Low salivary cortisol levels and externalizing behavior problems in youth

Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff, Douglas A. Granger, Alan Booth, David Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

228 Scopus citations


Research linking basal cortisol levels with internalizing and externalizing behavior problems in youths has yielded inconsistent results. We hypothesize that the high moment to moment variation in adrenocortical activity requires an analytical strategy that separates variance in cortisol levels attributable to "stable traitlike" versus "state or situationally specific" sources. Early morning saliva samples were obtained from 724 youths (M age = 13.5 years; range = 6-16 years in Year 1) on 2 successive days 1 year apart. Latent state-trait modeling revealed that 70% of the variance in cortisol levels could be attributed to statelike sources, and 28% to traitlike sources. For boys only, higher levels of externalizing problem behaviors were consistently associated with lower cortisol attributable to traitlike sources across 3 years of behavioral assessment. The inverse association between individual differences in cortisol and externalizing problem behavior has previously only been reported in studies of at-risk or clinical groups. The present findings suggest the relationship is a stable phenomenon that spans both normative and atypical child development. Studies are needed to reveal the biosocial mechanisms involved in the establishment and maintenance of this phenomenon, and to decipher whether individual differences in this hormone-behavior link confers risk or resilience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)167-184
Number of pages18
JournalDevelopment and Psychopathology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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