Critical Review of “Callous-Unemotional Traits and Antisocial Behavior among Adolescents”

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In “Callous-Unemotional Traits and Antisocial Behavior among Adolescents: The Role of Self-Serving Cognitions,” published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Van Leeuwen, Rodgers, Gibbs, and Chabrol (2014) conducted a cross-sectional research to determine the interconnections among the variables of self-serving cognitions, callous-unemotional traits, and adolescent antisocial behavior. Antisocial actions are social and health concerns as they increase the risk for interpersonal violence and psychopathic tendencies (Van Leeuwen et al., 2014). A summary of the objectives, concepts, theories, arguments, methods, evidence, and results is presented followed by a critical discussion of callous traits and self-serving cognitions plus the value of family relationships in the development of antisocial behavior.

Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) aimed to test two competing models on the indirect influences of self-serving cognitive distortions on callous-unemotional traits and antisocial actions and the function of gender as a moderator of these relationships. Callous-unemotional traits pertain to an egocentric interpersonal style, a heartless perception of others, low empathy and emotions, as well as lack of accountability and remorse (Van Leeuwen et al., 2014, p. 229). Self-serving cognitive distortions refer to egocentric primary ideas wherein one’s views and needs are seen as more important than others, whereas secondary cognitive distortions are pre- or post-rationalizations regarding antisocial actions to ease guilt and empathy (e.g. blaming others, mislabeling or minimizing that the antisocial behavior caused no harm or that it is admirable or acceptable, and thinking of the worst) (Van Leeuwen et al., 2014, p. 230).  The first model of moral cognitive, also called social information processing, theory states that self-serving beliefs would serve as mediators between personality factors and social aggression (Van Leeuwen et al., 2014, p. 230).  The second model from Beck’s cognitive framework asserts that callous-unemotional traits mediate self-serving ideas and antisocial activities aggression (Van Leeuwen et al., 2014, p. 230).  Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) argued that when adolescents think about situations in ways that serve only their interests, they may become markedly callous in interacting with others and justify violent acts, thereby resorting in antisocial behaviors. What is in their mind with respect to their importance can strongly affect their actions.

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The evidence from their cross-sectional methods supported the aforementioned models. Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) collected survey data from a sampling of 972 male and female adolescents who had the mean age of 17 years old and came from a population of 277 public schools. The questionnaires consisted of self-reports, specifically the Questionnaire de Délinquance Autorévélée (QDAR) for the measurement of antisocial acts, French version of Youth Psychopathic traits Inventory’s (YPI) Affective subscale for callous-unemotional traits, and the French translation of The How I Think Questionnaire (HIT-Q) for self-serving cognitive distortions. Findings showed support for both models which indicate the possibility for two pathways of disorderly conduct. Regardless of the direction of action (i.e. which came first, either self-serving cognitions of callous traits), self-serving cognitions performed noteworthy indirect effects (Van Leeuwen et al., 2014, p. 234). The addition of skewed selfish perceptions can result in the acting out of callous-emotional traits through antisocial actions. Furthermore, gender may moderate the impact of self-serving cognitive distortions when the latter is a strong mediator of the relationship between callous-unemotional traits and antisocial behavior (Van Leeuwen et al., 2014, p. 234).  Gender-specific pathways suggest gendered approaches to youth conduct disorders.

By offering two pathways, the work of Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) fits into the wider literature by explaining alternative relationships that contribute to conduct disorder among the youth. Clarifying the role of cognitive processes in antisociality can lead to evidence-based frameworks in conducting prevention programs apart from designing therapies for aggressive or antisocial youth. Psychologists can examine how to help the youth change these self-serving cognitions which may have improved effects on cognitive and behavioral therapies that target the control of callous-unemotional traits. Furthermore, clinicians may further examine the factors that can contribute to these cognitions for comprehensive treatment approaches.

Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) have sufficient literature support that makes their arguments on the interactions among self-serving cognitions, callous-unemotional traits, and adolescent antisocial behavior persuasive; however, differences in kinds of aggression must also be considered. Sukhodolsky and Ruchkin (2004) offer evidence on the connection between individual beliefs and aggression. They studied juvenile offenders and high school students in Russia and determined that when participants had higher beliefs about physical aggression as the right conflict-management action and higher anger levels, they exhibited higher numbers of violent acts (Sukhodolsky & Ruchkin, 2004). Furthermore, when physical aggression was eliminated, deviancy approval was strongly associated with nonaggressive antisocial actions and not anger or beliefs that allow aggression (Sukhodolsky & Ruchkin, 2004). The study suggested that self-serving justifications increase unemotional or callous reactions and antisocial behaviors. The earlier study of Chabrol, Van Leeuwen, Rodgers, and Gibbs (2011) on the same sample provided the groundwork for Van Leeuwen et al. (2014)’s variable interactions. Findings showed that moral reasoning in addition to cognitive empathy explained differences in delinquent behaviors apart from psycho-pathological and social risk factors (Chabrol et al., 2011, p. 891). Cognitive empathy, moreover, became a better predictor of behaviors among females (Chabrol et al., 2011, p. 891). Reasoning that is based on selfish ideals and poor cognitive empathy can raise the risk of antisocial actions. Koolen, Poorthuis, and van Aken (2012), however, wanted a nuanced understanding of youth aggression. They examined the mechanisms underlying reactive (i.e. reaction to perceived or real threats) and proactive aggression (i.e. planned action for instrumental benefits or domination) using a cross-sectional study that combined self-report questionnaires and peer nominations. Findings showed that self-centered and disagreeable predispositions predicted proactive aggression, while blaming others and reduced conscientiousness and agreeableness predicted reactive aggression. Koolen et al. (2012) underscore the relevance of understanding different kinds of aggressions as they can impact the design of different therapies for childhood aggression.

