puberty, should be extremely rare.
specific research design is needed to evaluate whether these epidemiological
parameters will be borne out. Samples should be representative to tap the
population range of natural histories. The same individuals should be
studied longitudinally to describe the trajectories of individuals as opposed
to population shifts. Reports of antisocial behavior should be gathered from
multiple sources to tap pervasiveness across circumstances. Antisocial
behavior should be assessed repeatedly from childhood through adolescence to
capture stability and change across time. Measures of antisocial behavior
should be sensitive to developmental heterogeneity to tap individual
differences while allowing for the emergence of new forms of antisocial
behavior (e.g., automobile theft) or for the forsaking of old forms (e.g.,
appropriate research designs fail to yield the predicted individual natural
histories (or growth curves), at or near the predicted base rates, then the
theory is wrong. However, if subjects are found who match the natural
histories of this taxonomy, then the following hypotheses may be tested about
differential predictors and outcomes,
About Differential Correlates of Life‑Course-Persistent and
Adolescence‑Limited Antisocial Behavior
to the theory, the life‑course‑persistent type has its origins in
neuropsychological problems that assume measurable influence when difficult
children interact with criminogenic home environments. Beginning in
childhood, discipline problems and academic failures accumulate increasing momentum,
cutting off opportunities to practice prosocial behavior. As time passes,
recovery is precluded by maladaptive individual dispositions and narrowing
life options, and delinquents are channeled into antisocial adult
life‑styles. Thus, the strongest prospective predictors of persistent
antisocial behavior are anticipated to be measures of individual and family
characteristics. These measures include health, gender, temperament,
cognitive abilities, school achievement, personality traits, mental
disorders (e.g., hyperactivity), family attachment bonds, child‑rearing
practices, parent and sibling deviance, and socioeconomic status, but
to the description of adolescence‑limited delinquency, youths with
little risk from personal or environmental disadvantage encounter motivation
for crime for the first time when they enter adolescence. For them, an
emerging appreciation of desirable adult privileges is met with an awareness
that those privileges are yet forbidden. After observing their antisocial
peers' effective solution to the modern dilemma of the maturity gap, youths
mimic that delinquent solution. Perversely, the consequences of delinquency
reinforce and sustain their efforts, but only until aging into adulthood
brings a subjective shift in the valence of the consequences of crime. Then
such offenders readily desist from crime, substituting the prosocial skills
they practiced before they entered adolescence. This narrative suggests a
direct contrast with the predictions made for persistent antisocial behavior.
Individual differences should play little or no role in the prediction of
short‑term adolescent offending careers. Instead, the strongest
prospective predictors of short‑term offending should be knowledge of
peer delinquency, attitudes toward adulthood and autonomy, cultural and
historical context, and age.
life‑course‑persistent and adolescence‑limited delinquents,
defined on the basis of their natural histories, do not show the predicted
differential patterns of correlates, then the theory is wrong.
About Types of Offenses
to the theory, the two types will engage in different patterns of offending.
Adolescence‑limited offenders should engage primarily in crimes that
symbolize adult privilege or that demonstrate autonomy from parental control:
vandalism, public order offenses, substance abuse, "status" crimes
such as running away, and theft. Life‑course‑persistent
offenders should spawn a wider variety of offenses, including types of crimes
that are often committed by lone offenders. Thus, in addition to the
aforementioned crime types, they should commit more of the
victim‑oriented offenses, such as violence and fraud.
groups of life‑course‑persistent and adolescence‑limited delinquents,
defined on the basis of their natural histories, do not show the predicted
differential patterns of antisocial behaviors, then the theory is wrong.
ions About Desistence From Crime
to this theory, transition events in the life course are not unconditional determinants of desistence from crime.
Indeed, events such as marriage, employment, or military service can
provide opportunities for desistence, but such events can also provide
opportunities for continuity. According to this theory, individuals' reactions
to life‑transition events will vary predictably, depending on their
personal antisocial histories. Adolescence‑limited delinquents can
profit from opportunities for desistence, because they retain the option of
successfully resuming a conventional life‑style.
