An evaluation of dual systems theories of adolescent delinquency in a normative longitudinal cohort study of youth

Aja Louise Murray, Xinxin Zhu, Jessica H Mirman, Denis Ribeaud, Manuel Eisner

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Dual systems theories of adolescent risk-taking propose that the socioemotional and self-regulation systems develop at different rates, resulting in a peak in sensation-seeking in adolescence at a time when self-regulation abilities are not yet fully mature. This “developmental imbalance” between bottom-up drives for reward and top-down control is proposed to create a period of vulnerability for high-risk behaviors such as delinquency, substance use, unprotected sex, and reckless driving. In this study, data from the Swiss longitudinal normative z-proso study (n=1522, n=784 male; aged 11, 13, 15, 17, and 20) were used to test whether the presence of a developmental imbalance between sensation-seeking and self-regulation is associated with levels of engagement in delinquency across early adolescence to adulthood. Using a latent class growth analysis of sensation-seeking, self-regulation, and delinquency, it was found that a model with 3 classes was optimal in the whole sample and male sub-sample, including one class characterised by a developmental imbalance and corresponding adolescent peak in delinquency. In females, there was no evidence for a class that could be described according to the trajectories hypothesised in dual systems theory. This study’s results support the claim that a developmental imbalance may drive an adolescent increase in delinquency. However, this applies only to a small subgroup of individuals, particularly males.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Youth and Adolescence
Early online date15 Apr 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Apr 2021


  • adolescent risk-taking
  • dual systems theory
  • delinquency
  • sensation-thinking
  • self-regulation


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