Perceptions of aggressive conflicts and others' distress in children with callous-unemotional traits: ‘I'll show you who's boss, even if you suffer and I get in trouble’

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Abstract

Background:

Children with callous-unemotional (CU) traits may have a particularly malevolent view of social conflicts and a pervasive insensitivity to others' distress. The current study examined whether children with CU traits have unique expectations and values regarding the consequences of aggressive conflicts and a ubiquitous lack of concern for others' feelings independent of co-occurring aggression.

Methods:

Participants were 96 (46 males, 50 females) children recruited from elementary schools within an urban city. Associations between CU traits and child reports of outcome expectancies/values following aggressive conflicts and facets of empathy were examined after controlling for aggression, academic abilities, and demographic covariates.

Results:

Children with higher CU traits were less likely to expect that aggression would result in victim suffering and feelings of remorse. After controlling for co-occurring aggression, children with higher CU traits were more likely to expect that aggression would result in peer dominance, while children with higher levels of aggression were more likely to expect that attacking others would reduce their aversive behavior. Children with higher CU traits were less concerned that aggressive behavior would result in punishment, victim suffering, and feelings of remorse. Moreover, children with higher CU traits reported lower levels of empathetic concern and sadness in response to others' distress outside of aggressive conflicts.

Conclusions:

Children with CU traits tend to minimize the extent to which aggression causes victim suffering and openly acknowledge caring less about distress and suffering in others. They are less intimidated by the possibility of being punished for aggressive behavior and tend to view aggression as an effective means for dominating others. In sum, children with CU traits have a particularly malicious social schema that may be difficult to change using conventional treatment methods.

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