Furthermore, the study of Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) offers important contributions to the treatment of serious conduct disorders among adolescents. Frick, Ray, Thornton, and Kahn (2014) conducted a comprehensive review on callous and unemotional traits and classifying youth with severe conduct problems. Their findings indicated that children with severe conduct problems plus high callous-unemotional traits had unique genetic, social, cognitive, and personality attributes which suggest diverse etiological factors that drive problematic behaviors (Frick et al., 2014). High callous-unemotional traits are also at high risk for more severe and lasting antisocial behaviors even after controlling conduct severity, age of onset for problematic traits, and comorbid illnesses (Frick et al., 2014).  Furthermore, intensive interventions that are customized to the unique emotional and cognitive features of each child are more effective than general programs (Frick et al., 2014). Such outcomes support the work of Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) which highlighted the importance of identifying youth with high cognitive distortions to provide early intervention and appropriate treatments.

Lastly, as Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) pointed out, their study is limited by not considering other socio-family risk factors. Giannotta and Rydell (2016) examined the impact of child defiant actions on antisocial adolescent events and the moderating effect of gender and parent-child relationships. They learned that initial and increases in child impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and oppositional actions affected antisocial youth behaviors.  The rise in oppositional behaviors remained predictive for girls only, although the deterioration of the quality of parent–child relationship from childhood to adolescence moderated how child hyperactive behaviors predicted youth antisociality. Dogan, Conger, Kim, and Masyn (2007) further supported in another study that adolescent perceptions of their parents’ behaviors and disrupted parenting affected the initiation and worsening of antisocial behavior. Families, especially parents, may influence either callous traits or cognitions or both. In turn, family relationships can moderate how cognitions and personalities develop antisocial and delinquent actions.

The study of Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) provided vital contributions to the exploration of the mechanisms of youth antisocial behaviors. Self-serving cognitions can play a vital function in how callous-unemotional traits may initiate or worsen anti-social acts. As a result, their research can improve the classification of at-risk children and adolescents for early intervention while also enhancing the customization of therapies for violent youth. Nonetheless, as other studies showed, the kinds of aggression must also be determined for more appropriate interventions. Likewise, family-based causes or moderators should be considered to understand the setting of antisocial actions and how family-level interventions may also help. Hence, Van Leeuwen et al. (2014) point out the need for future studies that enhance understanding for youth antisociality across groups and situations and the significant value of early and proper treatment for aggressive childhood and youth cognitions and behaviors.

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  1. 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.
  2. Dogan, S. J., Conger, R., Kim, K., & Masyn, K. E. (2007). Cognitive and parenting pathways in the transmission of antisocial behavior from parents to adolescents. Child Development, 78(1), 335-349.
  3. Giannotta, F., & Rydell, A. (2016). The prospective links between hyperactive/impulsive, inattentive, and oppositional-defiant behaviors in childhood and antisocial behavior in adolescence: The moderating influence of gender and the parent–child relationship quality. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 47(6), 857–870.
  4. Frick, P.J., Ray, J.V., Thornton, L.C., & Kahn, R.E. (2014). Can callous-unemotional traits enhance the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of serious conduct problems in children and adolescents? A comprehensive review. Psychological Bulletin, 140(1), 1-57.
  5. Koolen, S., Poorthuis, A., & van Aken, M. A. G. (2012). Cognitive distortions and self-regulatory personality traits associated with proactive and reactive aggression in early adolescence. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36(6), 776–787.
  6. Sukhodolsky, D.G. & Ruchkin, V.V. (2004). Association of normative beliefs and anger with aggression and antisocial behavior in Russian male juvenile offenders and high school students. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 32(2), 225-236.
  7. Van Leeuwen, N., Rodgers, R. F., Gibbs, J. C., & Chabrol, H. (2014).  Callous-unemotional traits and antisocial behavior among adolescents: The role of self-serving cognitions. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 42, 229-237.
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