Punishment insensitivity and impaired reinforcement learning in preschoolers


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.



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.