Richard Jessor
Distinguished Professor
Institute of Behavioral Science

Problem-Behavior Theory ~ A Brief Overview *

"Jessor's "Problem Behavior Theory", perhaps the most influential of these [overarching frameworks to explain dysfunction and maladaptation in adolescence] continued to dominate research during the past decade" (page 85). Steinberg, L. & Morris, A.S. Adolescent Development. In Annual Review of Psychology 52 (2001):83-110.

Problem-behavior theory is a systematic, multivariate, social-psychological conceptual framework derived initially from the basic concepts of value and expectation in Rotter's (1954, 1982) social learning theory and from Merton's (1957) concept of anomie. The fundamental premise of the theory, all behavior is the result of person-environment interaction, reflects a "field theory" perspective in social science (Lewin, 1951). Problem behavior is behavior that is socially defined as a problem, as a source of concern, or as undesirable by the social and/or legal norms of conventional society and its institutions of authority; it is behavior that usually elicits some form of social control response, whether minimal, such as a statement of disapproval, or extreme, such as incarceration. The earliest formulation of what later came to be known as problem-behavior theory was developed in the early 1960s to guide a comprehensive study of alcohol abuse and other problem behaviors in a small, tri-ethnic community in southwestern Colorado (Jessor, Graves, Hanson, and Jessor, 1968). After its initial application in the Tri-Ethnic Research Project, the framework was revised in the late 1960s for a longitudinal study of the socialization of problem behavior among secondary school students and college students (see Jessor & Jessor, 1977), and it is this version of the theory that is most widely known and cited.

In the following three decades, problem-behavior theory has been revised and extended during the course of a series of studies by Richard Jessor and his colleagues. It was first adapted for the follow-up study of the earlier cohorts of adolescents and youth to encompass the developmental stage of young adulthood (Jessor, Donovan, & Costa, 1991). Specifically, the framework was expanded to articulate the important social contexts of young adult life—family, work, and friends—and to measure key properties of those contexts, such as the stresses and satisfactions they are perceived to generate. Problem-behavior theory was elaborated further for more recent research encompassing prosocial behavior, and health-compromising and health-enhancing behavior, in addition to problem behavior, in samples of adolescents from the United States and the People's Republic of China, and for a study of tobacco use and problem drinking among college students. The most recent reformulation and extension of problem-behavior theory re-organizes the main constructs from the theory into protective factors and risk factors.


The conceptual structure of problem-behavior theory is both complex and comprehensive. As originally formulated, the theoretical framework included three major systems of explanatory variables: the perceived-environment system, the personality system, and the behavior system. Each system is composed of variables that serve either as instigations for engaging in problem behavior or controls against involvement in problem behavior. It is the balance between instigations and controls that determines the degree of proneness for problem behavior within each system. The overall level of proneness for problem behavior, across all three systems, reflects the degree of psychosocial conventionality-unconventionality characterizing each adolescent.

The concepts that constitute the perceived-environment system include social controls, models, and support. Perceived-environment variables are distinguished on the basis of the directness or conceptual closeness of their relations to problem behavior. Proximal variables (for example, peer models for alcohol use) directly implicate a particular behavior, whereas distal variables (for example, parental support) are more remote in the causal chain and therefore require theoretical linkage to behavior. Problem behavior proneness in the perceived environment system includes low parental disapproval of problem behavior, high peer approval of problem behavior, high peer models for problem behavior, low parental controls and support, low peer controls, low compatibility between parent and peer expectations, and low parent (relative to peer) influence.

The concepts that constitute the personality system include a patterned and interrelated set of relatively enduring, sociocognitive variables—values, expectations, beliefs, attitudes, and orientations toward self and society—that reflect social learning and developmental experience. Problem behavior proneness in the personality system includes lower value on academic achievement, higher value on independence, greater social criticism, higher alienation, lower self-esteem, greater attitudinal tolerance of deviance, and lower religiosity.

The concepts that constitute the behavior system include both problem behaviors and conventional behaviors. Problem behaviors include alcohol use, problem drinking, cigarette smoking, marijuana use, other illicit drug use, general deviant behavior (delinquent behaviors and other norm-violative acts), risky driving, and precocious sexual intercourse. Involvement in any one problem behavior increases the likelihood of involvement in other problem behaviors due to their linkages in the social ecology of youth—with socially organized opportunities to learn and to practice them together—and to the similar psychological meanings and functions the behaviors may have (e.g., overt repudiation of conventional norms, or expression of independence from parental control). Conventional behaviors are behaviors that are socially approved, normatively expected, and codified and institutionalized as appropriate for adolescents. They include church attendance, and involvement with academic course work and achievement. Both church and school can be seen as institutions of conventional socialization, fostering a conventional orientation and enlisting youth into the traditional and established networks of the larger society. Problem behavior proneness in the behavior system includes high involvement in other problem behaviors and low involvement in conventional behaviors.

