Integrated Cognitive Antisocial Potential Theory Research Paper

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Developmental and life-course criminology (DLC) focuses on the development of offending and antisocial behavior, risk and protective factors, and the effects of life events. The ICAP theory specifies the risk and protective factors that influence the development of long-term antisocial potential (varying between individuals) and the situational factors that influence short-term antisocial potential (varying within individuals over time). It also specifies the cognitive processes that influence whether the antisocial potential becomes the actuality of offending in any situation and the consequences of offending that have feedback influences on antisocial potential. Tests of the ICAP theory and its research and policy implications are described.

Developmental And Life-Course Theories

Developmental and life-course criminology (DLC) is concerned mainly with three topics: (a) the development of offending and antisocial behavior from the womb to the tomb; (b) the influence of risk and protective factors at different ages; and (c) the effects of life events on the course of development (Farrington 2003). Whereas traditional criminological theories aimed to explain between-individual differences in offending, such as why lower-class males commit more offenses than upper-class males, DLC theories aim to explain within-individual changes in offending over time, such as why males commit more offenses when they are unemployed than when they are employed.

DLC theories aim to explain offending by individuals (e.g., as opposed to crime rates of areas). “Offending” refers to the most common crimes of theft, burglary, robbery, violence, vandalism, minor fraud, and drug use and to behavior that in principle might lead to a conviction in Western industrialized societies such as the United States and the United Kingdom. These theories aim to explain results on offending obtained with both official records and self-reports. Generally, DLC findings and theories particularly apply to offending by lower-class urban males in developed countries in the last 80 years or so. To what extent they apply to other types of persons (e.g., middle-class rural females) or offenses (e.g., white-collar crimes or sex offenses against children) are important empirical questions that cannot be addressed here.

In conducting research on development, risk and protective factors, life events, and DLC theories, it is essential to carry out prospective longitudinal surveys. I have directed the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, which is a prospective longitudinal survey of over 400 London males from age 8 to age 56 (Farrington et al. 2013). The main reason why developmental and life-course criminology became important during the 1990s was because of the enormous volume and significance of longitudinal research on offending that was published during this decade. Particularly influential were the three “Causes and Correlates” studies originally mounted by the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Denver, Pittsburgh, and Rochester. Other important longitudinal projects that came to prominence in the 1990s were the Seattle Social Development Project, the Dunedin study in New Zealand, the Montreal Longitudinal-Experimental study, and the further analyses by Laub and Sampson of the classic study by the Gluecks. (For reviews of all these studies, see Farrington 2013.)

What Do We Know?

There are ten widely accepted conclusions about the development of offending that any DLC theory must be able to explain. (For references, see Farrington and Loeber 2013.) First, the prevalence of offending peaks in the late teenage years – between ages 15 and 19. Second, the peak age of onset of offending is between 8 and 14, and the peak age of desistance from offending is between 20 and 29. Third, an early age of onset predicts a relatively long criminal career duration and the commission of relatively many offenses.

Fourth, there is marked continuity in offending and antisocial behavior from childhood to the teenage years and to adulthood. What this means is that there is relative stability of the ordering of people on some measure of antisocial behavior over time and that people who commit relatively many offenses during one age range have a high probability of also committing relatively many offenses during another age range. However, neither of these statements is incompatible with the assertion that the prevalence of offending varies with age or that many antisocial children become conforming adults. Between-individual stability in antisocial ordering is perfectly compatible with within-individual change in behavior over time. For example, people may graduate from cruelty to animals at age 6 to shoplifting at age 10, burglary at age 15, robbery at age 20, and eventually to spouse assault and child abuse later in life. There is also continuity in offending from one generation to the next.

Fifth, a small fraction of the population (the “chronic” offenders) commit a large fraction of all crimes. In general, these chronic offenders have an early onset, a high individual offending frequency, and a long criminal career. Sixth, offending is versatile rather than specialized (although specialization increases with age). For example, violent offenders are indistinguishable from frequent offenders in childhood, adolescent, and adult risk factors. Seventh, the types of acts defined as offenses are elements of a larger syndrome of antisocial behavior, including heavy drinking, reckless driving, sexual promiscuity, bullying, and truancy. Offenders tend to be versatile not only in committing several types of crimes but also in committing several types of antisocial behavior.

