A brief extract on a single idea



11 OCTOBER 2010

NO 1639

Antisocial behavior

Childhood antisocial behavior includes aggressive acts, vandalism, theft, truancy, running away, lying and other acts that violate major social norms and expectations. Early antisocial behaviors tend to be fairly stable over the course of development. Based on research, it would appear that early aggression is more durable than changeable and that the probability of change diminishes over time (Loeber, 1990). These children who display antisocial behaviors often have difficulty with social skills and many continue to exhibit antisocial and other maladaptive behaviors in their adult years (Dishion et al., 1984). Eron (1987), for example, reported that children who were rated as aggressive by their peers at age 8 were three times more likely to engage in criminal conduct by age 19 than those who were not rated as aggressive by their peers. Several studies have documented that severe disruptive, aggressive and antisocial behaviors in children and youth puts them at risk for a host of adjustment problems such as substance abuse, poor peer relations, academic failure and school dropout (Loeber & Dishion, 1983; Dishion et al., 1991; Cairns & Cairns, 1994). Currently, the prognosis for aggressive children is poor, and services provided by mental health, education and juvenile justice agencies often have little impact on the downward trajectory of aggressive children.

While it is true that antisocial behavior shows continuity and stability across age, Moffitt (1993) argues that juvenile delinquency conceals two distinct groups of individuals—a smaller group of individuals with life-course persistent anti- social behavior versus a much larger group of individuals who display adolescence-limited antisocial behavior. Moffitt (1993) proposed a dual taxonomy and a pair of developmental theories to account for these two qualitatively distinct groups of individuals, each with its own history and etiology. There are a small number of people in the general population who display high rates of antisocial behavior across time and in diverse situations. The causal sequence for life-course persistent antisocial behavior begins early in life (e.g. difficult temperament, problematic parent-child interactions, academic difficulties) and, as a consequence, there is little opportunity for the individual to learn pro-social behavioral alternatives (Snyder & Patterson, 1987; Lynam et al., 1993). Because these individuals fail to learn conventional pro-social alternatives, and because they become ensnared by the consequences of their antisocial behavior (e.g. school dropout, teenage pregnancy), the opportunities for breaking this negative chain of cumulative continuity gradually diminishes across time (Moffitt, 1990; Cairns & Cairns, 1994). The prognosis for the life-course-persistent person is dismal; drug and alcohol addiction, unsatisfactory employment, unstable relationships, and psychiatric illnesses have all been reported at high rates for offenders who persist past the age of 25 (Sampson & Laub, 1990).

In contrast, Moffitt (1993) labeled individuals whose crime careers are of shorter and more temporary duration ’adolescence-limited’. Adolescence-limited delinquents lack consistency in their antisocial behaviors across situations. Moffitt (1993) argued that these adolescents are likely to engage in antisocial behaviors in situations where such responses seem profitable to them; hence these youths maintain control over their antisocial responses and use their antisocial behavior only in situations where it may serve an instrumental function. Research with delinquents reveals that proving that they are mature and autonomous are valuable resources for the teenager, and these not only provide strong motives for offending, but they also serve to reinforce delinquency (Kandel, 1980; Goldstein, 1990). However, when aging delinquents attain some of the privileges they coveted as teens, criminal behavior that comes at a cost may not be perceived to be as rewarding (Moffitt, 1993). Hence, adolescence-limited delinquents may experience a loss of motivation for delinquency. Thus, the behavior of adolescence-limited delinquents can be argued to be under the control of reinforcement and punishment contingencies. Research has documented that the antisocial behavior of many delinquent teens have been found to decline after they leave high school, marry a pro-social spouse, or get a full-time job (Sampson & Laub, 1990).

Taken together, Moffitt’s (1993) dual taxonomy offered a theory to explain the two very different types of juvenile delinquents and suggested that, in a sample of delinquent teens, the number of adolescence-limited subjects will far outnumber their life-course-persistent peers. Moffitt (1993) also argued that adolescence-limited delinquents are the ones who can profit from opportunities for desistence and be successful at leading a conventional lifestyle, compared with their life-course-persistent counterparts who are far less likely to turn away from crime.


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Cairns, R.B. & Cairns, B.D. (1994). Lifelines and risks: Pathways of youth in our time. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Dishion, T.J., Loeber, R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M. & Patterson, G.R. (1984) Skills deficits and male adolescent delinquency. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 12. pp. 37-54.

Dishion, T.J., Patterson, G.R., Stoolmiller, M. & Skinner, M.L. (1991) Family, school, and behavioral antecedents to early adolescent involvement with antisocial peers. Developmental Psychology, 27. pp. 172-180.

Eron, L. (1987) The development of aggressive behavior from the perspective of a developing behaviorism. American Psychologist, 42. pp. 435-442.
Goldstein, A.P. (1990) Delinquents on Delinquency. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Kandel, D. (1980) Drug and drinking behavior among youth. Annual Review of Sociology, 6. pp. 235-285.

Loeber, R. (1990) Development and risk factors of juvenile antisocial behavior and delinquency. Clinical Psychology Review, 10. pp. 1-42.

Loeber, R. & Dishion, T. (1983) Early predictors of male delinquency: a review. Psychological Bulletin, 94. pp. 68-99.

Lynam, D., Moffitt, T. & Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (1993) Explaining the relation between IQ and delinquency: class, race, test motivation, school failure, or self-control? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102. pp. 187-196.

Moffitt, T.E. (1990) Juvenile delinquency and attention-deficit disorder: developmental trajectories from age 3 to 15. Child Development, 61. pp. 893-910.

Moffitt, T.E. (1993) Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: a developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100. pp. 674-701

Sampson, R,J. & Laub, ].H. (1990) Crime and deviance over the life course: the salience of adult social bonds. American Sociological Review, 55. pp. 609-627.

Snyder, J. & Patterson, G. (1987) Family interaction and delinquent behavior, in: H. Quay (ed), Handbook of juvenile Delinquency. New York: Wiley.

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