Science in Christian Perspective

A Psychologist's Perspective on Juvenile Delinquency
Eduard H. Schludermann
333 Kingway Avenue
Winnipeg, Manitoba
Canada, R3M OG6

From: JASA 38 (December 1986): 283

I read the March 1986 issue of the JASA with considerable interest, especially the article by Jerry Bergman, "A brief history of the failure of American corrections." I am a developmental psychologist specializing in research on adolescent development. I do not regard myself as a specialist in juvenile delinquency, but I lecture on that topic in adolescent development courses. From the perspective and bias of my discipline, I notice that psychological theories about the causes of juvenile delinquency are quite different from Bergman's primarily sociological perspective. It seems that there is not much communication and interaction between adolescent psychologists and sociologists concerning the origin of criminal behavior.

Most social theories are single-factor theories implying that criminal behavior has a single cause. It is, however, possible that we are dealing with an over-determined phenomenon: that is, adolescent delinquency may be the outcome of half a dozen major variables (body type, temperamental disposition, parent-child relationships, adolescent peer groups, social control in the neighborhood, etc.), some of which may be necessary and/or sufficient conditions for delinquency. The elimination of any single predisposing variable would not appreciably reduce the delinquency rate. The disconfirming evidence cited by Bergman should be interpreted in this context.

Bergman argues that hereditary factors predisposing to crime have been discredited. He is right in the view that there are no criminal genes. Behavior genetics is one of the most rapidly expanding fields in developmental psychology. Recent evidence for the hereditability of temperamental traits in humans (activity level, persistence, intensity of emotional reactions, threshold of emotional arousal, response to new experiences, etc.) have given the issue a new twist. Most adolescent delinquents are of the so-called "difficult" temperamental constellation, characterized by high restlessness, low threshold of emotional arousal, high intensity of emotional responses, negative reactions to new experiences, irregular body rhythms, etc. A certain temperament may be a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for becoming an adolescent delinquent. Moreover, longitudinal studies, where primary-school children were followed up until adolescence, suggest that future delinquents have quite different social and personality developments than do future nondelinquents. (J. J. Conger and A. C. Petersen's Adolescence and Youth: Psychological Development in a Changing World, [3rd edition, Harper, 1984, pp. 622-6271 gives a brief overview of the outcomes of such studies.) In addition, the parent-child relationship (a factor not discussed by Bergman) seems to be a significant factor contributing to the development of juvenile delinquency.

The above brief comments do suggest that it is difficult to see the whole picture of this socially important topic. Recently Christianity Todav (April 4, 1986, pp. 52-54) published a long book review of J. Q. Vilson and R. J. Herrnstein's Crime and Human Nature (Simon and Schuster, 1985). 1 expect that this review will have a considerable impact on the outlook on crime for many Christian readers. The book reflects much current psychological thinking about the origin of crime.