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 disseminating data).
  • 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 (chapter 4)).

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 cumulative effect.
  • 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 opportunities.

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.

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Risk Factors for Delinquency: An Overview Michael Shader