In summary, within each explanatory system, it is the balance of instigations and controls that determines psychosocial proneness for involvement in problem behavior; and it is the balance of instigations and controls across the three systems that determines the adolescent's overall level of problem behavior proneness—or psychosocial unconventionality.


The problem-behavior theory framework has logical implications for developmental behavior change. The theory has been organized to account for proneness to engage in problem behavior—behavior that departs from regulatory norms. Much of what is considered to be problem behavior in youth is relative to age-graded norms and age-related expectations. The very same behavior may be permitted or even prescribed for those who are older but proscribed for those who are younger. Drinking, for example, is proscribed for those under legal age but is permitted for those who are older; sexual intercourse, normatively acceptable for adults, is likely to elicit social controls for a young adolescent. When the initial occurrence of such age-graded behaviors takes place at a relatively young age or earlier than is normatively expected, it constitutes a departure from the regulatory age norms that define appropriate behavior for that age or stage in life. Consensual awareness among youth of the age-graded norms for such behaviors carries with it, at the same time, the shared knowledge that occupancy of a more mature status is actually characterized by engaging in such behavior. Thus, engaging in certain behaviors for the first time can mark a transition in status from "less mature" to "more mature," from "younger" to "older," or from "adolescent" to "youth" or "adult."

Insofar as the regulatory norms are age norms, and insofar as problem behaviors can serve to mark transitions in age-graded status, the theory yields an account of 'transition proneness." By employing the developmental concept of transition proneness and mapping it onto the theoretical concept of problem behavior proneness, it becomes possible to use problem-behavior theory to specify the likelihood of developmental change, specifically, the onset or initial occurrence of age-graded, norm-departing, transition-marking behaviors. Transition proneness for problem behavior predicts which adolescents are likely to change behavioral status, as well as the prospective timing of their transitions (earlier versus later) into these problem-behavior areas.


Problem-behavior theory has been employed in a wide variety of studies—both cross-sectional and longitudinal—and considerable evidence has accumulated in support of the generality and robustness of the theoretical framework. Investigators in the United States and elsewhere have used the psychosocial concepts and measures derived from problem-behavior theory, and they have been applied to the investigation of a broad variety of behaviors in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, including alcohol use, cigarette smoking, early sexual intercourse, drink-driving and other risky driving behaviors, and the use of illicit drugs. The key personality and perceived environmental variables have proved predictive of both cross-sectional and developmental variation, and, taken together, they usually account for between 30% and 50% of the variance in behaviors such as illicit drug use or delinquency among adolescents. In addition, the research has shown that there is significant co-variation among problem behaviors, i.e., a "syndrome" of problem behavior. Problem behaviors tend not only to be positively interrelated among themselves, but they are negatively related to prosocial behaviors (such as church attendance) and health-enhancing behaviors (such as healthy eating behavior).


The rationale for the extension of problem-behavior theory into the domain of health-related behavior derives from two key considerations. First, many problem behaviors—alcohol use, marijuana use, unprotected sexual intercourse, driving after drinking—can also be considered to be health-compromising behaviors. Second, health-compromising and health-enhancing behaviors are subject to normative proscription and prescription, just as problem and conventional behaviors are. Some health-compromising behaviors that do not constitute transgressions of societal or legal norms, such as overeating or sedentariness, may nevertheless represent departures from more informal social norms, such as those of the peer group, or even from an individual's personal norms about what is appropriate behavior in these areas. Insofar as departure from any norm may be involved, the formulations of problem-behavior theory remain apposite. Furthermore, problem-behavior theory applies as well to behavior that conforms to the norms and expectations of the larger society and of its institutions, such as school and church. In this sense, the theory has relevance not only for health-compromising behavior, but also for health-enhancing behavior (e.g., regular exercise, adequate sleep), at least to the extent that the latter can be conceptualized as conventionally supported.

The application of problem-behavior theory in research on adolescent health behavior has supported the extension of the theoretical framework to the health behavior domain. Findings show that personality, perceived social environmental, and behavior variables originally designed to explain variation in problem behavior—values on academic achievement and autonomy, expectations for academic achievement, attitudinal intolerance of deviance, positive orientation to school, religiosity, greater connectedness to parents than to peers, friends as models for conventional behavior, church attendance, and involvement in prosocial activities—are also predictive of involvement in health-enhancing behaviors such as exercise, healthful eating practices, adequate sleep, dental care, and safety. In addition, antecedent levels of some of these variables—friends as models for conventional behavior, positive relations with adults, and personal participation in prosocial activities—are predictive of subsequent change in health-enhancing behavior.


