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UA-led Study Links Antisocial Behavior and Decision Making in Teens

A new study by a researcher at The University of Arizona and his colleagues addresses the persistent nature of antisocial and aggressive behavior in adolescents.

Led by Reid G. Fontaine, now an assistant professor of psychology at the UA and a director of the program in criminal law and policy in the James E. Rogers College of Law, the researchers followed more than 500 teenage boys and girls over several years.

The study, just published in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development, looked at how these young people’s decision-making processes intertwined with their behavior.

"It’s been demonstrated in numerous studies that antisocial behavior is particularly stable during the developmental period of adolescence," Fontaine said.

"Thinking about development and brain maturation and cognition in adolescents has been a hot topic in policy and law in recent years. This study shows how adolescents’ evaluative behavior and decision making may play a role in their behavior. This is the kind of approach that folks who are studying issues of social-cognitive development in adolescence probably want to pay attention to," he said.

Study subjects were shown a battery of videos showing people confronted by what might or might not be a provocation. In each, the young people were asked to imagine themselves as the characters in the videos and asked how they might respond.

The teens and their parents also answered questionnaires about aggressive and delinquent behaviors, such as fighting, lying, bullying and stealing. Fontaine said the answers they provided ranged considerably.

"They were correlated with other factors that go to issues of social cognitive development and judgements about aggression and antisocial behavior. Many adolescents endorsed these responses of aggressive retaliation at some level," Fontaine said.

The study offers a new piece to a complicated puzzle of adolescent behavior. Fontaine said it suggests that from early to late adolescence that how young people evaluate aggressive behaviors plays a role in how they behave, and that understanding the relationship between aggression and decision-making has implications for intervention programs.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Other researchers come from Duke University, Indiana University and Auburn University.

Contact: Reid G. Fontaine, 520-621-7441,

Jeff Harrison | University of Arizona
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