Life‑course‑persistent delinquents may make transitions into
marriage or work, but their injurious childhoods make it less likely that they
can leave their past selves behind; they should select jobs and spouses that
support their antisocial style, and they should express antisocial behavior
at home and at work.
life‑course‑persistent and adolescence‑limited delinquents,
defined on the basis of their natural histories, do not show the predicted
differential responses to young‑adulthood transitions, then the theory
About Teenagers Who Abstain From
have proposed that adolescence‑limited delinquency does not constitute
pathology. Rather, it is social activity that is normative as well as
understandable from the perspective of contemporary teens. If this assertion
is true, the existence of people (however few) who abstain from all
delinquency during their adolescent years requires explanation. Earlier, I
suggested that adolescents who commit no antisocial behavior have either (a)
pathological characteristics that exclude them from peer networks, (b)
structural barriers that prevent them from learning about delinquency, or (c)
no experience of the maturity gap (because of late puberty or early access
to adult roles).
adolescence‑limited delinquents and abstainers, defined on the basis of
their natural histories, do not differ in these predicted ways, then that
part of the theory is wrong.
A bout the Longitudinal Stability of
have proposed that most adults who behave in an antisocial fashion are the
same individuals who began antisocial behavior in early childhood. During the
peak, participation period of adolescence, those persistent individuals will
be masked by the "noise" of their more numerous mimics. Following
from this observation, estimates of the individual stability of antisocial
behavior are expected to violate the longitudinal
law which states that relationships between variables become weaker as the
time interval between them grows longer (Clarke & Clarke, 1984). One study
has found evidence that the longitudinal law is violated in this way when
antisocial behavior is studied in the same individuals over time. Stattin and
Magnusson (1984) reported that adult crime was predicted more strongly by behavior
at age 10 than by behavior between ages 15 and 17. This prediction awaits
The bulk of research, including the longitudinal
research, on antisocial behavior continues to be performed on adolescent
subjects. This is unfortunate. If the taxonomy introduced here has merit, then
studying offenders at the peak participation age offers the least favorable
prospects for understanding the sort of antisocial subject who will develop an
adult career of crime and violence. Researchers will learn more about the
etiology of severe, persistent antisocial behavior if they single out
childhood-onset persistent cases for study and if they begin their studies
during infancy, or even prenatally, and follow the same individuals to
adulthood. In the past, cross‑sectional comparisons that lumped all
delinquents together may have resulted in attenuated effect sizes. This
probably obscured some potential causal factors from view and produced
underestimates of the importance of others. Indeed, it is likely that most
of the research findings cited in this article were attenuated. If the theory
is correct, then the empirical footing for it could have been clearer if the
distinction between persistent and temporary delinquents had been made in past
research. In our past efforts to uncover the causes of persistent predatory
crime, we have been studying many of the right variables but in the wrong
subjects and at the wrong point in the life course.
unfortunate is that almost none of the contemporary theories of delinquency do
a good job explaining delinquency that begins in adolescence and ends soon
after. Our failure as a field to recognize the heterogeneity of adolescent
delinquency may have caused us to overlook important theoretical variables,
such as biological age, or structural factors in schools and neighborhoods
that determine access to antisocial models. Research is needed that analyzes
the roles of biological age and attitudes about maturity in the onset of
teenaged delinquency. Delinquency theories are woefully ill‑informed
about the phenomenology of modern teenagers from their own perspective. I
fear that we cannot understand adolescence‑limited delinquency without
first understanding adolescents.
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G.. & Frisch. R. E. (1982). Evidence for a secular trend in age of
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Medicine, 306, 1033‑1035.
may be countered that research has distinguished delinquent subtypes that
are based on cross‑sectional information. For example, the delinquent
behaviors of the life‑course‑persistent type may be distinguished
by relatively more overt aggression, whereas the adolescence-limited type
may show relatively more covert offending under peer influence. I agree.
