SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Keywords:

  • Psychopathic traits;
  • emotional concern;
  • perspective taking;
  • empathy development

Background

A deficit in affective rather than cognitive empathy is thought to be central to psychopathic traits. However, empirical evidence for empathy deficits in adolescents with psychopathic traits is limited. We investigated the concurrent and prospective effects of psychopathic traits on affective and cognitive trait empathy in late adolescence.

Methods

A community sample of 107 males and 126 females who were approximately 16-year olds at Time 1 participated in four annual waves. Sex-specific classes of adolescents' psychopathic traits were created using Latent Class Analyses. Subsequently, we investigated class differences in level and development of empathy.

Results

For both sexes, Latent Class Analyses produced two classes: one class with low and one with moderate levels of psychopathic traits. Consistent with our hypothesis, for both sexes, adolescents with moderate levels of psychopathic traits reported lower mean levels of affective empathy than adolescents with low levels of psychopathic traits. In addition, female adolescents with moderate psychopathic traits reported lower mean levels of cognitive empathy. Male adolescents showed a trend in this direction. No differences between classes were found in development of empathy, which increased over years.

Conclusions

This is the first study to show that male and female adolescents with higher levels of psychopathic traits have lower levels of affective empathy not only concurrently but also prospectively over a 3-year period. Females additionally showed a similar pattern on cognitive empathy. In this community sample, developmental results suggest that adolescents with higher levels of psychopathic traits have relative rather than absolute empathy deficits.