Skip to main content
Log in

Distinct Empathy Profiles in Callous Unemotional and Autistic Traits: Investigating Unique and Interactive Associations with Affective and Cognitive Empathy

  • Published:
Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

Empathy deficits are a hallmark of both callous-unemotional (CU) and autistic traits. However, it is unclear whether each trait is associated with deficits in distinct empathy subcomponents. The aim of the current study was to investigate the main and interactive effects of CU and autistic traits in predicting affective and cognitive empathy. We used data of 163 children (Mage = 7.30, SD = 1.42, 44.2% girls), selected from a large community sample (N = 1652). To ensure variability in empathy, we recruited participants with either low (1 standard-deviation below the mean; n = 78) or average to high (n = 85) levels of empathy. Partial correlation and regression analysis revealed that autistic traits were negatively associated with cognitive empathy, whereas CU traits were negatively related with both cognitive and affective empathy. Importantly, this is the first study testing the moderating effects of gender, revealing that CU traits negatively predicted affective empathy only among girls high on autistic traits. Findings can be used to understand the different empathy profiles of children with CU or autistic traits, and inform the development of effective interventions.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Similar content being viewed by others

References

  • Aiken, L. S., West, S. G., & Reno, R. R. (1991). Multiple regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. Newbury Park: SAGE.

    Google Scholar 

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anastassiou-Hadjicharalambous, X., & Warden, D. (2008). Physiologically-indexed and self- perceived affective empathy in conduct-disordered children high and low on callous- unemotional traits. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 39(4), 503–517.

    Google Scholar 

  • Asscher, J. J., van Vugt, E. S., Stams, G. J. J., Deković, M., Eichelsheim, V. I., & Yousfi, S. (2011). The relationship between juvenile psychopathic traits, delinquency and (violent) recidivism: A meta-analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(11), 1134–1143.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baron-Cohen, S. (2000). Theory of mind and autism: A review. International Review of Research in Mental Retardation, 23, 169–184.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Autism: The empathizing–systemizing (E-S) theory. Annuals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156(1), 68–80.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The empathy quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(2), 163–175.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blair, R. J. R. (2005). Responding to the emotions of others: Dissociating forms of empathy through the study of typical and psychiatric populations. Consciousness and Cognition, 14(4), 698–718.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blair, R. J. R. (2008). Fine cuts of empathy and the amygdala: Dissociable deficits in psychopathy and autism. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(1), 157–170.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blair, J. R., (2013) The neurobiology of psychopathic traits in youths. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 14 (11), 786–799.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bölte, S., Poustka, F., & Constantino, J. N. (2008). Assessing autistic traits: Cross-cultural validation of the social responsiveness scale (SRS). Autism Research, 1(6), 354–363.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bons, D., van den Broek, E., Scheepers, F., Herpers, P., Rommelse, N., & Buitelaaar, J. K. (2013). Motor, emotional, and cognitive empathy in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder and conduct disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 41(3), 425–443.

  • Broekhof, E., Ketelaar, L., Stockmann, L., van Zijp, A., Bos, M. G., & Rieffe, C. (2015). The understanding of intentions, desires and beliefs in young children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(7), 2035–2045.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Chabrol, H., van Leeuwen, N., Rodgers, R. F., & Gibbs, J. C. (2011). Relations between self- serving cognitive distortions, psychopathic traits, and antisocial behavior in a non-clinical sample of adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 887–892.

    Google Scholar 

  • Constantino, J. N., & Gruber, C. P. (2012). Social responsiveness scale (SRS). Torrance: Western Psychological Services.

    Google Scholar 

  • Constantino, J. N., & Todd, R. D. (2003). Autistic traits in the general population: A twin study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 60(5), 524–530.

    Google Scholar 

  • Constantino, J. N., Przybeck, T., Friesen, D., & Todd, R. D. (2000). Reciprocal social behavior in children with and without pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 21(1), 2–11.