Factor‑analytic studies have revealed an aggressive "undersocialized"
factor and a "socialized" peer‑oriented factor (Quay, 1964a,
1964b. 1966), and meta‑analytic studies have revealed
"overt" and "covert" offense patterns (Loeber &
Schmaling, 1985). However, such scale pairs are highly and positively
correlated in adolescent samples, in which the evidence for offense
versatility outweighs evidence for offense specialization (Klein, 1984:
Robins, 1978). Cross‑sectional classification has not proven effective
at the level of the individual. My assertion that developmental history is
needed for confident classification is buttressed by the repeated finding
that ape of onset of antisocial behavior problems is the single
best predictor of adult criminal outcomes (Farrington, Loeber, Elliott, et
conclusion that crime ceases in midlife may be premature; it is based on
cross‑sectional age comparisons of arrest and conviction rates. There
are al least four reasons to doubt the conclusions that have been based on
this method. First, official records underestimate the amount of true crime.
Second, there may be justice‑system biases toward under-arrest and
prosecution of older persons. Third, death and imprisonment may selectively
remove persistent offenders from official crime statistics. Fourth,
cross‑cohort comparisons may mistake generational effects for age
effects (Rowe & Tittle, 1977). Thus, until longitudinal researchers
collect self‑reports of crime in the same individuals from adolescence
to old age, the midlife disappearance of crime will remain
an empirical question.
9% and 22% of males not arrested as juveniles are arrested as adults,
suggesting that adult‑onset offenders constitute between 5% and 15% of
all males (for a review see Farrington, Ohlin, & Wilson, 1986). However,
estimates that are based on such official data are too high because most
offenders engage in crime for some time before they are first arrested.
Longitudinal studies of self‑report delinquency show that only 1% to
4% of males commit their first criminal offense after age
(Elliott, Huizinga, & Menard, 1989). Adult‑onset crime is not only
very unusual, but it tends to be low rate, nonviolent (Blumstein & Cohen,
1987), and generally not accompanied by the many complications that attend a
persistent and pervasive antisocial life‑style (Farrington, Loeber,
Elliott, et al., 1990).
longitudinal studies have shown that a history of antisocial
behavior predicts early sexual experience for males relative to their age
peers (Elliott & Morse, 1987;
Costa, Jessor, & Donovan, 1983; Weiher, Huizinga, Lizotte, & Van
almost all of
sexual experience of
early adolescent cohort is concentrated among the most seriously delinquent 5%
boys (Elliott & Morse, 1987).
effects on crime are controversial. However, most past studies of
have few implications for my theory of desistence
among adolescence‑limited delinquents for several reasons: (a) Some
compare aggregate‑level crime rates across places or periods that
differ on severity of
penalties. Such designs ignore the influence of individuals'
perceptions about the certainty of sanctions. (b) Some use
cross‑sectional correlations between past offending and current perceptions
certainty. Such designs evaluate the effects of experience on perceptions,
not the effect of perceptions on future offending. They show only that
experienced criminals know that the risk of arrest is inconsequential. (c)
Most focus on the severity and certainty of formal legal
sanctions, ignoring informal sanctions from the broader social context.
People have concerns about nonlegal problem consequences of
behaviors, whether they expect to get caught or not (Nagin &
Paternoster, 1991). (d) Most fail to study general samples during the age
when the desistence process peaks, instead studying high school students
or midlife prison inmates. Only the study by Paternoster et al. (1983) has
compared prospective measures of individual
and informal sanctions on the later offending behavior of
some research indicates that changes in parental behavior may be a child effect. Steinberg
(1981, 1987) has shown that pubertal maturation precedes emotional distance
and less authoritarian parenting. There is much evidence for the
activational effects of
hormones on problem behavior and on escalation of parent‑child
conflict (Buchanan, Eccles, & Becker, 1992). In the Oregon Youth Study,
parental monitoring and discipline fell to insignificance as predictors of
outcome when the child's prior antisocial behavior was entered first
(Dishion, Pattersonm, Stoolmiller, & Skinner, 1990).