Mechanisms of Empathic Behavior in Children with Callous-Unemotional Traits: Eye Gaze and Emotion Recognition

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Virginia Tech


The presence of callous-unemotional (CU) traits (e.g., shallow affect, lack of empathy) in children predicts reduced prosocial behavior. Similarly, CU traits relate to emotion recognition deficits, which may be related to deficits in visual attention to the eye region of others. Notably, recognition of others' distress necessarily precedes sympathy, and sympathy is a key predictor in prosocial outcomes. Thus, visual attention and emotion recognition may mediate the relationship between CU traits and deficient prosocial behavior. Elucidating these connections furthers the development of treatment protocols for children with behavioral problems and CU traits. This study seeks to: (1) extend this research to younger children, including girls; (2) measure eye gaze using infrared eye-tracking technology; and (3) test the hypothesis that CU traits are linked to prosocial behavior deficits via reduced eye gaze, which in turn leads to deficits in fear recognition. Children (n = 81, ages 6-9) completed a computerized, eye-tracked emotion recognition task and a standardized prosocial behavior task while parents reported on the children's CU traits. Results partially supported hypotheses, in that CU traits predicted less time focusing on the eye region for fear expressions, and certain dimensions of eye gaze predicted accuracy in recognizing some emotions. However, the full model was not supported for fear or distress expressions. Conversely, there was some evidence that the link between CU traits and deficient prosocial behavior is mediated by reduced recognition for low intensity happy expressions, but only in girls. Theoretical and practical implications for these findings are considered.



emotion recognition, prosocial behavior, callous-unemotional traits, empathy