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Four variables are included in the personal belief structure—social criticism, alienation, self-esteem, and internal-external locus of control— and, depending on whether they are high or low, each is interpreted as controlling against engaging in problem behavior.

The theoretical concern of the variables in the personal control structure is with more specific controls against engaging in nonnormative behavior. There are three variables in the personal control structure— attitudinal tolerance of deviance, religiosity, and the discrepancy between positive and negative functions of (reasons for and against engaging in) behaviors such as drug use, premarital sexual intercourse, or drinking. These personal control variables are more directly and obviously linked to the behavior involved.

Of primary importance for the personality system as a whole is the dynamic relation between instigations and controls; their interaction yields a theoretical resultant reflecting the balance between personalitysystem pressure toward engaging in problem behavior and personalitysystem constraints against it. The main characteristics of proneness to problem behavior in the personality system include lower value on academic achievement; higher value on independence; greater value on independence relative to value on achievement; lower expectations for academic achievement; greater social criticism and alienation; lower self-esteem and an orientation toward an external locus of control; greater attitudinal tolerance of deviance; lesser religiosity; and more importance attached to the positive, relative to the negative, functions of problem behavior. The more these personality characteristics obtain for a person at a given point in time—the more that they constitute a coherent pattern, constellation, or syndrome—the more personality proneness to problem behavior they theoretically convey.


The conceptual focus in the environmental system is on the environment as perceived, as it has meaning for the actor, the social-psychological rather than the physicogeographic or social structural or demographic environment. Logically, the perceived environment is the one that has the most invariant relation with behavior because it is the environment of immediate meaning and the one to which the actor is responding.

Within the perceived environment, an important distinction between "regions" is made in terms of their proximal versus distal relation to behavior. Proximal variables (for example, peer models for marijuana use) directly implicate a particular behavior, whereas distal variables (for example, the degree of normative consensus between parents and peers) are more remote in the causal chain and therefore require theoretical linkage to behavior. This distinction helps make clear why some environmental variables are likely to be more powerfully related to problem behavior than others. (The same distinction can be applied also in the personality system; the motivational-instigation variables and the personal belief variables are more distal from problem behavior, while the personal control variables are more proximal to problem behavior.)

ln the distal structure of the perceived environment, the variables serve mainly to characterize whether the social context in which a youth is located is one that is more parent and family oriented than friends or peer oriented, or vice versa. Location in or orientation toward an adult or parental context is interpretable as being less problem-behavior prone than location in a peer context. ln the former, there would be more involvement with conventional norms, less exposure to models for problem behavior, and greater social control over transgression.

Six variables are included in the distal structure of the perceived environment: perceived support from parents and from friends, perceived controls from parents and from friends, compatibility or consensus between parents and friends in the expectations they hold for a given adolescent, and the perceived influence on the adolescent of parents relative to that of friends.

Together, these six variables represent a patterned social environment that is more or less conducive to problem behavior, depending on whether supports and controls are perceived to be present, whether more influence comes from parents or peers, and whether there is concordance or conflict between these two reference groups, the two that have the most regulatory significance for youths. When the pattern of variables in the distal structure is such that it defines an attenuated reference orientation to parents, that is, when it suggests that a youth is located in a peer rather than a parental context, it defines greater proneness to problem behavior.

The variables included in the proximal structure of the perceived environment concern the degree to which an adolescent is located in a social context where problem behavior is prevalent and where there is social support for its occurrence. Three major variables are included in the proximal structure of the perceived environment: friends approval-disapproval for problem behavior, parental approval-disapproval of problem behavior, and friends models for problem behavior.

Of all the variables in the overall social-psychological framework, it is reasonable to expect that those in the proximal structure of the perceived environment should be among the most powerful. A context in which one's friends are perceived as engaging in problem behavior and as providing potential approval (if not pressure) for it is likely to be of direct and substantial influence. High prevalence of friends models and support constitutes not only a direct influence on problem behavior but is probably also an indirect reflection of other problem-prone factors—those that would also account for an adolescent's membership in a friendship network that has these particular characteristics rather than in one that is more conventionally oriented. lt would require the perception of strong parental disapproval, or the presence of strong personality-system controls, to offset such problem-behavior proneness in the proximal structure of the perceived environment.

The primary dynamic relation within the perceived-environment system is between the perception of social controls against problem behavior, on the one hand, and the perception of models and supports for problem behavior on the other. The balance of these perceptions determines the resultant contribution of the perceived-environment system to the likelihood of problem behavior.

