The role of callous and unemotional traits in the diagnosis of conduct disorder


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Background:  Callous and unemotional (CU) traits might usefully subtype DSM-IV conduct disorder (CD). We investigate this hypothesis in a large, nationally representative sample of 5–16-year-olds. We also examine the characteristics of children with high CU traits but without CD.

Methods:  Data come from the 2004 British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Survey including 7,977 children, 5,326 of whom were followed up after 3 years. DSM-IV diagnoses of psychiatric disorder were based on parent, teacher and child report. CU traits were assessed by parent report.

Results:  Of the 2% of the sample who were diagnosed with DSM-IV CD, 46.1% were high on CU traits. In addition, 2.9% of the sample were high on CU traits without CD. Children with CD and CU traits showed more severe behavioural disturbance and were at substantially higher risk of CD diagnosis 3 years later. Children high on CU traits without CD showed evidence of disturbed functioning.

Conclusions:  Subtyping CD using CU traits identifies children with more severe and persistent psychopathology. Children with high CU traits but no CD diagnosis require further investigation.