    Google Scholar 

  • Constantino, J. N., Davis, S. A., Todd, R. D., Schindler, M. K., Gross, M. M., Brophy, S. L., Metzger, L. M., Shoushtari, C. S., Splinter, R., & Reich, W. (2003). Validation of a brief quantitative measure of autistic traits: Comparison of the social responsiveness scale with the autism diagnostic interview- revised. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(4), 427–433.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dadds, M. R., El Masry, Y., Wimalaweera, S., & Guastella, A. J. (2008). Reduced eye gaze explains, “fear blindness” in childhood psychopathic traits. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47, 455–463.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dadds, M. R., Hawes, D. J., Frost, A. D., Vassallo, V., Bunn, P., Hunter, K., & Merz, S. (2008b). The measurement of empathy in children using parent reports. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 39, 111–122.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dadds, M. R., Hawes, D. J., Frost, A. D., Vassallo, S., Bunn, P., Hunter, K., & Merz, S. (2009). Learning to ‘talk the talk’: The relationship of psychopathic traits to deficits in empathy across childhood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(5), 599–606.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dadds, M. R., Kimonis, E. R., Schollar-Root, O., Moul, C., & Hawes, D. J. (2018). Are impairments in emotion recognition a core feature of callous–unemotional traits? Testing the primary versus secondary variants model in children. Development and Psychopathology, 30(1), 67–77.

    Google Scholar 

  • De Los Reyes, A., & Kazdin, A. E. (2005). Informant discrepancies in the assessment of childhood psychopathology: A critical review, theoretical framework, and recommendations for further study. Psychological Bulletin, 131(4), 483–509.

    Google Scholar 

  • Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathy. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3(2), 71–100.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dziobek, I., Rogers, K., Fleck, S., Bahnemann, M., Heekeren, H. R., Wolf, O. T., & Convit, A. (2008). Dissociation of cognitive and emotional empathy in adults with Asperger syndrome using the multifaceted empathy test (MET). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(3), 464–473.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eisenberg, N., Eggum, N. D., & Di Giunta, L. (2010). Empathy-related responding: Associations with prosocial behavior, aggression, and intergroup relations. Social Issues and Policy Review, 4(1), 143–180.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Ezpeleta, L., Osa, N. D. L., Granero, R., Penelo, E., & Domènech, J. M. (2013). Inventory of callous-unemotional traits in a community sample of preschoolers. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 42(1), 91–105.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fanti, K. A. (2013). Individual, social, and behavioral factors associated with co-occurring conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 41, 811–824.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fanti, K. A., Colins, O. F., Andershed, H., & Sikki, M. (2016a). Stability and change in callous–unemotional traits: Longitudinal associations with potential individual and contextual risk and protective factors. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 87(1), 62–75.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fanti, K. A., Panayiotou, G., Kyranides, M. N., & Avraamides, M. N. (2016b). Startle modulation during violent films: Association with callous–unemotional traits and aggressive behavior. Motivation and Emotion, 40(2), 321–333.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fanti, K. A., Panayiotou, G., Lazarou, C., Michael, R., & Georgiou, G. (2016c). The better of two evils? Evidence that conduct problem children with or without callous-unemotional traits score on opposite directions on physiological and behavioral measures of fearfulness. Development and Psychopathology, 1–14.

  • Frick, P. J. (2004). Inventory of callous-unemotional traits. Unpublished rating scale, University of New Orleans.

  • Frick, P. J., & Morris, A. S. (2004). Temperament and developmental pathways to conduct problems. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33(1), 54–68.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frick, P. J., Cornell, A. H., Bodin, S. D., Dane, H. E., Barry, C. T., & Loney, B. R. (2003). Callous-unemotional traits and developmental pathways to severe conduct problems. Developmental Psychology, 39(2), 246–260.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frick, P. J., Stickle, T. R., Dandreaux, D. M., Farrell, J. M., & Kimonis, E. R. (2005). Callous– Unemotional traits in predicting the severity and stability of conduct problems and delinquency. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 33(4), 471–487.

