Study: youth with psychopathic traits mask intense emotions

By Susan Gonsalves
June 1st, 2015

Not all psychopaths are cold, callous and unfeeling. Nor are they untreatable.

A new study by University of Vermont Professor Timothy Stickle, Ph.D. and graduate student Andrew Gill showed that a subset of youth exhibiting severe anti-social behaviors who were classified as callous and unemotional (CU) are actually highly anxious, depressed and distressed.

The researchers studied 150 male and female youth ages 11 to 17 housed in juvenile detention centers whose behavior puts them at risk of developing psychopathic traits as adults.

The research subjects were put into three different subgroups. One group, termed “primary psychopathy,” included individuals with low empathy and insensitivity to others. The “secondary psychopathy,” group was comprised of youth with a lot of unregulated emotion while the third set was classified as “low psychopathy delinquent.”

The results, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, indicate that some of the youth, especially girls, are susceptible to fear and negative feelings and are at risk of developing clinical levels of depression, according to Stickle.

Stickle said they were able to identify subgroups within the study sample by using testing instruments that looked at a range of personality and emotional traits. “It’s very important to look beyond one dimension of traits. There is an opportunity to intervene differently from what you usually employ with anti social youth or those with conduct behavior problems,” he said.

For example, instead of using rewards and punishments to try to change aggressive or psychopathic behavior, treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy can be helpful, he said.

And, contrary to the tendency among some individuals in the justice system to think these youth are unable to change and are destined to become lifelong criminals, Stickle believes taking a different approach could alter the path.

“Here’s an opportunity to help youth manage their emotions,” Stickle said. “There’s the possibility to reduce some of their anti social behaviors… It’s likely at least some of the vulnerability begins during childhood or adolescence.”

Treating youth with callous unemotional traits may affect sentencing decisions and not only impact the individual but society at large.

“Psychologists must be involved in their assessment process,” Stickle said. “We need to help steer youth towards services that are more likely to be effective.”

The researcher noted that he is not surprised by the study’s results and that other research has shown that some adults with psychopathic traits can also demonstrate empathy and emotional distress.

He has plans for further exploration in this realm. Some of his research projects include studying the link between psychopathic traits, trauma and substance abuse; examining how the causes of antisocial behavior may differ between girls and boys; and trying to distinguish childhood maltreatment in some of the emotional disregulation patterns.

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