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Genetically influenced change in sensation seeking drives the rise of delinquent behavior during adolescence


Paige Harden, Department of Psychology, 1 University Station A8000, Austin, Texas 78712, USA; e-mail:


Sensation seeking is associated with an increased propensity for delinquency, and emerging research on personality change suggests that mean levels of sensation seeking increase substantially from childhood to adolescence. The current study tested whether individual differences in the rate of change of sensation seeking predicted within-person change in delinquent behavior and whether genetically influenced differences in rate of personality change accounted for this association. Sensation seeking and delinquent behavior were assessed biennially between ages 10–11 and 16–17 in a nationally representative sample of 7675 youths from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth: Children and Young Adults (CNLSY). Analyses using latent growth curve modeling found that within-person change in sensation seeking was significantly and positively correlated with within-person change in delinquency from childhood to adolescence. Furthermore, behavioral genetic analyses of a subset of 2562 sibling pairs indicated that there were substantial genetic influences on both initial levels of sensation seeking and change in sensation seeking during early adolescence, with over 80% of individual differences in change due to genetic factors. Finally, these genetically driven increases in sensation seeking were most important for predicting increases in delinquency, whereas environmental paths between sensation seeking and delinquency were not significant. These results suggest that developmental changes in delinquent behaviors during adolescence are driven by a genetically governed process of personality change.