Are There Sex Differences in the Etiology of Youth Antisocial Behavior?

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Abstract

Sex differences in the etiology of youth antisocial behavior are an intuitively appealing hypothesis given the consistently higher prevalence of antisocial behavior in boys versus girls. Although a few early studies supported this possibility, reporting stronger genetic influences in females and stronger environmental influences in males, subsequent meta-analyses found that antisocial behavior was equally heritable in males and females. Critically however, none of the meta-analyses evaluated whether sex differences in etiology might be enhanced in particular subpopulations or contexts. The current study sought to do just this. We examined 1,030 child twin pairs from the Michigan State University Twin Registry, half of whom were oversampled for neighborhood disadvantage, thereby allowing us to meaningfully evaluate whether sex differences in etiology were enhanced in disadvantaged contexts. We also directly evaluated the possibility of sex differences in the etiology of teacher- versus maternal-informant reports of antisocial behavior, evaluating each informant-report for possible sex differences. Results were not consistent with differential effects of sex on etiology in disadvantaged versus advantaged contexts, but did suggest moderation by informant-report. Namely, genetic influences were stronger in girls, and environmental influences were stronger in boys, when antisocial behavior was assessed using teacher informant-reports, but not when assessed using maternal informant-reports. Critically, these findings were confirmed when we reanalyzed meta-analytic data from Burt (2009a) separately by informant. Such findings suggest that, at least in school contexts, the etiology of antisocial behavior does indeed vary across sex. Implications are discussed.

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