Research Program on Problem Behavior

The Research Program on Problem Behavior is an interdisciplinary research effort seeking to understand the nature, the course of development, and the later life consequences of behaviors that put young people at risk. Included in the category of problem behavior are behaviors that represent a departure from the norms and expectations of the larger society, that can compromise the ordinary trajectory of development, and that often elicit some kind of social control response from others. Research in the Program has focused on delinquency, illicit drug use, alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking, precocious sexual activity, school failure and dropout, violence and aggression, risky driving, running away, health-compromising behaviors such as insufficient exercise and unhealthy diet, and mental health problems such as depression. (Pictured: Problem Behavior faculty, students, and staff.)

A comprehensive approach to examining youth engagement in problem behavior requires an understanding of the context or environment in which it occurs, of personality or individual differences, and of development-clearly a larger challenge than any one discipline can meet. Professional staff members in the Problem Behavior Program are drawn primar-ily from sociology (especially the fields of crime and delinquency) and from psychology (especially the fields of social, developmental, and clinical psychology). Recent additions to the Problem Behavior Program professional staff include faculty from adolescent medicine, women's studies, and law.

With few exceptions, the basic research studies carried out in the Program are longitudinal in design and involve multiple waves of data collection over time. Some of the research in the Program begins as early in the developmental trajectory as childhood and preadolescence, although most studies have been initiated with adolescent cohorts. Some of the studies remain within the adolescent life stage, while others have followed their cohorts into and through young adulthood. Nearly all of the studies are comprehensive in assessing environmental, personality, behavioral, and developmental variation.

In recent years, three directions of research have been given special attention within the Program. One of these has been a concern with the domain of health behavior; another has been a focus on high risk youth-those growing up in settings of poverty and disadvantage; and a third has been a concern with violence. (Pictured: Delbert S. Elliott, Program Director.)

Health Behavior

The concern with health behavior emerged from the observation that problem- and health-compromising behaviors may covary. In several current studies, health-related behaviors, such as inadequate dietary intake, insufficient exercise, and unsafe sexual behaviors are being examined along with continuing attention to the usual problem behaviors. The larger goal of these projects is to advance understanding of the role risk behavior plays in adolescent growth and development, and, ultimately, to contribute to the design of theoretically-driven prevention and intervention programs. An example of the latter is current work on a theoretically based STD/HIV prevention intervention to be evaluated in a randomized, controlled trial among incarcerated adolescents.

High Risk Youth

The concern with youth in high risk settings of poverty and disadvantage was supported by a major initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. A large-scale, long-term, national program of collaborative research was organized to advance understanding of successful adolescent development despite the adversity and limited opportunity that characterizes areas of poverty and disadvantage. This effort, headquartered within the IBS Problem Behavior Program, involved a dozen leading behavioral scientists located at universities around the country, and included research projects in inner-city schools, in low-income neighborhoods, and in rural areas experiencing severe economic decline. The MacArthur research enlarged the interdisciplinary character of the Program, and strengthened its potential contribution to social policy at the national level.

Additional studies, such as the Denver Youth Survey, are also concerned with antisocial and successful development across the lifecourse, from childhood through adolescence and young adulthood. In collaboration with colleagues in Bremen, Germany, it has undertaken a cross-national comparative effort as well.


The Problem Behavior Program's concern with violence is addressed via basic and applied research methods, with the goal of gathering the necessary crucial data to best inform violence prevention, intervention, and treatment programs. Areas of study include domestic violence, a longtime focus of the San Diego Navy Experiment; court processing of female battering cases; female offenders; and multiple facets of youth violence, including handgun violence, school violence, and gang violence. The special concern with violence is the mission of the Program's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

Additional program photos.

See Selected Research Findings from the Problem Behavior Program.