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

Psychol Bull. 2012 Mar;138(2):272-95. doi: 10.1037/a0026020. Epub 2011 Oct 24.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / etiology
  • Causality
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data
  • Child of Impaired Parents / statistics & numerical data*
  • Conduct Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Conduct Disorder / etiology
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Divorce / statistics & numerical data
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Peer Group
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / epidemiology*
  • Punishment
  • Research Design / trends*
  • Smoking / epidemiology
  • Social Environment
  • Socioeconomic Factors