Psychopathic traits in young clinical and forensic populations: assessment, and emotional and cognitive correlates

Student thesis: Doctoral thesis


Psychopathy is considered a chronic personality disorder whose characteristics manifest in early childhood and remain relatively stable throughout most of a lifetime. This disorder is characterized by a constellation of interpersonal (grandiose-deceitful; GD), affective (callousunemotional; CU), and behavioral (daring-impulsive; DI) characteristics, linked to a pattern of antisocial behavior based on the violation of others rights and social norms.
An ongoing debate is about whether youth psychopathy is better represented as a unitary construct, or instead a multidimensional one with two, three, or four factors, and how it generalizes crossculturally. In addition, the interest in the detection of possible emotional and cognitive deficits in psychopathy that alter normal socialization processes has increased exponentially. One of the supposed deficits is an impairment in fear conditioning processes evidenced by reduced physiological responses (e.g., electrodermal responses) to cues that predict a fear-evoking event, despite having a normal cognitive capacity to detect these associations. Another potential deficit is the inaccurate recognition of others emotions linked to inattention to others eyes. The research on these topics is very promising to understanding the etiological pathways to the development of psychopathic traits and implement interventions particularly at early ages when temperamental traits and behaviors are still malleable. However, the literature is still scarce and inconsistent.
This doctoral dissertation aimed to expand knowledge on the psychopathy construct, and more specifically, on assessment and emotional and cognitive correlates in children, adolescents, and youths from clinical and forensic samples. With this purpose in mind, three studies were conducted.
Study 1 expands previous work regarding the factor structure, reliability and validity of the Spanish version of the Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL:YV) in three samples of justice-involved youths. Study 2 and Study 3 are part of a larger, ongoing research program called EMPROLIMIT, aimed at analyzing psychopathic traits in male children and adolescents from a clinical sample.
Study 2 examined the relationship between psychopathic traits and fear conditioning, and Study 3 explored the association between CU traits, emotion recognition accuracy and visual behavior. Overall, the results from Study 1 revealed that the Spanish version of the PCL:YV showed: a) three-, and fourcorrelated factors models and a hierarchical four- factor model all achieved a good fit; b)adequate internal and inter-raters reliability, and c) adequate convergent and discriminantvalidity with other psychopathy rating scales, externalizing and internalizing psychopathological symptoms. The results from Study 2 indicated that: a) CU and DI traits were associated with deficits in emotional/electrodermal fear conditioning; and b) DI traits were related to difficulties at the cognitive level to learn the contingency between a threat cue and aversive stimulus.
The findings from Study 3 suggested that:
a) CU traits were unrelated with emotion recognition accuracy; and b) CU traits were associated with paying less attention to others¿ eyes area, particularly for fearful and sad expressions. In conclusion, this doctoral dissertation shows that the PCL:YV is represented better by three-, four- and hierarchical four-factors models and it is a reliable and valid instrument for the assessment of psychopathic traits in Spanish justice-involved youths. It also confirmed the proposed deficits in fear conditioning learning contexts at both emotional and cognitive levels as well as attentional deficits to the eyes of emotional expressions, despite a preserved emotion recognition accuracy. These results may help to design interventions that target underlying neurocognitive mechanisms related to psychopathy. Importantly, the results from all studies suggest that psychopathy dimensions could be rooted in distinct underlying etiologicdispositional factors with differentiated developmental pathways. In this sense, we conclude that psychopathy should be considered a multidimensional construct with valid three- and four- factorial structures. In addition, this dissertation highlights the importance and usefulness of multi-method and multi-informant approaches in the assessment of psychopathic traits in young populations.
Date of Award8 Apr 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRafael Torrubia Beltri (Director) & Beatriz Molinuevo Alonso (Director)

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