    Google Scholar 

  • Georgiou, G., Fanti, K. A., & Kimonis, E. (2018). What do others feel? Cognitive empathy deficits explain the association between callous- unemotional traits and conduct problems among preschool children. European Journal of Developmental Psychology., 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/17405629.2018.1478810.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Goldenfeld, N., Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2005). Empathizing and systemizing in males, females and autism. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 2(6), 338–345.

    Google Scholar 

  • Greimel, E., Schulte-Rüther, M., Kircher, T., Kamp-Becker, I., Remschmidt, H., Fink, G. R., Herpertz-Dahlmann, B., & Konrad, K. (2010). Neural mechanisms of empathy in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder and their fathers. Neuroimage, 49(1), 1055–1065.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hill, E. L., & Frith, U. (2003). Understanding autism: Insights from mind and brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B. Biological Sciences, 358(1430), 281–289.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hoffman, M. L. (2008). Empathy and prosocial behavior. Handbook of Emotions, 3, 440–455.

    Google Scholar 

  • Holmbeck, G. N. (2002). Post-hoc probing of significant moderational and mediational effects in studies of pediatric populations. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 27(1), 87–96.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jones, A. P., Happé, F. G. E., Gilbert, F., Burnett, S., & Viding, E. (2010). Feeling, caring, knowing: Different types of empathy deficit in boys with psychopathic tendencies and autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 51, 1188–1197.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Kahn, R. E., Frick, P. J., Golmaryami, F. N., & Marsee, M. A. (2017). The moderating role of anxiety in the associations of callous-unemotional traits with self-report and laboratory measures of affective and cognitive empathy. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 45(3), 583–596.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kimonis, E. R., Fanti, K. A., Anastassiou-Hadjicharalambous, X., Mertan, B., Goulter, N., & Katsimicha, E. (2015). Can callous-unemotional traits be reliably measured in preschoolers? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 1–14.

  • Klapwijk, E. T., Aghajani, M., Colins, O. F., Marijnissen, G. M., Popma, A., van Lang, N. D., van der Wee, N. J., & Vermeiren, R. R. (2016). Different brain responses during empathy in autism spectrum disorders versus conduct disorder and callous-unemotional traits. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(6), 737–747.

    Google Scholar 

  • Knafo, A. Z., Waxler, C., Davidov, M., van Hulle, C., Robinson, J. L., & Rhee, S. H. (2009). Empathy in early childhood. Annuals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1167(1), 103–114.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lecavalier, L. (2006). Behavioral and emotional problems in young people with pervasive developmental disorders: Relative prevalence, effects of subject characteristics, and empirical classification. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(8), 1101–1114.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leno, V. C., Charman, T., Pickles, A., Jones, C. R., Baird, G., Happé, F., & Simonoff, E. (2015). Callous–unemotional traits in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 207(5), 392–399.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lockwood, P. L., Bird, G., Bridge, M., & Viding, E. (2013). Dissecting empathy: High levels of psychopathic and autistic traits are characterized by difficulties in different social information processing domains. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 760.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Lombardo, M. V., Barnes, J. L., Wheelwright, S. J., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2007). Self-referential cognition and empathy in autism. PLoS One, 2(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000883.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marshall, L. E., & Marshall, W. L. (2011). Empathy and antisocial behaviour. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 22(5), 742–759.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moul, C., Hawes, D. J., & Dadds, M. R. (2017). Mapping the developmental pathways of child conduct problems through the neurobiology of empathy. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.03.016.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mullins-Nelson, J. L., Salekin, R. T., & Leistico, A. M. R. (2006). Psychopathy, empathy, and perspective-taking ability in a community sample: Implications for the successful psychopathy concept. International Journal of Forensic Mental Health, 5(2), 133–149.

    Google Scholar 

  • Muñoz, L. C., Qualter, P., & Padgett, G. (2011). Empathy and bullying: Exploring the influence of callous-unemotional traits. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 42(2), 183–196.

