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Age of Reason: An Examination of Psychosocial Factors Involved in Delinquent Behaviour

NCJ Number
Legal and Criminological Psychology Volume: 17 Issue: 1 Dated: February 2012 Pages: 75-88
Nicola C. Newton; Kay Bussey
Date Published
February 2012
14 pages
In expanding research relevant to whether the age of criminal responsibility should be lowered, this study assessed whether or not children can accurately distinguish right from wrong in relation to "real-life" transgressions and whether psychosocial factors may limit children's ability to act in accordance with their knowledge of what is right and wrong.
Based on a questionnaire administered to 452 Australian students from two age groups (40 percent with an average age of 10.49 and 60 percent with an average age of 14.29), this study determined that the majority of children in both age groups knew the difference between right and wrong regarding "real-life" transgressions; however, children who engaged in delinquent behavior were unable to apply this knowledge appropriately in managing their behavior. They were less able to resist peer pressure for delinquent conduct, had low levels of empathy and academic self-efficacies, and disengaged from moral standards that interfered with acceptance based on peer values. These findings suggest that basing the age of criminal responsibility only on knowledge of what is right and wrong is inadequate, since it over-emphasizes the cognitive components and minimizes the non-cognitive components that influence decisionmaking. Such an approach would benefit both youth and society, since it would prevent children and teens from being drawn into the justice system, which tends to impose authoritative negative labeling to one's self-concept and increase alienation from acceptance by mainstream society. All study participants completed a questionnaire that measured their understanding of right and wrong; their level of moral disengagement and delinquent behavior; and their perceived self-efficacy regarding academic achievement, empathy, and resistance to peer pressure. 2 figures, 4 tables, and 47 references