Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.
Punishment insensitivity and impaired reinforcement learning in preschoolers
Article first published online: 24 AUG 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry © 2013 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
Volume 55, Issue 2, pages 154–161, February 2014
How to Cite
Briggs-Gowan, M. J., Nichols, S. R., Voss, J., Zobel, E., Carter, A. S., McCarthy, K. J., Pine, D. S., Blair, J. and Wakschlag, L. S. (2014), Punishment insensitivity and impaired reinforcement learning in preschoolers. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55: 154–161. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12132
- Issue published online: 16 JAN 2014
- Article first published online: 24 AUG 2013
- Manuscript Accepted: 2 JUL 2013
- NIMH. Grant Numbers: R01MH082830, U01MH090301
- Walden & Jean Young Shaw Foundation
- Psychopathic tendencies;
- reinforcement learning;
- punishment insensitivity;
- low concern;
- early childhood;
- disruptive behavior;
Youth and adults with psychopathic traits display disrupted reinforcement learning. Advances in measurement now enable examination of this association in preschoolers. The current study examines relations between reinforcement learning in preschoolers and parent ratings of reduced responsiveness to socialization, conceptualized as a developmental vulnerability to psychopathic traits.
One hundred and fifty-seven preschoolers (mean age 4.7 ± 0.8 years) participated in a substudy that was embedded within a larger project. Children completed the ‘Stars-in-Jars’ task, which involved learning to select rewarded jars and avoid punished jars. Maternal report of responsiveness to socialization was assessed with the Punishment Insensitivity and Low Concern for Others scales of the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB).
Punishment Insensitivity, but not Low Concern for Others, was significantly associated with reinforcement learning in multivariate models that accounted for age and sex. Specifically, higher Punishment Insensitivity was associated with significantly lower overall performance and more errors on punished trials (‘passive avoidance’).
Impairments in reinforcement learning manifest in preschoolers who are high in maternal ratings of Punishment Insensitivity. If replicated, these findings may help to pinpoint the neurodevelopmental antecedents of psychopathic tendencies and suggest novel intervention targets beginning in early childhood.