Character  &  Context

Does Incarceration Impact Youth Personality Development?

Image of light entering an empty dark jail cell

Adolescence is a time full of transitional periods and growth. Generally, as we age we become more mature and stable. We experience life events that allow us to successfully fulfill our adulthood roles.

However, the life events we experience are not always positive. With over 70,000 youth incarcerated in the U.S. yearly, we cannot deny the depth of impact such a negative life event may create.

“Do correctional facilities correct our youth?” asked Kathryn Bollich (Seattle University) as she began her presentation titled Personality Behind Bars: Effects of Incarceration on Personality Development at the SPSP Annual Convention.

Bollich and colleague, Joshua Jackson (Washington University in St. Louis) set out to better understand the effects of the juvenile justice system contact on personality development.

They wanted to know the answers to three questions. First, are certain personalities more likely to end up involved in the justice system in the first place? Does this contact disrupt normal youth personality development? And last, are there better alternatives to incarceration that have less severe consequences on youth personality?

Using a large national dataset (CNLSY), they examined selection effects and socialization effects associated with youth incarceration and court-ordered community service.

As expected, sensation-seeking was a risk factor for incarceration and community service. Depression also predicted both, while impulsivity only predicted incarceration. These results suggest that youth higher in sensation-seeking, depression, and impulsivity will be more at risk to experience incarceration.

Now that we know which personality traits are associated with becoming incarcerated in the first place, one question remains. How do youth personalities transform once they have experienced contact with the justice system?

Congruent with normal adolescent development, youth experiencing incarceration or community service increased on self-esteem and sensation-seeking over time. These trajectories are consistent with normative maturation, suggesting that justice system contact may not substantially disrupt the development of these specific personality traits.

Further, incarceration predicted decreases in depression whereas there was no change in depression over time for the other two groups of youth. It is possible that incarceration is having some level of a rehabilitative effect.

Bollich also found that those with community service or no justice system contact decreased in impulsivity over time. Contrary to normal adolescent development, incarcerated youth increased on impulsivity. These findings raise concerns that the current juvenile justice system and the experiences youth have within that system may have some retrogressive effects on personality development.

Encouragingly, the findings from Bollich’s study also suggest that there may be positive alternatives, such as community service, which may to more normative changes for youth compared to incarceration.

Written by: Kristan Russell, PhD Student at the University of Nevada, Reno
Presentation: "Personality Behind Bars: Effects of Incarceration on Personality Development," held during the sympoisum Narratives of Changing Selves on March 3, 2018.
Speaker: Kathryn Bollich-Ziegler, PhD – Seattle University
Co-Author: Joshua Jackson, PhD, Emorie Beck, and Patrick Hill, PhD – Washington University in St. Louis


Blog Category: 

About our Blog

Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

Learn More ›

Questions ›

Contribute to the Blog ›

Get Email Updates from the Blog