Violence, Hostile Attribution Bias, and Working Memory in Justice-Involved Youth

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Juvenile violence is a significant public health concern, with juvenile violence costs exceeding $21 billion annually in combined medial and lost productivity costs alone, not including costs from the criminal justice system, social and psychological costs of the victim and perpetrator, and the cost to communities (CDC, 2019). Along with the tremendous financial burden youth violence costs our society, there is untold social and psychological impact on victims and the youth perpetrators themselves. As such, prevention and treatment for juvenile offenders is critical to reducing youth violence and enhancing public safety.

Hostile attribution bias (HAB), or the tendency to interpret the intent of others as hostile, has been implicated as both a mechanism that confers risk for violence as well as a mechanism to target for treatment and violence reduction. HAB has consistently and robustly been associated with aggression and violence in youth (Smeijers, Bulten, & Brazil, 2019). As such, reducing HAB is a central treatment goal in many court-ordered anger management and cognitive behavioral treatments for justice-involved youth (Goldstein et al., 2016). However, current treatments for justice-involved persons are limited in their effectiveness, and many scholars have argued that more attention should be devoted to understanding neuropsychological mechanisms that may impact treatment efficacy among violent youth (Fanti, Kyanides, Petridou, Demetriou, & Georgiou, 2018; Smeijers, Bulten, Buitelaar, & Verkes, 2018).

Working memory (WM), or the capacity for short-term storage, monitoring, and manipulation of information, is one such factor that may influence HAB, violence, and treatment outcomes. Theoretical models have emphasized that WM may be particularly important to social functioning as it is central to keeping goal-related representations (e.g., not reacting violently) actively in mind and selecting a different behavioral approach (Barkley, 1997). In fact, as with HAB, WM has been associated with aggressive behavior in youth (Cauffman, Steinberg, & Piquero, 2005), and lower working memory scores have been associated with poorer treatment response in adolescents (Houck, & Feldstein Ewing, 2018; Seguin, Nagin, Assaad, & Tremblay, 2004). A recent meta-analyses of executive functioning deficits in antisocial youth and adult offenders found that tests for verbal and spatial WM had the strongest effect sizes and may speak to a specificity in impairments for antisocial individuals (Ogilvie, Stewart, Chan, & Shum, 2011).

Despite these findings, no studies to date have examined the link between WM and HAB in relation to violence or within justice-involved youth. In the short term, understanding these relationships is critical to detecting youth with WM and HAB deficits as they enter detention facilities and providing additional supports to prevent violence while detained. Longer-term goals include advancing theoretical models of associations between WM and violence, as influential and interactive effects of social-cognitive factors (like HAB) in these models have yet to be studied. Thus, the current study will test the associations between WM and HAB as well as their unique and interactive effects on violent behavior (i.e., arrest charges, behavior while detained) in youth residing in two detention facilities.

Project details

  • Primary Investigator: Paula Fite

  • Project start Date: 07/01/2020

  • Project finish Date: 12/01/2022



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