Eighth, most offenses up to the late teenage years are committed with others, whereas most offenses from age 20 onward are committed alone. This aggregate change is not caused by dropping out processes or group offenders desisting earlier than lone offenders. Instead, there is change within individuals; people change from group offending to lone offending as they get older. Ninth, the reasons given for offending up to the late teenage years are quite variable, including utilitarian ones (e.g., to obtain material goods or for revenge), for excitement or enjoyment (or to relieve boredom), or because people get angry (in the case of violent crimes). In contrast, from age 20 onward, utilitarian motives become increasingly dominant. Tenth, different types of offenses tend to be first committed at distinctively different ages. For example, shoplifting is typically committed before burglary, which in turn is typically committed before robbery. In general, there is increasing diversification of offending up to age 20; as each new type of crime is added, previously committed crimes continue to be committed. Conversely, after age 20, diversification decreases and specialization increases.

The main risk factors for the early onset of offending before age 20 are well known (Farrington and Welsh 2007):

  • Individual factors: low intelligence, low school achievement, hyperactivity impulsiveness and risk taking, and antisocial child behavior including aggression and bullying
  • Family factors: poor parental supervision, harsh discipline and child physical abuse, inconsistent discipline, a cold parental attitude and child neglect, low involvement of parents with children, parental conflict, broken families, criminal parents, and delinquent siblings
  • Socioeconomic factors: low family income and large family size
  • Peer factors: delinquent peers, peer rejection, and low popularity
  • School factors: a high delinquency rate school
  • Neighborhood factors: a high crime neighborhood

By definition, a risk factor predicts a high probability of offending, whereas a protective factor predicts a low probability of offending in a group who are at risk. Less is known about protective factors. (For reviews of risk and protective factors, see Farrington et al. 2012.)

The main life events that encourage desistance after age 20 are getting married, getting a satisfying job, moving to a better area, and joining the military. The distinction between risk factors and life events is not clear-cut, since some life events may be continuing experiences whose duration is important (e.g., a marriage or a job), while some risk factors may occur at a particular time (e.g., loss of a parent). Other life events (e.g., converting to religion) may be important but have been studied less.

While the focus in DLC is on the development of offenders, it is important not to lose sight of factors that influence the commission of offenses. It is plausible to assume that offenses arise out of an interaction between the person (with a certain degree of criminal potential) and the environment (providing opportunities and victims). Existing evidence suggests that people faced with criminal opportunities take account of the subjectively perceived benefits and costs of offending (compared with other possible activities) in deciding whether or not to offend. DLC theories should explain the commission of offenses as well as the development of offenders.

Contentious Issues

I now turn to some more contentious issues. (For reviews of knowledge about these more or less contentious issues, see Piquero et al. 2003.) First, while it is clear that the prevalence of offending peaks in the late teenage years, it is much less clear how the individual offending frequency (i.e., the frequency of offending by those who offend) varies with age. Some studies suggest that the individual offending frequency accelerates to a peak in the late teenage years and then decelerates in the twenties, whereas others suggest that the individual offending frequency does not change with age. Second, it is not clear whether the seriousness of offending escalates up to a certain age and then de-escalates or whether it does not change with age.

Third, while it is clear that an early age of onset of offending predicts a long criminal career duration and many offenses, it is much less clear whether an early age of onset predicts a high individual offending frequency or a high average seriousness of offending. Nor is it clear whether early onset offenders differ in degree or in kind from later onset offenders or how much there are distinctly different behavioral trajectories. Fourth, while chronic offenders commit more offenses than others, it is not clear whether their offenses are more serious on average. Nor is it clear whether chronic offenders differ in degree or in kind from nonchronic offenders.

Fifth, it is clear that certain types of offenses occur on average before other types and hence that onset sequences can be identified. However, it is not clear whether these onset sequences are merely age-appropriate behavioral manifestations of some underlying theoretical construct (e.g., antisocial potential) or whether the onset of one type of behavior facilitates or acts as a stepping-stone toward the onset of another. In other words, onset sequences could reflect persistent heterogeneity or state dependence (Nagin and Farrington 1992). Similarly, little is known about onset sequences in which childhood antisocial behavior has some kind of influence on later offending, which might suggest opportunities for early prevention.

