Disruptive behavior disorders and psychopathic traits in adolescents: Empathy-related responses to witnessing animal distress

Minet de Wied*, Wim Meeus, Anton van Boxtel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

Cruelty to animals is a symptom of conduct disorder and associated with psychopathic traits in childhood. One of the factors thought to contribute to animal cruelty is reduced empathy and concern for the well-being of animals. A first aim of this study was to examine empathy towards animals in distress in male adolescents with disruptive behavior disorders (DBD) and high or low psychopathic traits, and normal controls (NC). Psychopathic traits were assessed by the Antisocial Process Screening Device (APSD). Respondents were exposed to a short film clip depicting a baby bear in distress. Heart rate (HR) responses were monitored during film exposure. Afterwards, respondents were asked to report the emotions they had observed and experienced. Contrary to expectations based on research on human empathy, no group differences were found in empathy-related responses to witnessing animal distress. Both DBD groups and normal controls observed equal levels of distress in the baby bear, experienced as much empathy and sympathy, and showed similar levels of HR reduction during the most dramatic scene. Results suggest that empathy for humans does not generalize to animals, and vice versa. A second aim was to examine the associations between empathy-related responses and the broad concept of psychopathy as well as its dimensions. The relationships were different and for the most part reversed in the NC and DBD groups. Group proved to be an important moderating factor, indicating that results obtained within a sample of healthy adolescents do not generalize to adolescents with DBD, and vice versa.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2021

Keywords

  • Empathy
  • Disruptive behavior disorders
  • Adolescents
  • Callous-unemotional traits
  • Psychopathy
  • CALLOUS-UNEMOTIONAL TRAITS
  • INTERPERSONAL VIOLENCE
  • FILM CLIPS
  • CHILDREN
  • CRUELTY
  • DIFFERENTIATION
  • ASSOCIATIONS
  • ATTACHMENT
  • ATTENTION
  • EMOTION

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