Relation between Adolescent Callous-unemotional Traits and Subjective and Physiological Reactions to Social Exclusion
Augenstein, Tara M
De Los Reyes, Andres
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Callous-unemotional (CU) traits (e.g., lack of empathy and guilt toward others) occur dimensionally, across the age range, and in both clinical and nonclinical populations. Among adolescents with co-occurring conduct problems, elevated CU traits are linked to multiple negative outcomes. Yet, little is known about the potential negative or positive impact of CU traits among adolescents at low-risk for displaying conduct problems. Prior research suggests the unique constellation of cognitive, emotional, and biological characteristics associated with CU traits may buffer adolescents’ negative emotional reactions to distressing social situations. In the current study, I tested this idea by examining whether the severity of CU traits impacted adolescents’ experience as victims of a negative social interaction, namely social exclusion. Specifically, I examined the impact of CU traits on adolescents’ self-reported distress following social exclusion, and physiological arousal during exclusion. Participants included a mixed community-based and clinical sample of 86 adolescent-parent dyads. Dyads completed measures of adolescent social anxiety and CU traits. Next, adolescents completed a computerized social exclusion task during which I collected measures of adolescent physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate). Adolescents then completed a subjective distress scale to assess mood and distress following the social exclusion task. Adolescent males and those with clinically elevated levels of social anxiety displayed significantly higher CU traits relative to females or those without clinically elevated levels of social anxiety. Surprisingly, adolescent CU traits were not significantly related to differences in self-reported distress following exclusion. Adolescents’ physiological arousal varied throughout the social exclusion task, with adolescents experiencing increased arousal transitioning from social inclusion to social exclusion, and heightened arousal persisting through the remainder of the task. Adolescent gender and CU trait severity significantly predicted overall physiological arousal during the social exclusion task. Specifically, as CU trait severity increased, adolescent males displayed decreased physiological arousal, whereas no differences in arousal were observed for adolescent females, regardless of CU trait severity. These findings suggest that among male adolescents at low risk for conduct problems, elevated CU traits may serve to buffer negative emotional reactions to aversive social situations.