What Is a Risk Factor?
|Four Steps of the Risk Factor Approach
Mercy and O'Carroll (1998) summarize the four
steps of the public health approach to
decisionmaking as follows:
- Public health surveillance (i.e., developing and
refining data systems for ongoing analysis and
- Risk group identification (i.e., identifying
individuals at greatest risk of disease or injury
and the places, times, and other circumstances
associated with increased risk).
- Risk factor exploration (i.e., analytically
exploring the potentially causative risk factors).
- Program implementation and evaluation (i.e.,
designing, implementing, and evaluating
preventive measures based on an understanding
of the population at risk and the community's
identified risk factors).
The criminal justice field adopted these steps for its
risk factor approach. Criminologists compile
statistics on the prevalence of crimes through the
FBI's Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of
Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization
Survey. They then apply the techniques of risk
group identification to crime as they attempt to
determine those at greatest risk of offending.
Criminal justice researchers explore risk factors by
applying theoretical models and statistical
techniques to determine which risk factors are
linked to crime. The criminal justice sector then
works to develop, design, and implement programs
that attempt to prevent offending. These programs
are then evaluated to determine whether they are
successful and cost effective.
Risk factors have been broadly defined as "those
characteristics, variables, or hazards that, if present
for a given individual, make it more likely that this
individual, rather than someone selected from the
general population, will develop a disorder"
(Mrazek and Haggerty, 1994:127). Kazdin and
colleagues (1997) note that a risk factor predicts an
increased probability of later offending. A recent
report from the U.S. Surgeon General more
specifically defines a risk factor as "anything that
increases the probability that a person will suffer
harm" (Office of the Surgeon General, 2001
Psychologists Coie and colleagues (1993) noted the
following regarding risk factors:2
- Dysfunction has a complicated relationship
with risk factors; rarely is one risk factor
associated with a particular disorder.
- The impact of risk factors may vary with the
developmental state of the individual.
- Exposure to multiple risk factors has a
- Many disorders share fundamental risk factors.
Although researchers use risk factors to detect the
likelihood of later offending, many youth with
multiple risk factors never commit delinquent or
violent acts. A risk factor may increase the
probability of offending, but does not make
offending a certainty.
|What Is a Protective Factor?
Research on risk factors for delinquency has
prompted discussion and investigation into
influences that may provide a buffer between the
presence of risk factors and the onset of
delinquency. These buffers are known as
protective factors. Pollard, Hawkins, and Arthur
(1999:146) note that "protective factors are those
factors that mediate or moderate the effect of
exposure to risk factors, resulting in reduced
incidence of problem behavior." Rutter (1987)
believes that protective factors offset the onset of
delinquency via four main processes: reducing risk,
reducing negative chain reactions, establishing
self-esteem and self-efficacy, and opening up
Researchers disagree about what constitutes a
protective factor. Protective factors "have been
viewed both as the absence of risk and something
conceptually distinct from it" (Office of the
Surgeon General, 2001 (chapter 4)). The former
view looks at risk and protective factors as
opposite ends of a continuum. For example,
excellent performance in school might be
considered a protective factor because it is the
opposite of poor performance in school--a known
risk factor. The second view of protective factors
sees them as "characteristics or conditions that
interact with risk factors to reduce their influence
on violent behavior" (Office of the Surgeon
General, 2001 (chapter 4)). For example, poverty is
often seen as a risk factor, but the presence of
supportive, involved parents may mediate the
negative influence of poverty to lessen a youth's
chance of becoming delinquent.