Sixth, while the main risk factors for the early onset of offending are well known, the extent to which these risk factors have causal effects on offending is not clear. Seventh, many risk factors could either be causes of offending or indicators of the same underlying construct, or even both. For example, heavy drinking could reflect the same underlying construct as offending (e.g., antisocial potential) in comparisons between individuals but could be a cause of offending in comparisons within individuals (e.g., if people committed more offenses while drinking than while not drinking). In other words, heavy drinking could be a factor that influenced short-term within-individual variations in offending: why people commit offenses in some times and places but not in others.

There are many other unresolved issues concerning risk factors for offending. While a great deal is known about family risk factors (especially) and individual risk factors, much less is known about biological or neighborhood risk factors. Little is known about risk factors for continuation of offending after onset, for later onsets after age 20, or for persistence or desistance of offending after age 20. Little is known about risk factors for the duration of criminal careers. Little is known about the causal processes that intervene between risk factors and offending. And little is known about protective factors, whether defined as factors that are opposite to risk factors (e.g., high school achievement compared with low school achievement) or as factors that interact with and counteract the effects of risk factors (Farrington and Ttofi 2012). While the main life events that encourage desistance are well known, much less is known about life events that influence onset or continuation after onset. Also, the effect of the criminal justice system (police, courts, prison, and probation) on desistance is highly controversial. The labeling effects of convictions, in increasing the probability, frequency, variety, or seriousness of subsequent offending, are also controversial. Few DLC theories include specific postulates about the effects of interventions.

DLC Theories

Several DLC theories have been proposed to explain findings in developmental and life-course criminology, of which two of the most famous were proposed by Moffitt and by Sampson and Laub (see Farrington 2005a). My “ICAP” theory is described here.

For many years, I did not attempt to formulate a wide-ranging DLC theory of offending. In line with Bernard and Snipes (1996), who advocated a risk factor approach, I focused on identifying independently predictive risk factors, testing specific hypotheses (e.g., about the effects of unemployment on offending), and on investigating possible causal mechanisms linking risk factors and offending (e.g., mediators between criminal parents and delinquent sons). However, I was criticized for being “atheoretical” (and sometimes described as a “dust-bowl empiricist,” whatever that means) for focusing on empirical variables rather than underlying theoretical constructs. Therefore, encouraged by Joan McCord, I proposed a tentative theory in 1992 (Farrington 1992).

My theory tries to overcome some of the perceived deficiencies of classic criminological theories. First, they focused primarily on offending during the teenage years, on factors that correlated with offending, and did not focus on development through life. They emphasized immediate influences on offending, as opposed to longer-term influences from infancy and early childhood. Second, they neglected the continuity between offending and antisocial behavior, and the continuity in antisocial behavior from childhood to adulthood. Third, they focused on a limited number of influences on offending (especially those connected with socioeconomic status) and did not include biological or psychological factors. Fourth, they focused on differences between individuals rather than on changes over time within individuals.

The ICAP Theory

My “Integrated Cognitive Antisocial Potential” (ICAP) theory was primarily designed to explain offending by lower-class males, and it was influenced by results obtained in the Cambridge Study (Farrington 2005b; Zara 2010). It integrates ideas from many other theories, including strain, control, learning, labeling, and rational choice approaches; its key construct is antisocial potential (AP); and it assumes that the translation from antisocial potential to antisocial behavior depends on cognitive (thinking and decisionmaking) processes that take account of opportunities and victims. Figure 1 is deliberately simplified in order to show the key elements of the ICAP theory on one page; for example, it does not show how the processes operate differently for onset compared with desistance or at different ages.

Integrated Cognitive Antisocial Potential Theory Research Paper

The key construct underlying offending is antisocial potential (AP), which refers to the potential to commit antisocial acts. Long-term persisting between-individual differences in AP are distinguished from short-term within individual variations in AP. Long-term AP depends on impulsiveness; on strain, modeling, and socialization processes; and on life events, while short-term variations in AP depend on motivating and situational factors.

