A Psychosocial Test of the Maturity Gap Thesis

Published date01 June 2017
Date01 June 2017
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2017, Vol. 44, No. 6, June 2017, 815 –842.
DOI: 10.1177/0093854817694924
© 2017 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
University of Texas at Dallas
Previous tests of the maturity gap thesis incorporated one-dimensional autonomy-based measures of social maturity. We
present the first test of the maturity gap thesis to incorporate psychosocial measures (i.e., temperance, responsibility, and
perspective). Four delinquency and substance abuse variables from Wave 2 of the Add Health data were regressed on the
following variables developed from Wave 1: relative pubertal development, relative psychosocial maturity, personal auton-
omy, and interactions among each (n = 4,530 participants younger than 18 and 294 older than 18). Personal autonomy lost
significance when psychosocial maturity, personal autonomy, and pubertal development were included in the same model.
However, psychosocial maturity did not clearly interact with either personal autonomy or pubertal development. Psychosocial
maturity was associated with deviant behaviors for both males and females, above and below age 18.
Keywords: delinquency; psychosocial maturity; puberty; maturity gap
It is well-documented that deviant tendencies increase during adolescence (Blumstein,
Cohen, & Farrington, 1988; Farrington, Piquero, & Jennings, 2013; Moffitt, 1993; Spear,
2000; Steinberg, 2008). Although it is still not completely clear why risk-taking behaviors
increase during this time, several studies have found that pubertal development is associ-
ated with antisocial outcomes during adolescence (Cota-Robles, Neiss, & Rowe, 2002; Ge,
Conger, & Elder, 2001; Haynie, 2003; Mendle, Turkheimer, & Emery, 2007; Peskin, 1967).
Additional research has investigated the effects of physical changes in the body combined
with social maturity in the quest to explain deviance (Felson & Haynie, 2002; Galambos &
Tilton-Weaver, 2000). Most recently, a disparity between pubertal development and social
maturity known as the “maturity gap” (Moffitt, 1993) has been proffered as a driving force
behind delinquent behavior, particularly in adolescence-limited offenders (e.g., Barnes &
Beaver, 2010; Piquero & Brezina, 2001). In the maturity gap perspective, most adolescents
are described as “chronological hostages of a time warp between biological age and social
age”; a “gap” is said to exist when an individual is reproductively mature but not socially
mature (Moffitt, 1993, p. 687).
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to John L. Worrall,
University of Texas at Dallas, 800 W. Campbell Road, GR31, Richardson, TX 75080; e-mail: worrall@utdallas.
The measurement of pubertal development is relatively straightforward; reproductive
changes are largely physical in nature, meaning they are readily observable (e.g., facial hair
growth or breast enlargement). The timing of these changes has been of particular interest
for explaining deviance (Barnes & Beaver, 2010; Felson & Haynie, 2002; Williams &
Dunlop, 1999). Social maturity, in contrast, is decidedly more complex to observe and mea-
sure, yet the operationalization of this important concept has not yet received the attention
it should. Even Moffitt (1993) did not formally define social maturity. The closest she came
was in her observation that teens
. . . remain financially and socially dependent on their families of origin and are allowed few
decisions of any real import [,yet] they want desperately to establish intimate bonds with the
opposite sex . . . and be regarded as consequential by adults. (p. 687)
Most prior tests of the maturity gap thesis have conceptualized social maturity in terms
of teens’ autonomy from parents. This was the core measure in Barnes and Beaver’s (2010)
article. Earlier work by Piquero and Brezina (2001) also incorporated two nearly identical
measures of autonomy, namely “autonomy with peers” and a “desire-for-autonomy scale”
(pp. 359-360). Likewise, Sentse, Dijkstra, Lindenberg, Ormel, and Veenstra (2010) con-
ceived of social maturity in terms of parental protectiveness with measures pertaining to
autonomy in decision making (e.g., Did parents permit youth to make decisions regarding
the clothes they chose to wear?).
Recent work in developmental psychology calls for a departure from one-dimensional
autonomy-based conceptions of social maturity (e.g., Monahan, Steinberg, Cauffman, &
Mulvey, 2009; Steinberg & Cauffman, 1996). While Moffitt (1993) focused on teens’ desire
for access to adult roles, reductions in antisocial behavior during the transition to adulthood
could be due to improvements in individuals’ “maturity of judgment” or “psychosocial
maturity” (Steinberg & Cauffman, 1996). Psychosocial maturity, which refers to improved
socioemotional competence and adaptive functioning among adolescents (Galambos,
Turner, & Tilton-Weaver, 2005), might well serve as a better measure of social maturity
compared with prior studies’ operationalization of social maturity in terms of autonomy.
Indeed, the transitional period from late adolescence to young adulthood is characterized by
changes that involve multiple dimensions, including biological, psychological, and social
(Rocque, 2015). Maturation (especially perceived maturation) can be influenced by an array
of factors (see Galambos, Kolaric, Sears, & Maggs, 1999; Tilton-Weaver, Vitunski, &
Galambos, 2001), so the measurement of social maturity should attempt to take these
dimensions into account.
There is good reason to suspect that the negative effects of pubertal development could
be harnessed by well-developed psychosocial maturity. On one hand, biological develop-
ment is driving individuals toward sensation-seeking. On the other hand, psychosocial
maturity controls and organizes such drives, if established normally within an individual.
According to Steinberg and Monahan (2009), there are substantial changes in sensation-
seeking, risk-taking, and reward sensitivity in early adolescence. At the same time, the
ongoing maturation of the cognitive control system reduces risk-taking, especially between
adolescence and adulthood. It plays an essential role in self-regulation, through better coor-
dination of emotion and cognition. One can see a similar notion in Moffitt’s (1993) life-
course persistent offenders group, which experiences neurological deficiencies that can

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