Aggression in Children with Conduct Problems and Callous-Unemotional Traits: Social Information Processing and Response to Peer Provocation
Callous/unemotional traits (CU) moderate children's conduct problems (CP) in numerous domains, including social functioning. The present study examined whether CU traits also moderate the aggressiveness of children's social information processing (SIP) and responses to varying intensities of peer provocation. Sixty elementary school-age children (46 males) were grouped into those without CP or CU (controls, n = 32), those with CP but not CU (CP-only; n = 14), and those with both CP and CU (CPCU, n = 14). Participants completed a task that measured two aspects of SIP (response generation and hostile attribution bias) and a computerized reaction time task (CRTT) that measured behavior, affect, and communication before and after provocation under instrumental and hostile aggressive conditions. Children with CPCU generated more aggressive responses than controls on measures of SIP. On the CRTT, all children exhibited reactive aggression following high provocation, but only children with CPCU exhibited proactive aggression, and reactive aggression following low provocation; no differences in affect were found. In a series of exploratory analyses, CPCU children communicated antisocially, while CP-only communicated prosocially. Finally, children with CPCU did not seem to hold a grudge following the final instance of provocation, instead gradually returning to baseline like their non-CU peers. These distinct social cognitive and behavioral profiles hint at different etiologies of CP and CPCU, underscoring the variability of aggression in these populations.