Adolescents With Lack of Empathy Show Early Signs of Psychopathy

Summary: Teens who display callous-unemotional traits are at higher risk of developing psychopathic traits as they enter adulthood.

Source: University of

A pioneering study with the Portuguese population shows that adolescents with high levels of callous-unemotional traits demonstrate lower levels of anticipated guilt towards the possibility of committing an immoral act and struggle to judge an immoral act as a wrong one.

Researchers have evaluated the callous traits, that is, the lack of empathy and disregard for the wellbeing and feelings of others, of 47 adolescents between 15 and 18 years old. The teenagers watched video animations portraying examples of moral transgressions, such as incriminating someone or keeping money that fell from someone else’s pocket.

“This approach allowed us to create more realistic scenarios that happen in daily life,” explains Oscar Gonçalves, a neuroscientist at Proaction Lab and co-author of the study.

The adolescents were asked how guilty they would feel if they were the ones to commit the moral transgressions and how wrong they think the actions were.

Although the callous-unemotional traits in adolescents are known to be precursors of psychopathy in adulthood, the results of the study differ from what is known about psychopaths. Image is in the public domain

Although the callous-unemotional traits in adolescents are known to be precursors of psychopathy in adulthood, the results of the study differ from what is known about psychopaths. “Adults with psychopathic traits show low levels of anticipated guilt but consider immoral actions as wrong. However, in our study, adolescents with high CU levels show levels of guilt and judge immoral actions as less wrong,” explains Margarida Vasconcelos, first author.

However, researchers have found evidence of a dissociation between moral emotions and moral judgment, that is, between the feelings of guilt and the judgment of immoral actions. “Even in adolescents with sub-clinical levels of callous-unemotional traits, this dissociation typical in psychopathy in adulthood is already happening during development,” explains the study coordinator Ana Seara Cardoso.

The results of the study will “contribute to the development of a severe anti-social behavior model” and allow the “development of intervention targets, rehabilitation and early prevention of anti-social behavior,” says Ana Seara Cardoso.

About this psychopathy research news

Source: University of Coimbra
Contact: Daniel Ribeiro – University of Coimbra
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Callous-Unemotional Traits Moderate Anticipated Guilt and Wrongness Judgments to Everyday Moral Transgressions in Adolescents” by Margarida Vasconcelos et al.. Frontiers in Psychiatry


Abstract

Callous-Unemotional Traits Moderate Anticipated Guilt and Wrongness Judgments to Everyday Moral Transgressions in Adolescents

Callous-unemotional (CU) traits observed during childhood and adolescence are thought to be precursors of psychopathic traits in adulthood. Adults with high levels of psychopathic traits typically present antisocial behavior. Such behavior can be indicative of atypical moral processing. Evidence suggests that moral dysfunction in these individuals may stem from a disruption of affective components of moral processing rather than from an inability to compute moral judgments per se.

No study to date has tested if the dissociation between affective and cognitive dimensions of moral processing linked to psychopathic traits in adulthood is also linked to CU traits during development. Here, 47 typically developing adolescents with varying levels of CU traits completed a novel, animated cartoon task depicting everyday moral transgressions and indicated how they would feel in such situations and how morally wrong the situations were.

Adolescents with higher CU traits reported reduced anticipated guilt and wrongness appraisals of the transgressions. However, our key finding was a significant interaction between CU traits and anticipated guilt in predicting wrongness judgments. The strength of the association between anticipated guilt and wrongness judgement was significantly weaker for those with higher levels of CU traits.

This evidence extends our knowledge on the cognitive-affective processing deficits that may underlie moral dysfunction in youth who are at heightened risk for antisocial behavior and psychopathy in adulthood.

Future longitudinal research is required to elucidate whether there is an increased dissociation between different components of moral processing from adolescence to adulthood for those with high psychopathic traits.

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