The Two-Path-Theory is based, among other things, on a longitudinal study on the crime prevalence of 1,000 New Zealand youths (“The Thousand Children of Dunedin” or “Dunedin Study”).
- The first and larger group of adolescents showed the usual degree of behavioural abnormalities in adolescence. The deviant behaviour of the subjects in this group was limited to a short range in adolescence. The researchers have therefore described this group as “adolescence limited offender“.
- The second and significantly smaller group, however, showed behavioural abnormalities and delinquent behaviour from infancy and over the entire life span. During the adolescence phase, these behavioural abnormalities serve as role models for “adolescence limited offender” and induce delinquency. The researchers call this group of lifelong multiple offenders “lifecourse persistent offender“.
Moffitt attributes the behavioural abnormalities of the lifecourse persistent offender group to neurological deficits. However, the adolescence limited offender group has no neurological deficits; their antisocial behaviour is caused by contact with delinquent peers.
The starting point for the considerations on the two-path theory is the observation that the age of suspects in crime statistics does not correspond to the normal distribution. Many people experience a phase during their adolescence which is determined by conspicuous, antisocial and possibly also criminal behaviour. Crime statistics show the highest crime rates for the 17-year-old age group. The criminality burden of those in their early 20s is 70% lower. For most people, deviant behaviour is limited to a relatively short phase of life, which characterizes the transition to adulthood (adolescence). Terrie Moffitt describes this type of offender as adolescence limited offender.
Adolescence Limited Offender vs. Lifecourse Persistent Offender
In contrast to the adolescence limited offender, crime statistics show individuals who repeatedly and possibly over the course of their lives attract attention due to deviant and criminal behaviour. Moffitt describes these persons as lifecourse persistent offender. Crime rates only reflect deviance recorded by the police. Even before this statistical recording by law enforcement authorities, however, an increase in antisocial behaviour can be detected among those belonging to this second type of offender. The antisocial, deviant behaviour of the lifecourse persistent offender is due to neuropsychological dysfunctionality. In approx. 5% of all children, massive social behavioural abnormalities are already noticeable at kindergarten and preschool age due to this disorder. The parents of these “impaired” children are overburdened with their educational tasks and unable to counteract them in an educational way. The failing educational measures impair the parent-child relationship; emotional ties are accordingly perceived as less secure and the children increasingly meet with rejection. The behavioural abnormalities thus determine the entire life span of those affected and range from antisocial behaviour in kindergarten and problems at school to criminal abnormalities in adolescence and adulthood.
The deviant behaviour of the adolescence limited offender is structurally conditioned and stems from the disproportion between the autonomy demanded and the legal chances of realising these autonomy aspirations. Certain actions and behaviours, such as driving a car or using (legal) drugs, mark the transition to adulthood. However, these actions are generally forbidden to adolescents. This results in a discrepancy (gap) between the desired status of an adult, mature member of society and the chances of realization granted (see: anomie theory).
During this phase, the group members of the lifecourse persistently open the door to influence and act as role models (drugs, sex and autonomy) because of their different lifestyles. The short-term orientation of the adolescence limited offender towards the deviant lifestyle of the lifecourse persistent offender can be described as social mimicry. As soon as adolescents reach an age at which they are legally granted access to objects, actions and behaviours of the adult world (i.e. the maturity gap has been overcome), the deviant lifestyle of the lifecourse persistently offender loses its appeal.
Implication for criminal policy
According to the two-path theory, a neuropsychological predisposition in combination with individual environmental conditions is responsible for a possibly life-long antisocial, deviant behaviour. About 5% of all people are affected by this “defect”, but they are also responsible for a large part of the (averagely severe) crime. From this follows the criminal policy implication to identify the affected 5% of the population by a systematic screening. Social therapeutic measures could compensate for the poor support provided by the parents. Since antisocial behaviour can already be detected in early adolescence, appropriate screening and therapeutic measures in kindergarten and primary school age are conceivable. Corresponding programmes exist (but without explicit recourse to the two-path theory) in Hamburg, for example.
Critical appreciation & relevance
Terrie Moffitt’s Two-Path-Theory is one of the most widely received crime theories of recent years. For her work, Ms. Moffitt was awarded the Stockholm Prize in Criminology in 2007 (see below).
The strength of the theory lies certainly in its complexity. Thus, the theory integrates assumptions of learning and control theory approaches as well as criminological work on career models (cf. e.g. Social Bonds Theory, General Theory of Crime, Theory, Social Learning Theory; Age Graded Theory). In addition, the theory is based on an empirical database. Finally, the success of the theory may also be based on recourse to biological explanatory factors for criminal behaviour. On the one hand, this explanation corresponds to the generally observed trend of a medicalization of social problems, on the other hand it opens up a possibility for a prevention of deviance. Criminality (or more precisely: the deviant) thus becomes a calculable variable which can be determined by screening tests and which can be dealt with by therapeutic programmes.
Criticism, however, is directed towards Moffitt’s binary taxonomy. In other studies, other criminal career paths were identified in addition to the two groups mentioned here, which contradict the assumption of Moffitt. This applies both to persons who show antisocial behaviour at an early age, but for whom the criminal career does not solidify “childhood-onset desisters“, and to those whose criminal careers only begin in adulthood “adult-onset offenders“.
Finally, the study results of the Age Graded Theory by Sampson and Laub contradict the Two Path Theory. Sampson’s and Laub’s pursuit of the test persons from the 1920s study of the Glueck couple has shown that a slow end to criminal careers with increasing age is the rule (desistance from crime).
- Terrie E. Moffitt (1993): Life-course-persistent and Adolescence-limited Antisocial Behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674-701.
- Terrie E. Moffitt et al. (2001): Sex differences in antisocial behaviour : conduct disorder, delinquency, and violence in the Dunedin longitudinal study. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Terrie Moffitt was awarded the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, in 2007
The 2007 Stockholm Prize in Criminology was awarded to Alfred Blumstein and Terrie E Moffitt for their discoveries about the development of criminal behavior over the life-course of individuals.
The independent, international jury of criminologists selected the winners for their pioneering studies of the patterns of onset, persistence, frequency, severity, and desistance in criminal acts.
Professors Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi analyse people’s life conditions and look for connections between genetic predisposition and external influences.
Professors Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, from the Institute of Psychiatry have been awarded the prestigious prize for Productive Youth Development.