Problem-behavior proneness in the distal structure of the perceived environment system consists of low parental support and controls; low peer controls; low compatibility between parent and peer expectations; and low parent, relative to peer, influence. ln the proximal structure, problem-behavior proneness includes low parental disapproval of problem behavior and both high friends models for and high friends approval of engaging in problem behavior.


The specification of behavior relies upon a variety of considerations beyond the physical parameters of the act itself—its personal meaning, its social definition, its relation to age and status, the context of its occurrence, and its time in history.

The behavior system is differentiated into a problem-behavior structure and a conventional behavior structure. Problem behavior refers to behavior socially defined either as a problem, as a source of concern, or as undesirable by the norms of conventional society or the institutions of adult authority; it is behavior that usually elicits some kind of social-control response. The latter, of course, may be as minimal as an expression of disapproval or as extreme as incarceration. The possibility that phenotypically very different behaviors (for example, smoking marijuana, engaging in sexual intercourse, or taking part in a peaceful demonstration) may all serve the same social-psychological function (for example, overt repudiation of conventional norms or expressing independence from parental control) is what underlies the notion of a structure of problem behavior. Conventional behavior, e.g., church attendance or working hard at school, is behavior that is socially approved, normatively expected, and codified and institutionalized as appropriate for adolescents and youths.

Problem behavior can function in a variety of ways. lt may represent an instrumental or goal-directed effort to attain goals that seem otherwise unattainable. (The youth who is unable to secure autonomy from parental supervision may gain a sense of independence through the use of drugs.) lts purpose may be to express opposition to conventional society, whose norms and values have been rejected. lt may represent an affirmation of maturity or a negotiation for transformation of status from adolescent to adult. lts meaning may lie in defining, for self and others, important attributes of personal identity (being able to hold one's liquor, being a nonvirgin). lt can function also to establish solidary relations with peers, or to enable access to youth subgroups, or to permit identification with the youth subculture. Or, finally, it can serve as a way of coping with frustration and anticipated failure (drowning one's sorrows in alcohol).

The primary dynamic in the behavior system is that between the problembehavior structure and the conventional behavior structure, with engagement in either serving as a constraint upon or an alternative to engaging in the other. High involvement in church activities or participation in academic activities should relate negatively to engagement in drug use, or problem drinking, or other problem behaviors, and vice versa. Within either the problem-behavior structure or the conventional behavior structure, there should be a positive relation among the various behaviors that are included; that is, the different problem behaviors should covary and the different conventional behaviors should covary.


The logical implications in problem behavior theory for development and change can be drawn by elaborating the notions of age grading, age norms, and age expectations in relation to problem behavior.

The logic of applying the same conceptual framework to development in adolescence rests on several key points: that there is stratification of society in terms of age; that access to valued roles, statuses, and rewards varies with different age strata; that adolescence, especially early adolescence, can be characterized as an age stratum of relatively limited access to certain valued goals, whether autonomy, status, sex, or mobility; that age strata have associated norms and expectations that regulate what behaviors are considered to be appropriate; and that many of the behaviors we have referred to as problem behaviors are normatively age-graded, that is, the behavior may be permitted or even prescribed for those who are older, while being proscribed for those who are younger. Drinking, as one example, is proscribed for those under legal age but is permitted and even institutionally encouraged for those who are beyond that age; sexual intercourse, normatively acceptable for adults, is a normative departure for a young adolescent, and one that is likely to elicit social controls.

Consensual awareness among youths of the age-graded norms for such behaviors carries with it, at the same time, the shared knowledge that occupancy of a more mature status is characterized by actually engaging in such behavior. Thus, engaging in certain behaviors for the first time can mark a transition in status from "less mature" to "more mature," from "younger" to "older," or from "adolescent" to "youth" or "adult."

Many of the important transitions that mark the course of adolescent development involve behaviors that depart from the regulatory age norms defining what is appropriate or expected behavior for that age or stage in life. lt is important in this context to emphasize that behavior that departs from regulatory norms is precisely what problembehavior theory is meant to account for, and this becomes the basis for the systematic application of problem-behavior theory to developmental change in adolescence. By mapping the developmental concept of transition proneness onto the theoretical concept of problem-behavior proneness, it becomes possible to use problem-behavior theory to specify the likelihood of occurrence of developmental change through engaging in age-graded, norm-departing, transition-marking behaviors.


Problem-behavior theory has been employed in both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of marijuana use, in both local and national samples, and with respect to both males and females. (See Jessor and Jessor 1977, 1978; Jessor et al., in press.) ln the content of the findings, there is quite impressive coherence, whether considering the crosssectional differences between marijuana users and nonusers, or the

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