Can Callous-Unemotional Traits be Reliably Measured in Preschoolers?

Abstract

Callous-unemotional (CU) traits designate an important subgroup of antisocial individuals at risk for early-starting, severe, and persistent conduct problems, but this construct has received limited attention among young children. The current study evaluated the factor structure, psychometric properties, and validity of scores on a comprehensive measure of CU traits, the Inventory of Callous-Unemotional Traits (ICU), in relation to measures of antisocial/prosocial behavior and emotional processing, administered to preschool children. The sample included 214 boys (52 %) and girls (48 %, M age = 4.7, SD = 0.69) recruited from mainstream and high-risk preschools. Confirmatory factor analyses supported a two-factor structure including callous and uncaring dimensions from 12 of the 24 original ICU items. Scores on the parent- and teacher-reported ICU were internally consistent and combined CU scores showed expected associations with an alternate measure of CU traits and measures of empathy, prosocial behavior, conduct problems, and aggression. Preschool children high on CU traits were less accurate, relative to children scoring low, in recognizing facial expressions. They were also less attentionally engaged by images of others in distress when co-occurring conduct problems presented. Findings extend the literature by supporting the psychometric properties of the ICU among young children, and open several avenues for studying early precursors to this severe personality disturbance.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Hawes et al. (2014b) found that the fit of the 2-factor (Callousness, Uncaring) bifactor model (χ2 = 86.57, df = 43, CFI = 0.97, TLI = 0.96, RMSEA = 0.06) was almost identical to that of the correlated two-factor model (χ2 = 100.21, df = 53, CFI = 0.97, TLI = 0.96, RMSEA = 0.06), providing support for a general CU factor. They reported on the correlated two-factor model in their study as it provided a more parsimonious model.

  2. 2.

    The high-risk preschool was operated by a non-profit organization whose aim is to strengthen vulnerable families and the “working poor” by providing essential educational, nutritional, and health support. Twelve children from the high-risk preschool resided in an on-campus group home following removal from their home or were classified by social services as being in need of services (i.e., family empowerment project) due to low socioeconomic status.

  3. 3.

    All analyses were repeated covarying sample, age, and sex. Results remained largely unchanged across primary study variables, with the exception of recognition of happy faces that reduced to nonsignificance (see note in Table 4).

  4. 4.

    Overall, high-risk children showed poorer performance on emotion tasks. Specifically, relative to mainstream children, high-risk children were significantly less accurate in recognizing all emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, fear, pain) on the static and dynamic faces tasks. On the emotional pictures dot-probe task, the average number of correct trial responses for mainstream children was 94 % whereas the average number for high-risk children was 72 %. Whereas children in the mainstream sample on average showed the expected positive facilitation to empathy pictures (M = 56.12, SD = 256.18 ms), the high-risk sample showed a negative facilitation similar to samples of incarcerated adolescents (M = −28.25, SD = 56.12; Kimonis et al. 2007, 2008a); however this difference was not statistically significant.

  5. 5.

    In order to be brief enough for young children, our version of the dot probe task did not include other emotional categories, and thus cannot speak to whether young children show more pervasive and generalized attentional orienting deficits than older youth.

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Acknowledgments

Author affiliations are not provided for political reasons. The country of Cyprus, where this research took place, is de facto partitioned into two main parts inhabited primarily by a Greek-Cypriot community in the South and a Turkish-Cypriot community in the North. Turkish-Cypriot institutions remain largely unrecognized by the Republic of Cyprus. This bi-communal study involved participants from both communities and was funded by an award provided to the first author by the Fulbright Commission of Cyprus. The views represented here do not reflect those of the Commission.

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All authors report no financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.

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Kimonis, E.R., Fanti, K.A., Anastassiou-Hadjicharalambous, X. et al. Can Callous-Unemotional Traits be Reliably Measured in Preschoolers?. J Abnorm Child Psychol 44, 625–638 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-015-0075-y

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Keywords

  • Callous-unemotional traits
  • Psychopathy
  • Conduct problems
  • With limited prosocial emotions
  • Preschool