Executive Function and Violence

Other indicators of cognitive deficits in children have been associated with physically aggressive and antisocial behavior in many studies (e.g., Bennett et al., 2005; Donnellan et al., 2000; Giancola, 2000b; Seguin et al., 2004) but there is less emphasis on or confidence in associations between other indicators of intellectual function and violence. There is some indication that measures of cognitive deficits might distinguish serious from nonserious offenders. Donnellan et al. (2000) found that more serious offenders had greater cognitive deficits than lesser offenders among Caucasian and Hispanic subjects but not African American subjects. Dolan et al. (2002) found that psychopaths had poorer executive function (EF) than controls or nonpsychopathic subjects. EF deficits put subjects in the Children in the Community study at risk for persistent offending trajectories (Cohen et al., 2002). Ogilvie et al. (2011) conducted a meta-analysis on the association between executive functioning and antisocial behavior. They provide coefficients for many operationalizations of antisocial behavior. The effect size for physical aggression was d = .41. It was quite similar to the effect sizes for other categories such as psychopathy (d = .42) and delinquency (d = .41). The effect size estimate for “criminality” was higher (d = .61), but they do not provide a list of studies, so we cannot say if that average included studies with measures of violent criminal behavior.

Many scholars expect particular executive functions to have an association with aggression, though most authors do not usually discuss them as separate entities. Authors have argued that executive deficits may lead to problems in attending to appropriate information or cues, shifting cognitive sets, planning a response using rules, and inhibitory control, and these particular deficits may cause the individual to choose violent rather than more difficult, nonviolent, problem-solving solutions (Ellis, Weiss, & Lochman, 2009). Executive functioning is essential for processes related to problem solving, such as generating alternatives, attending to cues and making a plan. Those deficient in problem solving skills would be expected to be more likely to resolve problems by using violence, which requires little planning or sustained attention. Specific impairments in theory of mind development and emotion understanding might be important for moral development related to violent behavior.

Studies have demonstrated a relationship between low scores on executive functioning and antisocial behavior (Barker et al., 2007; Giancola, 2000b; Moffitt, 1997) including aggression (e.g., Seguin et al., 1999; Seguin et al., 1995). The “feel” of the literature is more piecemeal than the literature on intelligence tests, partly because few reviewers have attempted to make sense of it. Eisenberg et al. (2003) report that ability to concentrate, shift attention, and speak more quietly when asked to do so were associated with externalizing behaviors in a sample of young children. Cohen et al. (2002) found executive deficits to be a risk for persistent offending trajectories. Dolan et al. (2002) found that psychopaths had poorer executive functioning than controls or nonpsychopathic subjects. Farrington (1998) reviews the risk factors for male youth violence and lists poor behavioral control and attention problems among them. He emphasizes EF deficits in his discussion. Some have reported memory problems among serious offenders. In the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, a neuropsychological memory score was significantly, negatively associated with antisocial behavior among males but not females (Moffitt & Caspi, 2001). In a study of Colombian juvenile offenders, Klevens and Roca (1999) report that persistent offenders have difficulty recalling even major events such as a death in the family.

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