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Keywords:

  • Psychopathy;
  • conduct problems;
  • eye contact;
  • parent–child interactions

Background:  A pervasive failure to attend and respond to emotionally salient stimuli is a core feature of psychopathy. We hypothesise that this begins early in life and is expressed most importantly as a failure to attend to core emotional features (viz., the eyes) of attachment figures. The current study tested whether impaired eye contact is a characteristic of children with antisocial behaviour and callous-unemotional (CU) traits in real life settings.

Methods:  Conduct problem males were assessed on levels of CU traits and observed in free play and ‘emotion talk’ scenarios with their parents. Eye contact was measured for each dyad (child to mother, child to father, mother to child, father to child) as a proportion of intervals in which the child and parent interacted.

Results:  Levels of eye contact were reciprocated in mother–son and father–son dyads, but males with high CU traits showed consistent impairments in eye contact towards their parents. Mothers of high CU boys did not show impairments; however, fathers of high CU boys showed similar impairment. Levels of eye contact were also associated with independent measures of fear recognition, and general empathy in the boys.

Conclusions:  The findings provide the first evidence that impairments in eye contact, previously shown during computer tasks, characterise psychopathic traits in young males.