Regarding long-term AP, people can be ordered on a continuum from low to high. The distribution of AP in the population at any age is highly skewed; relatively few people have relatively high levels of AP. People with high AP are more likely to commit many different types of antisocial acts including different types of offenses. Therefore, offending and antisocial behavior are versatile rather than specialized. The relative ordering of people on AP (long-term between-individual variation) tends to be consistent over time, but absolute levels of AP vary with age, peaking in the teenage years, because of changes within individuals in the factors that influence long-term AP (e.g., from childhood to adolescence, the increasing importance of peers and decreasing importance of parents).

A key issue is whether the model should be the same for all types of crimes or whether different models are needed for different types of crimes. Because of their focus on the development of offenders, DLC researchers have concluded that, because offenders are versatile rather than specialized, it is not necessary to have different models for different types of crimes. For example, it is believed that the risk factors for violence are essentially the same as those for property crime or substance abuse. However, researchers who have focused on situational influences have argued that different models are needed for different types of crimes. It is suggested that situational influences on burglary may be very different from situational influences on violence.

One possible way to resolve these differing viewpoints would be to assume that long-term potential was very general (e.g., a long-term potential for antisocial behavior), whereas short-term potential was more specific (e.g., a short-term potential for violence). The top half of the model in Fig. 1 could be the same for all types of crimes, whereas the bottom half could be different (with different situational influences) for different types of crimes.

In the interests of simplification, Fig. 1 makes the ICAP theory appear static rather than dynamic. For example, it does not explain changes in offending at different ages. Since it might be expected that different factors would be important at different ages or life stages, it seems likely that different models would be needed at different ages. Perhaps parents are more important in influencing children, peers are more important in influencing adolescents, and spouses and partners are more important in influencing adults.

Long-Term Risk Factors

A great deal is known about risk factors that predict long-term persisting between-individual differences in antisocial potential. For example, in the Cambridge Study, the most important childhood risk factors for later offending were hyperactivity-impulsivity-attention deficit, low intelligence or low school attainment, family criminality, family poverty, large family size, poor child-rearing, and disrupted families. Figure 1 shows how risk factors are hypothesized to influence long-term AP. This figure could be expanded to specify protective factors and to include influences on onset, persistence, escalation, de-escalation, and desistance.

I have not included measures of antisocial behavior (e.g., aggressiveness or dishonesty) as risk factors in the ICAP theory because of my concern with explanation, prevention, and treatment. These measures do not cause offending; they predict offending because of the underlying continuity over time in AP. Measures of antisocial behavior are useful in identifying risk groups but less useful in identifying causal factors to be targeted by interventions. Similarly, I have not included variables that cannot be changed, such as gender or ethnicity. I assume that their relationships with offending are mediated by changeable risk factors (Farrington et al. 2003).

A major problem is to decide which risk factors are causes and which are merely markers or correlated with causes (Murray et al. 2009). Ideally, interventions should be targeted on risk factors that are causes. Interventions targeted on risk factors that are merely markers will not necessarily lead to any decrease in offending. Unfortunately, when risk factors are highly intercorrelated (as is usual), it is very difficult to establish which are causes in between-individual research. For example, the particular factors that appear to be independently important as predictors in any analysis may be greatly affected by measurement error and by essentially random variations between samples.

It is also important to establish how risk factors or causes have sequential or interactive effects on offending. Figure 1 shows how risk factors are hypothesized to influence long-term AP. Following strain theory, the main energizing factors that potentially lead to high long-term AP are desires for material goods, status among intimates, excitement, and sexual satisfaction. However, these motivations only lead to high AP if antisocial methods of satisfying them are habitually chosen. Antisocial methods tend to be chosen by people who find it difficult to satisfy their needs legitimately, such as people with low income, unemployed people, and those who fail at school. However, the methods chosen also depend on physical capabilities and behavioral skills; for example, a 5-year-old would have difficulty in stealing a car. For simplicity, energizing and directing processes and capabilities are shown in one box in Fig. 1.

