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PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e41783. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041783. Epub 2012 Jul 24.

Is the association between general cognitive ability and violent crime caused by family-level confounders?

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Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.



Research has consistently found lower cognitive ability to be related to increased risk for violent and other antisocial behaviour. Since this association has remained when adjusting for childhood socioeconomic position, ethnicity, and parental characteristics, it is often assumed to be causal, potentially mediated through school adjustment problems and conduct disorder. Socioeconomic differences are notoriously difficult to quantify, however, and it is possible that the association between intelligence and delinquency suffer substantial residual confounding.


We linked longitudinal Swedish total population registers to study the association of general cognitive ability (intelligence) at age 18 (the Conscript Register, 1980-1993) with the incidence proportion of violent criminal convictions (the Crime Register, 1973-2009), among all men born in Sweden 1961-1975 (N = 700,514). Using probit regression, we controlled for measured childhood socioeconomic variables, and further employed sibling comparisons (family pedigree data from the Multi-Generation Register) to adjust for shared familial characteristics.


Cognitive ability in early adulthood was inversely associated to having been convicted of a violent crime (β = -0.19, 95% CI: -0.19; -0.18), the association remained when adjusting for childhood socioeconomic factors (β = -0.18, 95% CI: -0.18; -0.17). The association was somewhat lower within half-brothers raised apart (β = -0.16, 95% CI: -0.18; -0.14), within half-brothers raised together (β = -0.13, 95% CI: (-0.15; -0.11), and lower still in full-brother pairs (β = -0.10, 95% CI: -0.11; -0.09). The attenuation among half-brothers raised together and full brothers was too strong to be attributed solely to attenuation from measurement error.


Our results suggest that the association between general cognitive ability and violent criminality is confounded partly by factors shared by brothers. However, most of the association remains even after adjusting for such factors.

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