Mediating the Low Verbal Intelligence–Early Adult Offending Relationship With Pro-Aggression Attitudes

Date01 April 2022
Published date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 4, April 2022, 513 –529.
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© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Kutztown University
This study was designed to explore a possible mechanism for the well-documented relationship between low verbal intelli-
gence and early adult offending. It was hypothesized that low verbal intelligence, as measured by a brief vocabulary test,
would predict higher pro-aggression thinking, which would then encourage future antisocial behavior. This hypothesis was
tested in a longitudinal analysis of 411 male youths from the Cambridge Study of Delinquent Development (CSDD). After
controlling for school performance, truancy, impulsivity, peer delinquency, and nonverbal intelligence, a path analysis
revealed that low verbal intelligence at age 14 or 15 predicted violent offending (fighting) and property offending at age 21
or 22 by way of late adolescent pro-aggression attitudes. From these results, it was speculated that one mechanism linking
low verbal intelligence to early adult offending is an attitude favorable to personal violation of the rights of others, in line
with predictions from general personality and cognitive social learning (GPCSL) theory.
Keywords: low verbal intelligence; pro-aggression attitudes; criminal offending
One of the earliest psychological theories of crime held that low intelligence was a prin-
cipal cause of antisocial behavior, whether in reference to conduct disorder in children,
delinquency in adolescents, or crime in adults. This theory was popularized by Goddard
(1914/1972), who worked at the New Jersey Training School for the Feeble Minded and
was involved in several research projects on the intelligence of jail and prison inmates.
When it was later discovered that persons who violate the law often achieved higher intel-
ligence quotient (IQ) scores than many Army draftees (Tulchin, 1939) and a majority of the
correctional officers working in the institutions where these persons were housed
(Murchison, 1926), psychologists and criminologists began to reevaluate theories of crime
based on intelligence. These early enquiries on IQ and crime gave rise to three research
agendas, namely, documenting, clarifying, and explaining the low IQ–offending relation-
ship, with explanation serving as the focus of the current investigation.
Research conducted in the 1960s showing that Black respondents not only scored lower
on intelligence tests than White respondents, but that they were also more likely to end up
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Glenn D. Walters,
Department of Criminal Justice, Kutztown University, Kutztown, PA 19530-0730; e-mail:
1034220CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211034220Criminal Justice and BehaviorWalters / Mediating the Low Verbal IQ–Offending Relationship
in jail or prison reawakened interest in intelligence as a potential cause of crime (Jensen,
1969). A series of theorists, including Gordon (1976), subsequently argued that differences
in intellect, which just happened to be correlated with race, were responsible for racial dif-
ferences in crime. In one of the most comprehensive and impactful reviews of the literature
on intelligence and crime, Hirschi and Hindelang (1977) concluded that intelligence corre-
lated inversely with delinquency and did so independently of race and social class. In both
White and non-White samples, and in both upper-class and lower-class homes, Hirschi and
Hindelang found that those with lower IQ scores engaged in higher levels of delinquency.
These relationships have also been documented in long-term longitudinal studies. Lipsitt
et al. (1990), for instance, noticed that low IQ scores in children effectively predicted delin-
quency in adolescents and criminal offending in adults. The degree of delinquency also
appears to matter. In a comparison of delinquents of varying degrees of severity, Denno
(1990) discovered that serious delinquents achieved significantly lower IQ scores than
minor delinquents.
Although David Wechsler defined intelligence as “the global capacity to act purpose-
fully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with [one’s] environment” (Kaplan &
Saccuzzo, 2009, p. 250), he and others felt that intelligence was best measured using a
combination of verbal and nonverbal tasks. Intelligence tests, in fact, are frequently divided
into verbal and nonverbal (or performance) scales and research indicates that juveniles and
adults who have been in trouble with the law often score higher on nonverbal tests than
they do on verbal tests. Cornell and Wilson (1992), as a case in point, ascertained that 35%
of a group of 149 juveniles convicted of serious crimes achieved a Performance Intelligence
Quotient (PIQ) that was 12 or more points higher than their Verbal Intelligence Quotient
(VIQ). Other studies indicate that the PIQ > VIQ pattern is associated with such criminal
traits as egocentricity, narcissism (Nijman et al., 2009), and callousness (Allen et al.,
2013), and that justice-involved individuals exhibiting the PIQ > VIQ pattern tend to
experience higher rates of recidivism than justice-involved persons with comparable PIQ
and VIQ scores (Vermeiren et al., 2002). In a meta-analysis of 131 studies conducted on
the PIQ > VIQ pattern, Isen (2010) discerned that PIQ > VIQ was equally prominent in
male and female offending groups, although it was more applicable to White than Black
individuals and more prevalent in adolescents than children or adults. Based on a scale
with a mean of 100 and standard deviation of 15, the average VIQ score across the various
studies was 85.9, whereas the average PIQ score was 93.0. This suggests that while those
who violate the law often fall into the average range of intelligence (90–109) on nonverbal
tasks, they normally achieve one level below this on verbal tasks, in what is known as the
below average range of intelligence (80–89).
Quay (1987) contends that the relationship between low verbal IQ and delinquency/
crime is the result of one or more of the following three factors or perspectives. The first
factor mentioned by Quay is schooling. According to this perspective, low verbal IQ leads
to school difficulties and possible academic failure; this, in turn, leads to delinquency. Two
models have evolved from this perspective, school performance (poor school performance
leading to negative attitudes toward school and delinquent behavior) and school reaction
(curriculum tracking leading to low self-esteem and delinquent behavior), with studies

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