From correlates to causes: can quasi-experimental studies and statistical innovations bring us closer to identifying the causes of antisocial behavior?


Journal Article (Review)

Longitudinal, epidemiological studies have identified robust risk factors for youth antisocial behavior, including harsh and coercive discipline, maltreatment, smoking during pregnancy, divorce, teen parenthood, peer deviance, parental psychopathology, and social disadvantage. Nevertheless, because this literature is largely based on observational studies, it remains unclear whether these risk factors have truly causal effects. Identifying causal risk factors for antisocial behavior would be informative for intervention efforts and for studies that test whether individuals are differentially susceptible to risk exposures. In this article, we identify the challenges to causal inference posed by observational studies and describe quasi-experimental methods and statistical innovations that may move researchers beyond discussions of risk factors to allow for stronger causal inference. We then review studies that used these methods, and we evaluate whether robust risk factors identified from observational studies are likely to play a causal role in the emergence and development of youth antisocial behavior. There is evidence of causal effects for most of the risk factors we review. However, these effects are typically smaller than those reported in observational studies, suggesting that familial confounding, social selection, and misidentification might also explain some of the association between risk exposures and antisocial behavior. For some risk factors (e.g., smoking during pregnancy, parent alcohol problems), the evidence is weak that they have environmentally mediated effects on youth antisocial behavior. We discuss the implications of these findings for intervention efforts to reduce antisocial behavior and for basic research on the etiology and course of antisocial behavior.

Full Text

Cited Authors

  • Jaffee, SR; Strait, LB; Odgers, CL

Published Date

  • March 2012

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 138 / 2

Start / End Page

  • 272 - 295

PubMed ID

  • 22023141

Pubmed Central ID

  • 22023141

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1939-1455

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0033-2909

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1037/a0026020


  • eng