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Executive Cognitive Functions and Impulsivity as Correlates of Risk Taking and Problem Behavior in Preadolescents



Initiation of drug use and other risky behavior in preadolescence is associated with poor developmental outcomes. In this research, we examine models that ascribe the trajectory to (a) weak executive cognitive function (ECF), (b) early manifestation of externalizing problems, or (c) heightened levels of trait impulsivity. We test the explanatory power of these factors in a structural equation model with a community sample of 387 preadolescents ages 10-12 years. Participants were tested with a computerized battery of tasks to assess three facets of ECF (working memory, cognitive control, and reward processing) as well as with an audio assisted computerized self-interview to obtain reports of impulsivity and risk behaviors (use of cigarettes and alcohol as well as engaging in fighting and gambling for money) and a self-administered questionnaire to assess externalizing and internalizing problems. The best fitting model explained both early risk taking and externalizing symptoms as the result of individual differences in impulsivity. Although no ECF was directly related to risk taking, working memory and one measure of reward processing performance (reversal learning) were inversely related to impulsivity. The results are discussed in regard to theories of early risk taking with particular focus on the potential relation between ECF and impulsive behavior tendencies and the implications for early intervention to prevent the dysfunctional trajectory associated with early risk behavior.


  • Laura M. Betancourt
  • Nancy L. Brodsky
  • Martha Farah
  • Joan M. Giannetta
  • Hallam Hurt
  • Daniel Romer