Antisocial children often appear different from birth, and can be nearly impossible to control by the time they reach kindergarten. Historically, intervention to address these children's problems has focused on family therapy, but a new study adds to evidence that antisocial children's difficult behaviors—including physical violence, oppositional behavior, lying, stealing, and bullying—are influenced far more by genes than by home environment.
Louise Arseneault and colleagues analyzed the behavior of 1,116 pairs of 5-year-old twins participating in a longitudinal study. Mothers, teachers, study examiners, and the children themselves evaluated the subjects' levels of antisocial behavior.
The researchers' analysis revealed that the antisocial behavior of children who exhibited problems in all settings was heavily influenced by genetics, with a heritability estimate of 82 percent. When behaviors were reported by only a single informant, the heritability estimate ranged from 33 percent (when only the children themselves reported antisocial behaviors on their parts) to 71 percent (for antisocial behavior reported by teachers). This indicates, the researchers say, that antisocial behavior that is pervasive across all settings is more strongly influenced by genetics than is milder, "situational" antisocial behavior.
Arseneault et al. say that their study, along with four others that reported similar findings, "show that genetic risks contribute strongly to population variation in antisocial behavior that emerges in early childhood." Their findings, they say, indicate that "research and theory on the etiology of childhood antisocial behavior must look beyond the current focus on socioeconomic contexts and parenting processes, to incorporate genetic explanations and develop new theories of nature-nurture interplay."
"Strong genetic effects on cross-situational antisocial behaviour among 5-year-old children according to mothers, teachers, examiner-observers, and twins' self-reports," Louise Arseneault, Terrie E. Moffitt, Avshalom Caspi, Alan Taylor, Fruhling V. Rijsdijk, Sara R. Jaffee, Jennifer C. Ablow, and Jeffrey R. Measelle, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 44, No. 6, September 2003, 832-48. Address: Louise Arseneault, Box Number P080, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK, email@example.com.