Incarcerated Adolescent Girls: Personality, Social Competence, and Delinquency

By ter Laak, Jan; de Goede, Martijn et al. | Adolescence, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Incarcerated Adolescent Girls: Personality, Social Competence, and Delinquency


ter Laak, Jan, de Goede, Martijn, Aleva, Liesbeth, Brugman, Gerard, van Leuven, Miranda, Hussmann, Judith, Adolescence


There are several theories that try to explain juvenile delinquency. The present study confines itself to investigating personality traits and social competence as predictors of delinquency in adolescent girls.

Personality Traits as Predictors of Delinquency

Eysenck (1964, 1976) and Eysenck and Eysenck (1985) suggested that, compared to nondelinquents, delinquents are more extroverted, neurotic, and tough-minded (psychoticism). The last factor can be seen as a combination of low agreeableness and low conscientiousness, which, together with extroversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience (or autonomy), are known as the Big Five personality factors (Costa & McCrae, 1992; Hendriks, 1997). Furnham and Thompson's (1991) study on how personality correlates with crime indicated that there is a relationship between delinquency and psychoticism. They found a lack of consistency with respect to extroversion and neuroticism.

Heaven (1996), investigating the relationship between the Big Five and delinquency, found that neuroticism and conscientiousness were significantly associated with the level of delinquency in high school students, while extroversion and openness were not. John, Caspi, Robins, Moffit, and Stouthamer-Loeber (1994), examining delinquency in 12- to 13-year-old boys, found that a high level of delinquency was accompanied by low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. A high level of delinquency was also related to a high level of the sensation-seeking facet of extroversion, while neuroticism and delinquency were not related. Wit and Van Aken (1998) reported that incarcerated adolescent boys who were treated in a residential institution scored higher on conscientiousness and neuroticism, and lower on agreeableness, than did a nondelinquent control group.

Elements of Gottfredson and Hirschi's (1990) general theory of crime can be considered to support the position that personality traits are predictive of delinquency. For example, the results of a meta-analysis by Pratt and Cullen (2000) suggested that low self-control was a good predictor of crime. Low self-control included the following factors: lack of resistance to immediate gratification, impulsiveness, insensitiveness, physical risk taking, shortsightedness, and being unable to express problems. These low self-control factors were described as stable individual characteristics. They also partly resembled the description of a personality trait, and Pratt and Cullen's meta-analysis found that a trait-opportunity or trait-situation relationship was present. Inclusion of the situation or opportunity improved the power of the control variable to predict criminal behavior.

Social Competence in Delinquents

Psychologists often stress the fact that juvenile delinquents lack the social skills needed to solve interpersonal problems. For example, Gaffney and McFall (1981) found that delinquent adolescent girls resolved their social problems less adequately than did a comparable nondelinquent group. This and similar findings paved the way for the inclusion of social skills training as part of rehabilitation programs for juvenile delinquents (see Gendreau & Ross, 1987).

However, Eysenck (1976) indicated that some delinquents are more, not less, socially competent than the average person. He distinguished "criminals to their fingertips" from those "who simply cannot get by in our complex society" (p. 115). Specifically, successful delinquents need social, organizational, and computational skills to estimate the risks involved in criminal acts (i.e., to succeed, they must conduct a cost-benefit analysis of criminal activities). This hypothesis is in accord with rational choice theory, which suggests that criminals think rationally and strategically to accrue the benefits of their crime (e.g., money, goods, excitement, belonging to a group, respect of other criminals; see Cornish & Clarke, 1986).

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