Long-term AP also depends on attachment and socialization processes. AP will be low if parents consistently and contingently reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. (Withdrawal of love may be a more effective method of socialization than hitting children.) Children with low anxiety will be less well socialized, because they care less about parental punishment. AP will be high if children are not attached to (prosocial) parents, for example, if parents are cold and rejecting. Disrupted families (broken homes) may impair both attachment and socialization processes.

Long-term AP will also be high if people are exposed to and influenced by antisocial models, such as criminal parents, delinquent siblings, and delinquent peers, for example, in high crime schools and neighborhoods. Long-term AP will also be high for impulsive people, because they tend to act without thinking about the consequences. Also, life events affect AP; it decreases (at least for males) after people get married or move out of high crime areas, and it increases after separation from a partner (Theobald and Farrington 2009).

There may also be interaction effects between the influences on long-term AP. For example, people who experience strain or poor socialization may be disproportionally antisocial if they are also exposed to antisocial models. In the interests of simplicity, Fig. 1 does not attempt to show such interactions.

Figure 1 shows some of the processes by which risk factors are hypothesized to have effects on AP. It does not show biological factors, but these could be incorporated in the theory at various points. For example, the children of criminal parents could have high AP partly because of genetic transmission, excitement-seeking could be driven by low cortical arousal, school failure could depend partly on low intelligence, and high impulsiveness and low anxiety could both reflect biological processes.

Many researchers have measured only one risk factor (e.g., impulsiveness) and have shown that it predicts or correlates with offending after controlling for a few other “confounding factors,” often including social class. The message of Fig. 1 is don’t forget the big picture. The particular causal linkages shown in Fig. 1 may not be correct, but it is important to measure, analyze, and explain all important risk factors in trying to draw conclusions about the causes of offending or the development of offenders.

Ideally, protective factors should be included in the ICAP theory as well as risk factors. The risk factor prevention paradigm (Farrington 2000) suggests that risk factors should be reduced while protective factors are enhanced. Often, programs focusing on protective factors (e.g., building on strengths, promoting healthy development) are more attractive to communities and consequently easier to implement than programs focusing on risk factors (which seem to emphasize undesirable features of communities and hence imply blame). Of course, a key question is whether the risk and protective factors for offending (or for the onset of offending) are the same as or different from the risk and protective factors for reoffending (or for the persistence of offending). Perhaps different models are needed in Fig. 1 for onset, persistence, escalation, de-escalation, and desistance.

Explaining The Commission Of Crimes

According to the ICAP theory, the commission of offenses and other types of antisocial acts depends on the interaction between the individual (with his immediate level of AP) and the social environment (especially criminal opportunities and victims). Short-term AP varies within individuals according to short-term energizing factors such as being bored, angry, drunk, or frustrated or being encouraged by male peers. Criminal opportunities and the availability of victims depend on routine activities. Encountering a tempting opportunity or victim may cause a short-term increase in AP, just as a short-term increase in AP may motivate a person to seek out criminal opportunities and victims.

Whether a person with a certain level of AP commits a crime in a given situation depends on cognitive processes, including considering the subjective benefits, costs and probabilities of the different outcomes, and stored behavioral repertoires or scripts. The subjective benefits and costs include immediate situational factors such as the material goods that can be stolen and the likelihood and consequences of being caught by the police. They also include social factors such as likely disapproval by parents or female partners and encouragement or reinforcement from peers. In general, people tend to make decisions that seem rational to them, but those with low levels of AP will not commit offenses even when (on the basis of subjective expected utilities) it appears rational to do so. Equally, high short-term levels of AP (e.g., caused by anger or drunkenness) may induce people to commit offenses when it is not rational for them to do so.

The consequences of offending may, as a result of a learning process, lead to changes in long-term AP and in future cognitive decision-making processes. This is especially likely if the consequences are reinforcing (e.g., gaining material goods or peer approval) or punishing (e.g., receiving legal sanctions or parental disapproval). Also, if the consequences involve labeling or stigmatizing the offender, this may make it more difficult for him to achieve his aims legally and hence may lead to an increase in AP. (It is difficult to show these feedback effects in Fig. 1 without making it very complex.)

