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The mediating role of moral disengagement in the developmental course from peer rejection in adolescence to crime in early adulthood

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Both peer relations problems and moral disengagement – the set of social-cognitive processes by which the moral content of an antisocial act is altered or removed so that the act may be more easily performed – have been repeatedly demonstrated to have a considerable impact on social development. Despite the fact that each has been found to be a reliable precursor to antisocial outcomes in youth, the relation of these two constructs in the emergence of criminal behavior has not been investigated. In the present study of 392 Italian youths, we investigated whether moral disengagement in late adolescence (16/18 years) mediates the relation between peer rejection in middle adolescence (14 years) and crime in early adulthood (18/20 years), controlling for aggressive conduct problems at age 14. Although peer rejection and aggression at age 14 did not directly affect criminal outcomes at age 18/20, we found that they indirectly impact the emergence of adult crime through moral disengagement in late adolescence (16/18 years). This finding is consistent with the theoretical position that the individual who is peer rejected and socially disfavored may, as a result of viewing the world as unfair and unjust, develop criminogenic judgment, and decision-making strategies (moral disengagement) that facilitate his or her pursuit of antisocial goals. Implications for intervention and rehabilitation, as well as directions for future research, are discussed.
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Keywords: adolescence; antisocial; crime; delinquency; development; juvenile justice; moral disengagement

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Social Science Research Institute, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA 2: Department of Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy 3: Department of Psychology, Uninettuno International Telematic University, Rome, Italy 4: Department of Psychology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH, USA

Publication date: January 2, 2014

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