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Do executive functions explain the covariance between internalizing and externalizing behaviors?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 November 2017

Alexander S. Hatoum*
University of Colorado Boulder
Soo Hyun Rhee
University of Colorado Boulder
Robin P. Corley
University of Colorado Boulder
John K. Hewitt
University of Colorado Boulder
Naomi P. Friedman
University of Colorado Boulder
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Alexander S. Hatoum, Institute for Behavioral Genetics, 447 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309; E-mail:


This study examined whether executive functions (EFs) might be common features of internalizing and externalizing behavior problems across development. We examined relations between three EF latent variables (a common EF factor and factors specific to updating working memory and shifting sets), constructed from nine laboratory tasks administered at age 17, to latent growth intercept (capturing stability) and slope (capturing change) factors of teacher- and parent-reported internalizing and externalizing behaviors in 885 individual twins aged 7 to 16 years. We then estimated the proportion of intercept–intercept and slope–slope correlations predicted by EF as well as the association between EFs and a common psychopathology factor (P factor) estimated from all 9 years of internalizing and externalizing measures. Common EF was negatively associated with the intercepts of teacher-rated internalizing and externalizing behavior in males, and explained 32% of their covariance; in the P factor model, common EF was associated with the P factor in males. Shifting-specific was positively associated with the externalizing slope across sex. EFs did not explain covariation between parent-rated behaviors. These results suggest that EFs are associated with stable problem behavior variation, explain small proportions of covariance, and are a risk factor that that may depend on gender.

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This research was supported by NIH Grants MH063207, AG046938, HD010333, and MH016880.


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