A further issue that needs to be addressed is to what extent types of offenders might be distinguished. Perhaps some people commit crimes primarily because of their high long-term AP (e.g., the life-course-persistent offenders of Moffitt 1993), others primarily because of situational influences (e.g., getting drunk frequently) and high short-term AP, while still others offend primarily because of the way they think and make decisions when faced with criminal opportunities. From the viewpoint of both explanation and prevention, research is needed to classify types of people according to their most influential risk factors and most important reasons for committing crimes.

Predictions About Contentious Issues

The ICAP theory makes the following predictions about the contentious issues listed earlier. First, it predicts that the individual offending frequency and the seriousness of offending should increase to a peak in the teenage years and then decline, because both reflect AP. Second, the theory predicts that an early age of onset of offending predicts a high individual offending frequency and a high average seriousness of offending, again because both reflect AP. An early age of onset indicates a relatively high level of AP, and the ordering of people on

AP tends to stay relatively consistent over time. Similarly, chronic offenders should have both a high frequency and a high seriousness of offending. Third, the ICAP theory predicts that onset sequences generally are age-appropriate behavioral manifestations of AP and therefore that they reflect persistent heterogeneity. However, the theory also incorporates learning and labeling processes following offending, so this would predict some state dependence effects.

Fourth, the ICAP theory predicts that withinindividual changes in the major risk factors should be followed by within-individual changes in AP and hence in offending. Fifth, the theory predicts that short-term energizing factors such as heavy drinking influence short-term withinindividual variations in offending: why people commit offenses in some times and places but not others. Sixth, the ICAP theory predicts that different risk factors would influence early onset before age 20, continuation of offending after onset, later onset after age 20, and persistence or desistance of offending after age 20. This is because it assumes that risk factors have different effects on AP at different ages. Seventh, the theory predicts that the criminal justice system should have deterrent or labeling effects on future offending. Future research should aim to establish to what extent these predictions are correct or incorrect.

Testing The ICAP Theory

The first independent test of the ICAP theory was carried out by Van Der Laan et al. (2009) in the Netherlands. Nearly 1,500 youth ages 10–17 completed a survey that enquired about long-term and short-term (situational) risk factors for delinquency. Nearly 300 of these answered questions about the circumstances of their last offense. In agreement with the ICAP theory, Van Der Laan and his colleagues found that long-term individual, family, and school factors correlated with serious delinquency, and the probability of serious delinquency increased with the number of factors. However, after controlling for long-term factors, short-term situational factors such as the absence of tangible guardians and using alcohol or drugs prior to the offense were still important. While the results of this test are very encouraging, it would be useful in the future to test the theory in a longitudinal survey.

The ICAP theory could be tested in the Cambridge Study by using antisocial attitude scores at different ages as measures of long-term antisocial potential. These could be related to individual, family, peer, and school risk factors to investigate the relative strength of relationships at different ages. They could also be related to self-reported and official offending at different ages. Different causal models could be tested at different ages. For example, in the Pittsburgh Youth Study, Defoe et al. (2013) concluded that hyperactivity and low socioeconomic status led to low school achievement, which led to delinquency, which in turn led to depression. In the Cambridge Study, the importance of long-term risk factors and short-term situational influences should be compared.


The ICAP theory, like other DLC theories, explains the widely accepted findings that I have listed above. However, more efforts should be made to compare and contrast the ICAP theory point by point with other DLC theories in regard to their predictions and their agreement with empirical results (Farrington 2006). Detailed computer models of the ICAP theory should be developed that allow users to click on the boxes of Fig. 1 to see more underlying detail or to see different theories for onset, continuation, and desistance. It would be better to make quantitative rather than qualitative predictions; criminological theories typically predict that X is related to Y or that X is greater than Y, but not the magnitude of relationships. These could build on the mathematical models of MacLeod et al. (2012), which hypothesize three types of offenders with different rates of offending and different probabilities of desistance. It is particularly important to specify crucial tests, where predictions from the ICAP theory differ from predictions from another DLC theory.

