Adolescent Psychopathy, Heart Rate, and Skin Conductance

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Researchers have advocated for a greater focus on measuring neurobiological underpinnings of serious psychological conditions such as psychopathy. This has become particularly important to investigate early in the life span, when intervention efforts for psychopathy‐related behavior like conduct disorder (CD) are more successful. Given that psychopathy is a complex syndrome, it is also important to investigate physiological processes at a dimensional level. Using a sample of 56 adolescent male offenders (Mage = 15.92; SD = 1.31), this study explored the relationship between the Psychopathy Checklist–Youth Version (Forth, Kosson, & Hare, 2003), heart rate (HR), and skin conductance (SC). A white noise countdown task was used to measure autonomic activity across a baseline, anticipatory (prenoise), and reactivity (postnoise) period. Findings revealed no significant associations between psychopathy and HR activity across the time intervals. However, results revealed a positive association between grandiose‐manipulative traits and SC activity and a negative association between callous‐unemotional traits and SC activity. The results indicate that autonomic processes may contribute to distinct psychopathic traits in different ways, implicating slightly differential brain functioning. The findings suggest that, in order to better understand and treat youth with CD, future research should continue to examine the biological correlates of psychopathy at the broader construct level but perhaps especially at the component level.

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