Adolescents with lack of empathy show early signs of psychopathy

Óscar Gonçalves, study author. Photo credit: University of Coimbra

A landmark study of the Portuguese population shows that adolescents with high levels of calloused and unemotional traits show lower levels of expected guilt for the possibility of committing an immoral act and have difficulty judging an immoral act as wrong.

The researchers assessed the calloused traits, that is, lack of empathy and disregard for the well-being and feelings of others, of 47 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18. The teenagers watched animated videos showing examples of moral transgressions, such as: B. Charging someone or keeping money out of someone else’s pocket. “With this approach, we were able to create more realistic scenarios that occur in everyday life,” explains Oscar Gonçalves, neuroscientist at the Proaction Lab and co-author of the study. The youth were asked how guilty they would feel if they committed the moral transgressions and how wrong they found the actions.

Although the callous-unemotional traits in adolescents are known to be precursors to adult psychopathy, the study’s results differ from those known about psychopaths. “Adults with psychopathic traits show low levels of expected guilt, but consider immoral acts to be wrong. However, in our study, adolescents with high CU levels show poor levels of guilt and judge immoral acts to be less wrong,” explains Margarida Vasconcelos, lead author .

However, researchers have found evidence of a dissociation between moral emotions and moral judgment, that is, between feelings of guilt and judgment of immoral acts. “Even in adolescents with subclinical levels of calloused-unemotional features, this dissociation, typical of adult psychopathy, occurs during development,” explains study coordinator Ana Seara Cardoso.

The results of the study will “contribute to the development of a rigorous antisocial behavior model” and “enable the development of intervention goals that promote rehabilitation and the early prevention of antisocial behavior,” says Ana Seara Cardoso.

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More information:
Margarida Vasconcelos, et al. Callused-unemotional characteristics Moderate expected guilt and falsehood judgments against everyday moral transgressions in adolescents, limits in psychiatry (2021). DOI: 10.3389 / fpsyt.2021.625328 Provided by the University of Coimbra

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