Delinquent Developments

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, May 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

Delinquent Developments


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Dunedin lies at the southern end of New Zealand, nearly half a world and a far cry from the gritty, sometimes grim realities of life for youngsters growing up in many U.S. cities. Yet a group of more than 1,000 boys and girls born in Dunedin 21 years ago now offers behavioral researchers provocative clues to the ways in which the timing of puberty, enduring personality traits, and the social world of high school work together to foster different types of juvenile delinquency,

Indeed, only by tracking people from birth through adulthood can scientists unravel the forces that produce lifelong antisocial and criminal behavior, contend Terrie E. Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, two psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Such longitudinal studies may also help delineate why many teenagers make occasional forays into delinquency but avoid a life of crime and stormy personal relationships, they add.

Moffitt and Caspi have collaborated with New Zealand researchers who organized the Dunedin project - formally known as the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study - to analyze data on psychological and behavioral development in the sample.

The Dunedin findings emerge at a time of intense controversy regarding research into crime and violence. Last year, the head of the then Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration resigned his position amid controversy over his statements linking inner-city crime to the behavior of monkeys; soon thereafter, federal officials withdrew funds for an upcoming conference addressing genetic influences on crime.

Nearly all criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, and other investigators -- including those who organized the ill-fated meeting on the genetics of criminal behavior -- routinely reject the idea of a "crime gene" or "born criminals?At the same time, they note that some partially inherited traits, such as intelligence and temperament, influence the likelihood that individuals will participate in criminal acts.

For instance, in their book Crime and Human Nature (1985, Simon & Schuster), political scientist James Q. Wilson of the University of California, Los Angeles, and psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein of Harvard University argue that inherited elements of human nature develop in an intricate web of family and social encounters, and that this complex process helps determine how people choose between the consequences of crime or its alternatives.

"Some traits or dispositions are inherited, but the continuity of behavior, including antisocial activity, is maintained by social contexts and other aspects of the environment," Caspi contends.

Caspi and Moffitt approach the Dunedin sample from this perspective. In an article accepted for publication in PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW, Moffitt argues that the findings she has made so far, along with previous data on national crime rates and child development, indicate that teenagers who engage in at least some delinquent acts represent the large majority of adolescents and travel either of two diverging paths toward adulthood.

Poor self-control and aggressive behavior typify virtually the entire lives of a small group of hard-core delinquents in New Zealand, and probably elsewhere, Moffitt contends. A much larger group takes up delinquency as an adolescent avocation because these individuals see no other means to demonstrate their independence and grab a bit of grown-up status, at least until jobs, marriage, and other gateways to adulthood offer greater rewards. For them, delinquency helps bridge the five- to 10-year time warp between the "now" of physical and sexual maturity and the "later" of social maturity, Moffitt argues.

Dunedin-born youngsters who spent their childhoods embroiled in behavioral and school problems and who entered puberty earlier than most of their peers proved the most likely to embrace teenage delinquency, often with a ferocity unmatched by their fellow adolescents, Caspi and Moffitt assert. …

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