A study examining the perception of victim distress signals among children with psychopathic traits indicates that these children have the capacity to identify and respond to the victim’s distress, but these children may have their “distress radar” turned to “low”.

A review of: van Baardewijk, Y., Stegge, H., Bushman, B., & Vermeiren, R. (2009). Psychopathic traits, victim distress and aggression in children Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2008.02023.x

Yesterday, in my review of an article examining shame and guilt in preschool depression, I commented on a interesting unrelated finding: children with high levels of disruptive behavior problems displayed low levels of guilt and guilt reparation. According to their parents, these kids simply didn’t feel bad about their actions and did not feel a need to seek reparations (e.g., say I’m sorry). I mentioned that this was consistent with views on conduct disorders and psychopathic traits. Children with these type of conduct problems appear to have a deficit in their ability to respond to other people’s distress. But a common question regarding such psychopathic traits is… Do these children recognize the distress and just don’t care? Or do they simply don’t even see that the victims are in distress?

In a recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, a Dutch team of researchers reported the results of an ingenious experimental study that examined whether children with psychopathic traits were able to recognize and respond to the distress of others.

In the study the authors had a group of 228 children (mean age 10) complete a measure of psychopathic traits and play a competitive computer game against a simulated opponent (the children believed that the opponent was a real person but in fact the opponent did not exist). The kids were told that they were playing a game against another kid from a different school. During the game, the children had the opportunity to send a blast of loud noise to the opponent after winning. Half of the kids received a written message from the opponent indicating that the noise was distressing. The other half received a message from the opponent, but there was no mention of distress.

The results:

There was a main effect of psychopathy. Those children with higher level of psychopathy were more aggressive during the game (sending more intense noise blasts) than kids with lower levels of psychopathic trait. There was no main effect of “distress message”. That is, the presence of a distress signal by the opponent (mentioned that he/she was distressed by the noise) did not affect the average noise intensity used by the entire group. However, this was not always the case, because there was a strong interaction between psychopathic traits and the distress message.

As you can see above, in the absence of the distress message, children with more psychopathic traits were more likely to use higher intensity noise than children without psychopathic traits. In contrast, when the distress message was present, psychopathic traits was not associated with noise intensity. That is, when providing with a clear distress signal, these kids were not more likely to be aggressive than kids with lower levels of psychopathic traits. The authors state:

We can thus conclude that children with psychopathic traits are indeed prone to act aggressively, but also that this aggression is dynamic and is dependent upon circumstances. In fact, aggression can be attenuated in children with psychopathic tendencies if they are stimulated to focus on their victim’s pain and discomfort.

This last sentence by the authors is key because it raises a number of issues. First, a unique feature of this study is that the authors manipulated the nature of the distress signal so that the children could not avoid it or ‘miss it’. The distress was presented in writing as part of the game procedure. So it is possible that kids with psychopathic traits can respond to these distress signals but only if these signals are salient enough during very controlled conditions. It may be that during the chaos of real life (a school yard for example) these kids have too many distractions during a transgression to be able to attend to the distress signals. While this is encouraging, in that it suggests that interventions focused on enhancing these kids’ sensitivity to stress signals could impact aggressive tendencies, there is one item of bad news. The kids with psychopathic traits were more likely to be aggressive overall. Although these kids were able to regulate these aggressive tendencies when presented with salient distress signals from the victim, this regulation happened after the initial offense. That is, at best, these kids seem to regulate aggression in response to stress signals. This is certainly an adaptive skill, as many times we are unaware that we are hurting someone and we change our behavior in response to indications of distress. But most often our regulation occurs in the absence of stress signals. That is, we usually regulate our frustration and anger before we hurt someone; before we have the opportunity to hear the distress from the victim.
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