Fear Conditioning Deficits in Children and Adolescents with Psychopathic Traits: a Study in a Clinical Population

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Abstract

Deficits in fear conditioning related to psychopathy have been widely studied in adults. However, evidence in children and adolescents is scarce and inconsistent. This research aimed to expand knowledge about fear conditioning in psychopathy and its dimensions in child and early adolescent clinical populations. Participants were 45 boys (outpatients) aged 6–14 years (M = 10.59, SD = 2.04). They were assessed with the parents’ and teachers’ versions of the Child Problematic Traits Inventory (CPTI). A fear conditioning paradigm (Neumann et al., in Biological Psychology, 79(3), 337–342, 2008) for children and adolescents was used. Conditioned stimuli (CS+ and CS-) were geometric shapes and the unconditioned stimulus (US) was an unpleasant sound of metal scraping on slate (83 dB). Difference scores (CS+ minus CS-) in skin conductance responses (SCR) and self-reported cognitive and affective measures were considered as indices of fear conditioning. Results showed that: a) deficits in fear conditioning were related to some psychopathy dimensions but not to psychopathy as a unitary construct; b) the Impulsivity-Need for Stimulation dimension was a predictor of impaired fear conditioning at a cognitive level; c) the interaction of Callous-Unemotional and Impulsivity-Need for Stimulation dimensions was a significant predictor of impaired electrodermal fear conditioning; d) by contrast, the Grandiose-Deceitful dimension, was marginally associated with a greater electrodermal fear conditioning. In conclusion, psychopathy dimensions and their interactions, but not psychopathy as a whole, predicted deficits in fear conditioning as measured by SCR and cognitive indices. These findings confirm the notion that psychopathic traits are associated with deficits in fear conditioning in child and adolescent clinical populations and provide support for a multidimensional approach to youth psychopathy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-25
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment
Volume44
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2022

Keywords

  • Adolescents
  • Child problematic traits inventory
  • Children
  • Fear conditioning
  • Psychopathy
  • Skin conductance

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