The ICAP theory could be improved in several ways. First, different models could be specified at different ages, based on the relative importance of various long-term risk factors (strain, modeling, socialization, impulsiveness, and life events). It might be expected that parental and peer influences would be differentially important at different ages, and the same is true of life events such as leaving school, getting a job, leaving home, and getting married. Second, risk factors that are not currently in the theory could be incorporated (e.g., biological factors or empathy). Third, the theory could be modified to explain differences in offending by age, gender, race and nationality, or country (Farrington and Loeber 1999). Fourth, different models could be proposed to explain the prevalence and frequency of offending, persistence versus desistance, and the length of criminal careers. Fifth, different models of short-term situational influences could be proposed to explain the commission of different types of crimes. Potential offenders could be asked about their likelihood of committing crimes in different situations to investigate their cognitive processes and motivations (Farrington 1993), and efforts could be made to study the learning processes involved in the development of criminal careers.

In order to advance knowledge about DLC theories and test them, new prospective longitudinal studies are needed with repeated self-report and official record measures of offending. Future longitudinal studies should follow people up to later ages and focus on desistance processes. Past studies have generally focused on onset and on ages up to 30. Future studies should compare risk factors for early onset, continuation after onset (compared with early desistance), frequency, seriousness, later onset, and later persistence versus desistance. DLC theories should make explicit empirical predictions about all these topics. Also, future studies should make more effort to investigate protective factors, and biological and neighborhood risk factors, since most is known about individual and family risk factors. And future research should compare development, risk factors, and life events for males versus females and for different ethnic and racial groups in different countries.

Because most previous analyses of risk factors for offending involve between-individual comparisons, more within-individual analyses of offending are needed in longitudinal studies. These should investigate to what extent within-individual changes in risk and protective factors are followed by within-individual changes in offending and other life outcomes (Farrington et al. 2002). These analyses could provide compelling evidence about causal mechanisms. More information is needed about the predictability of future criminal careers at different ages and stages, in order to know when and how it is best to intervene.

DLC researchers should carry out more research on explaining why crimes are committed, and especially on situational influences. Research should also be conducted on interactions between individual and situational factors in explaining the commission of crimes. Studies are also needed to classify types of people according to their most influential risk factors and most important reasons for committing crimes. Questions about situational influences on offending should be included in longitudinal studies of the development of offenders.

DLC theories have many policy implications for the reduction of crime. First, it is clear that children at risk can be identified with reasonable accuracy at an early age. The worst offenders tend to start early and have long criminal careers. Often, offending is preceded by earlier types of antisocial behavior in a developmental sequence, including cruelty to animals, bullying, truancy, and disruptive school behavior. It is desirable to intervene early to prevent the later escalation into chronic or life-course-persistent offending and to develop risk-needs assessment instruments to identify children at risk of becoming chronic offenders. These instruments could be implemented soon after school entry, at ages 6–8.

It would be desirable to derive implications for intervention from DLC theories and to test these in randomized experiments. In principle, conclusions about causes can be drawn more convincingly in experimental research than in nonexperimental longitudinal studies. The results summarized here have clear implications for intervention. The main idea of risk-focused prevention is to identify key risk factors for antisocial behavior and then implement prevention methods designed to counteract them (Farrington 2007). In addition, attempts should be made to enhance key protective factors.

Because of their emphasis on development through life, DLC theories suggest that it is “never too early, never too late” (Loeber and Farrington 1998) to intervene successfully to reduce offending. In other words, it is highly desirable to focus not only on early intervention to prevent the adolescent onset of offending but also on later programs to prevent adult onset and to intervene with offenders to prevent continuation and encourage early desistance.

The fact that offenders tend to be antisocial in many aspects of their lives means that any measure that succeeds in reducing offending will probably have wide-ranging benefits in reducing, for example, accommodation problems, relationship problems, employment problems, alcohol and drug problems, and aggressive behavior. Consequently, it is very likely that the financial benefits of successful programs will greatly outweigh their financial costs. The time is ripe to mount a new program of research to compare, contrast, and test predictions from the ICAP and other DLC theories, in the interests of developing more valid theories and more effective crime prevention policies.


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  27. Van Der Laan A, Blom M, Kleemans ER (2009) Exploring long-term and short-term risk factors for serious delinquency. Eur J Criminol 6:419–438
  28. Zara G (2010) David P. Farrington: the integrated cognitive antisocial potential theory. In: Cullen FT, Wilcox P (eds) Encyclopedia of criminological theory, vol 1. Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp 313–322

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