Executive Functions

Executive functions (EFs) are higher order cognitive abilities involved in the planning, regulation, and initiation of goal-directed behavior (Giancola, 2000a). They include attention and concentration, anticipation and planning, abstract reasoning, effective self-monitoring, inhibition of inappropriate or impulsive behavior, taking the perspective of others, and use of working memory (e.g., Farrington, 1998; Giancola, 2000; Moffitt, 1997b). Normal executive functioning, including behavioral inhibition, effortful control, intelligence, language development, theory of mind development and emotional understanding, is associated with positive outcomes in childhood and allows adults to behave appropriately (Greenfield & Valliant, 2007). It follows that some authors, most notably Moffitt, emphasize executive deficits in the etiology of antisocial behavior.

Intelligence is not believed to be synonymous with EF. Nigg and Huang- Pollock (2003) tell us that EF and intelligence share certain operations such as working memory but that they can be distinguished and are only weakly correlated. EFs have an “overarching emphasis on maintenance of an appropriate problem-solving mental set in pursuit of a future goal” (Nigg & Huang-Pollock, 2003; p. 229). Similarly, while some authors treat EF as nearly synonymous with frontal lobe function, research does not support very clear associations between EF tasks and specific frontal lobe damage; in fact, “... evidence indicates that optimal performance on EF tasks depends on the integrity of the whole brain” (Ogilvie, Stewart, Chan, & Shum, 2011). Most deficits in executive functioning seen in antisocial individuals are likely to fall within the realm of “individual differences” rather than clinical pathology (Ogilvie et al., 2011).

There are a multitude of ways executive deficits may cause antisocial behavior (Moffitt, 1997b). Those with executive deficits are expected to have difficulty thinking about the negative impact of their behavior on others, or attending to abstract ideas such as ethical values or future rewards, and inhibiting behavior (Moffitt, 1997b). Relatedly, Wolff and Crockett (2011) found that deliberative decision making was negatively associated with delinquency in their multivariate models, controlling for gender, age, ethnicity, parent support and other factors.

An important set of executive abilities is related to regulating thought and action in order to match intentions with behavior (Zelazo et al., 2005). Psychologists distinguish between bottom-up implicit cognitive processing (automatic, effortless, mainly unconscious processing) and top-down explicit processing (conscious, controllable, effortful and thoughtful processing) (MacDonald, 2008). Implicit processing, referred to by some as “hot” processing (e.g., Zelazo et al., 2005) is evolutionarily ancient. It is believed that there are modules for brain processing to cues associated with threat, for example, that result in rapid, automatic responses we sometimes think of as “instincts.” Explicit, or “cool” processing (Zelazo et al., 2005), by contrast, is comparatively slow and methodical. This cool processing involves exerting effortful control to overcome our innate proclivity for aggression in the presence of negative affect or unpleasant experiences such as hot weather, loud noises, etc. (MacDonald, 2008).

These categorizations are both related to “reactive” or “expressive” aggression, which emanates from angry emotion, discomfort, frustration. Some violence is “instrumental,” in that it is planned and calculated, and usually motivated by some nonemotional factors. While emotion regulation is clearly implicated in the amount of reactive aggression we might see in an individual, it has less of a role in “instrumental” violence which is probably generated by other process such as underarousal, lack of empathy, or personality disorder (e.g., Broomhall, 2005).

Studies have demonstrated a relationship between low scores on tests of executive function and antisocial behavior (Barker et al., 2007; Giancola, 2000b). Empirical evidence suggests that tests of EF can distinguish between antisocial and nonantisocial adolescents (Moffitt, 1997b). Seguin and colleagues have found negative associations between indices of EF and aggression (e.g., Seguin, Boulerice, Harden, Tremblay, & Pihl, 1999; Seguin, Pihl, Harden, Tremblay, & Boulerice, 1995). Cohen, Kasen, Smailes, and Fagan (2002) also found that EF deficits were a risk factor for persistent offending trajectories. Farrington (1998) reviews the risk factors for male youth violence and lists poor behavioral control and attention problems among them. He emphasizes EFs in his discussion. In Chapter 4, we return to EFs and their association with violence.

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