Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
in youth, psychopathy is often represented by callous-unemotional traits, characterized by a lack of guilt and empathy. While justice-involved youth can exhibit such traits, less research has been done in adolescents than has been with adults in the justice system. Still, previous research supports that callous-unemotional traits in particular can predict higher risk for adverse outcomes and violent behavior in youth. Various vulnerabilities and experiences contribute to the development of callous-unemotional traits, and while some individuals with psychopathic traits are thought to have been born with an innate inability to feel empathy (primary psychopathy), others may experience psychological distress in response to trauma and emotionally desensitize to cope (secondary psychopathy). Prior research shows exposure to community violence, a common and chronic experience for justice-involved adolescents, is one such traumatic event associated with callous-unemotional traits, but there remains a need to better understand how these variables influence one another over time in serious adolescent offenders, and how aggressive behaviors may be affected. Information provided by male adolescent offenders in the Pathways to Desistance study was used to investigate 1) whether youth displayed differing patterns of psychological distress that may indicate primary and secondary pathways to callous-unemotional traits, 2) how exposure to community violence and callous-unemotional traits influence one another over time across youth with primary versus secondary pathways, and 3) whether there were differences in the associations between exposure to community violence, callous-unemotional traits, and violent offending in later adolescence/early adulthood across the primary versus secondary groups. Results from a latent profile analysis resulted in larger groups of youth with low and medium levels of psychological distress, and one small group of youth with uniquely high distress. a subsequent multigroup cross lag panel model incorporating the low and medium distress participants revealed differences in the associations between callous-unemotional traits and exposure to community violence as a function of distress level. Lastly, callous-unemotional traits did not predict later aggressive offending in either group, but exposure to community violence negatively predicted later aggressive offending for youth with higher distress levels. Results support the use of psychological distress levels to better understand the longitudinal associations between exposure to community violence and callous-unemotional traits, but did not indicate increased callous-unemotional traits or exposure to community violence could positively predict later violent offending. Future studies related to the development of psychopathic traits in youth should continue to further explore what types of distress specifically may increase vulnerability for youth developing callous-unemotional traits as a way to cope with adverse experiences. Clinically, connections between violence exposure and emotional desensitization should be utilized in trauma-informed therapies with adolescents involved in the justice system who are at high risk for trauma and distress.
Sargent, Elizabeth, "The Longitudinal Relationship between Callous-Unemotional Traits and Exposure to Community Violence: Examining Primary and Secondary Psychopathy in Serious Adolescent Offenders" (2020). Master's Theses. 4349.
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Copyright © 2020 Elizabeth Sargent