Differences in executive functioning between violent and non-violent offenders

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A growing body of neuropsychological and neurobiological research shows a relationship between functioning of the prefrontal cortex and criminal and violent behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is crucial for executive functions such as inhibition, attention, working memory, set-shifting and planning. A deficit in these functions – a prefrontal deficit – may result in antisocial, impulsive or even aggressive behaviour. While several meta-analyses show large effect sizes for the relationship between a prefrontal deficit, executive dysfunction and criminality, there are few studies investigating differences in executive functions between violent and non-violent offenders. Considering the relevance of identifying risk factors for violent offending, the current study explores whether a distinction between violent and non-violent offenders can be made using an extensive neuropsychological test battery.

Male remand prisoners (N = 130) in Penitentiary Institution Amsterdam Over-Amstel were administered an extensive neuropsychological test battery (Cambridge Automated Neuropsychological Test Battery; CANTAB) measuring response inhibition, planning, attention, set-shifting, working memory and impulsivity/reward sensitivity.

Violent offenders performed significantly worse on the stop-signal task (partial correlation r = 0.205, p = 0.024), a task measuring response inhibition. No further differences were found between violent and non-violent offenders. Explorative analyses revealed a significant relationship between recidivism and planning (partial correlation r = −0.209, p = 0.016).

Violent offenders show worse response inhibition compared to non-violent offenders, suggesting a more pronounced prefrontal deficit in violent offenders than in non-violent offenders.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1784-1793
Number of pages10
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number10
Early online date8 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017


  • executive function
  • inhibition
  • neuropsychology
  • offenders
  • prison


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