    Google Scholar 

  • Murphy, B. A. (2017). The Griffith empathy measure does not validly distinguish between cognitive and affective empathy in children. Australian Psychologist. https://doi.org/10.1111/ap.12336.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • O'Nions, E., Sebastian, C. L., McCrory, E., Chantiluke, K., Happé, F., & Viding, E. (2014). Neural bases of theory of mind in children with autism spectrum disorders and children with conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits. Developmental Science, 17(5), 786–796.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Pardini, D. A. (2006). The callousness pathway to severe violent delinquency. Aggressive Behavior, 32(6), 590–598.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pardini, D. A., Lochman, J. E., & Frick, P. J. (2003). Callous/unemotional traits and social-cognitive processes in adjudicated youths. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(3), 364–371.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pasalich, D. S., Dadds, M. R., & Hawes, D. J. (2014). Cognitive and affective empathy in children with conduct problems: Additive and interactive effects of callous–unemotional traits and autism spectrum disorders symptoms. Psychiatry Research, 219(3), 625–630.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pijper, J., de Wied, M., van Rijn, S., van Goozen, S., Swaab, H., & Meeus, W. (2016). Callous unemotional traits, autism spectrum disorder symptoms and empathy in boys with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Psychiatry Research, 245, 340–345.

    Google Scholar 

  • Piven, J., Palmer, P., Jacobi, D., Childress, D., & Arndt, S. (1997). Broader autism phenotype: Evidence from a family history study of multiple-incidence autism families. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(2), 185–190.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rogers, J., Viding, E., Blair, R. J., Frith, U., & Happé, F. (2006). Autism spectrum disorder and psychopathy: Shared cognitive underpinnings or double hit? Psychological Medicine, 36(12), 1789–1798.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schrammel, F., Pannasch, S., Graupner, S. T., Mojzisch, A., & Velichkovsky, B. M. (2009). Virtual friend or threat? The effects of facial expression and gaze interaction on psychophysiological responses and emotional experience. Psychophysiology, 46(5), 922–931.

  • Schwenck, C., Mergenthaler, J., Keller, K., Zech, J., Salehi, S., Taurines, R., Romanos, M., Schecklmann, m., Schneider, W., Warnke, A., & Freitag, C. M. (2012). Empathy in children with autism and conduct disorder: Group specific profiles and developmental aspects. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53(6), 651–659.

    Google Scholar 

  • Smith, A. (2006) Cognitive empathy and emotional empathy in human behavior and evolution. The Psychological Record 56 (1), 3–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wall, T. D., Frick, P. J., Fanti, K. A., Kimonis, E. R., & Lordos, A. (2016). Factors differentiating callous-unemotional children with and without conduct problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(8), 976–983.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weng, S. J., Carrasco, M., Swartz, J. R., Wiggins, J. L., Kurapati, N., Liberzon, I., ... & Monk, C. S. (2011). Neural activation to emotional faces in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(3), 296–305.

  • Young, S. K., Fox, N. A., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (1999). The relations between temperament and empathy in 2-year-olds. Developmental Psychology, 35(5), 1189–1197.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., Wagner, E., & Chapman, M. (1992). Development of concern for others. Developmental Psychology, 28(1), 126–136.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Giorgos Georgiou.

Ethics declarations

Funding

The project was funded by 2014 Leventis Foundation grants and the University of Cyprus.

Conflict of Interest

Georgiou Giorgos, Demetriou A. Chara and Fanti A. Kostas declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in the study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and national research committee (Centre of Educational Research and Assessment of Cyprus, Pedagogical Institute, Ministry of Education and Culture and Cyprus National Bioethics Committee) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Georgiou, G., Demetriou, C.A. & Fanti, K.A. Distinct Empathy Profiles in Callous Unemotional and Autistic Traits: Investigating Unique and Interactive Associations with Affective and Cognitive Empathy. J Abnorm Child Psychol 47, 1863–1873 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-019-00562-1

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-019-00562-1

Keywords

Navigation