Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 45, Issue 8, pp 1553–1564 | Cite as

Social Adversity and Antisocial Behavior: Mediating Effects of Autonomic Nervous System Activity

  • Shawn E. FaganEmail author
  • Wei Zhang
  • Yu Gao


The display of antisocial behaviors in children and adolescents has been of interest to criminologists and developmental psychologists for years. Exposure to social adversity is a well-documented predictor of antisocial behavior. Additionally, measures of autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity, including heart rate variability (HRV), pre-ejection period (PEP), and heart rate, have been associated with antisocial behaviors including rule-breaking and aggression. Social neuroscience research has begun to investigate how neurobiological underpinnings affect the relationship between social adversity and antisocial/psychopathic behavior in children and adolescents. This study investigated the potential mediating effects of ANS activity on the relationship between social adversity and antisocial behavior in a group of 7- to 10-year-old children from the community (N = 339; 48.2% male). Moderated multiple mediation analyses revealed that low resting heart rate, but not PEP or HRV, mediated the relationship between social adversity and antisocial behavior in males only. Social adversity but not ANS measures were associated with antisocial behavior in females. Findings have implications for understanding the neural influences that underlie antisocial behavior, illustrate the importance of the social environment regarding the expression of these behaviors, and highlight essential gender differences.


Heart rate Gender Antisocial behavior Social adversity Arousal Aggression 



This study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health to Yu Gao under Award Number SC2HD076044. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. We would like to thank the Psychophysiology Lab research staff for their assistance in collecting data and the families for their participation.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest to report.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyThe Graduate Center, City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyBrooklyn College, City University of New YorkBrooklynUSA
  3. 3.Queens College, City University of New YorkFlushingUSA

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