The most recent re-formulation and extension of problem-behavior theory organizes the main constructs from the theory into protective factors and risk factors (Jessor, 1991). As described earlier, the variables in problem-behavior theory were specified as either controls against or instigations to involvement in problem behavior. Controls are analogous to protective factors, and instigations are analogous to risk factors. The theoretical role of protective factors is to decrease the likelihood of engaging in problem behavior: protective factors provide models for positive, prosocial behavior (e.g., peer models for school achievement); personal and social controls against problem behavior (e.g., attitudinal intolerance of deviance, or predictable parental sanctions); and support to sustain prosocial commitment (e.g., parental interest in and support of school activities). The theoretical role of risk factors, by contrast, is to increase the likelihood of engaging in problem behavior: risk factors provide models for problem behavior (e.g., peer models for alcohol use), greater opportunity to engage in it (greater availability of marijuana and other illicit drugs), and personal and contextual vulnerability for its occurrence (e.g., limited perceived chances for success in life, or peer pressure to use drugs). Protective factors play an additional, indirect role as well; theoretically, they moderate or buffer the impact of exposure to risk factors.

This reformulation, then, retains the direct linkages of the constructs to behavior outcomes, and it adds a new focus on the moderating effect that protection can have on the impact of risk. In addition, the protection/risk conceptual framework encompasses a more exhaustive range of variables by including not only measures of individual differences (e.g., attitudes, values, and beliefs), but also a more comprehensive array of measures of the multiple social contexts that are salient in the ecology of daily adolescent life—family, peers, school, and neighborhood.

The protection/risk model has been shown to account for substantial amounts of variance in adolescent problem behaviors, health behaviors, and prosocial behaviors. Of major theoretical importance, empirical findings provide support for the moderating influence of protective factors on the impact of risk factors; high protection has been shown to attenuate the impact of risk on involvement in problem behavior, on involvement in health-enhancing behavior, and on involvement prosocial behavior. Protective factors and risk factors have also been shown to account for significant variance in change in these different behaviors over time. In general, the linkages of protection and risk to behavior show robustness in relation to multiple outcome criteria for both males and females, for younger and older adolescents, across groups varying in socioeconomic status, across race/ethnicity subgroups (white, Hispanic, and African American youth), and across samples from the U.S., the People's Republic of China, and elsewhere internationally.

Two other key findings need emphasis: the importance of conceptually distal psychosocial variables in accounting for variation in behavior, and the role played by the social context in accounting for behavioral variation. With respect to the former, distal psychosocial protective factors (e.g., positive orientation to school, perceived social support) have been shown to have significant positive relations with both problem behavior and health-enhancing behavior, and also with their development and change in adolescence. With respect to the latter, measures of psychosocial protection in four social contexts—family, peers, school, and neighborhood—have been shown to account for significant variation in adolescent problem behavior and health-enhancing behavior.


The social-psychological framework of problem-behavior theory has been shown over the years to account for substantial percentages of the variation in a number of different problem behaviors, health-related behaviors, and prosocial behaviors in both adolescent and young adult samples in the U.S. and elsewhere. It has, in addition, demonstrated explanatory usefulness in accounting for developmental transitions in problem behavior and health behavior during adolescence.

Literature Cited

Jessor, R. (1991). Risk behavior in adolescence: A psychosocial framework for understanding and action. Journal of Adolescent Health, 12, 597-605.
Jessor, R., Donovan, J. E., & Costa, F. M. (1991). Beyond adolescence: Problem behavior and young adult development. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Jessor, R., Graves, T. D., Hanson, R. C., & Jessor, S. L. (1968). Society, personality, and deviant behavior: A study of a tri-ethnic community. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Jessor, R., & Jessor, S. L. (1977). Problem behavior and psychosocial development: A longitudinal study of youth. New York: Academic Press.
Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers. New York: Harper & Row.
Merton, R. K. (1957). Social theory and social structure (rev. ed.). New York: Free Press.
Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Rotter, J. B. (1982). The development and application of social learning theory: Selected papers. New York: Praeger.

* This overview was written by Frances Costa. For a more detailed summary of the explanatory framework of problem-behavior theory, see "Problem Behavior Theory," an entry by John E. Donovan in Encyclopedia of Applied Developmental Science (Vol. 2), C.B. Fisher and R.M. Lerner, eds. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2005, pp. 872-877.

November 2008