The results of this study provide preliminary support for the generalizability of the response modulation model to a community sample of low-anxious adolescents. The results clearly replicate prior research with adult offenders which demonstrates that low-anxious psychopathic male and female offenders experience significantly less interference on the PW task than low-anxious non-psychopathic offenders (e.g. Hiatt et al., 2004
; Newman et al., 1997
), and that low-anxious, psychopathic males commit significantly more passive avoidance errors (e.g., Newman & Schmitt, 1998
) than low-anxious nonpsychopathic males. The boys in the current sample who reported having relatively low levels of anxiety and relatively higher levels of psychopathic traits displayed the same differences in comparison to boys with relatively low levels of anxiety and psychopathic traits. This combination of poor passive avoidance and reduced interference is consistent with an automatic inhibitory deficit such as that predicted by the response modulation model. Results for the female adolescent participants also replicate the pattern of results obtained with adult psychopathic females. Consistent with the predictions of the response modulation model and with findings for our male sample, low-anxious, relatively high APSD females demonstrated significantly less interference on the PW task than low-anxious, low APSD females. However, no significant group differences were observed in the go/no-go, passive avoidance task. While this result is inconsistent with the predictions of the response modulation model, it parallels the results obtained with psychopathic adult females.
In conjunction with prior research (e.g., Fisher & Blair, 1998
, O’Brien & Frick, 1996
), the results of this study provide evidence that low-anxious adolescents with relatively elevated APSD scores demonstrate a response modulation deficit that could undermine their ability to attend to the non-dominant interpersonal, affective, and inhibitory cues that others use to achieve effective self-regulation. Thus, the results provide evidence for the existence of an information processing deficit that may increase vulnerability to poor socialization and ineffective self-regulation in a community sample of adolescents who have not yet engaged in high levels of antisocial behaviors.
Importantly, this study also illustrates that the interpersonal, affective, and impulsivity traits associated with psychopathy can be used independently of severe antisocial behavior to identify a subgroup of individuals exhibiting the response modulation deficit. As a result, the study forges new ground in the examination of psychopathy in non-offender groups and provides a potential starting point for considering how deficits in response modulation may contribute to the eventual development of the more severe behavior problems associated with psychopathy in incarcerated adult samples.
According to the response modulation model, an individual with a response modulation deficit will be less likely to reflect on his or her ongoing behavior and, thus, less likely to alter that behavior in response to environmental feedback (Newman, 1998
). A response modulation deficit will also decrease an individual’s ability to learn from experience by interfering with his or her encoding of the conditions and behaviors that predict negative consequences (Patterson & Newman, 1993
). Depending upon the stability of the problem, such a failure to pause, reflect, and learn from corrective experience during the early stages of development would likely hamper socialization and may, in conjunction with other personal and environmental factors, increase the risk that a child will develop adult psychopathy (see MacCoon et al., 2004
; Patterson & Newman, 1993
As noted, the finding that low-anxious adolescent girls with high APSD scores show deficits on the PW Stroop task is consistent with the presence of response modulation deficits. However, their normal passive avoidance performance suggests that some of the consequences of this deficit may differ for this group. This pattern of results is consistent with findings for psychopathic adult females (Vitale et al., 2005
; Vitale & Newman, 2001
) and suggests that the discrepancies in the pattern of laboratory findings for males and females with response modulation deficits represents a reliable, systematic difference in the regulatory abilities of these individuals. The absence of a passive avoidance deficit among the low-anxious, relatively higher APSD females is also consistent with their failure to demonstrate significantly more externalizing behavior problems on the CBCL relative to the low-anxious, low-APSD females. Taken together, these findings highlight the need for further research to clarify apparent gender differences in self-regulation.
One possibility involves documented differences in socialization practices across gender that may encourage greater efforts at behavior regulation among girls than boys. For example, mothers of young girls rated as high in difficultness expend more effort in their interactions with their children than mothers of difficult young boys (Maccoby, Snow, & Jacklin, 1984
); Girls receive more positive attention than boys when behaving in compliant ways (Kerig, Cowan, & Cowan, 1993
); And mothers are more likely to respond to a daughter’s moral transgressions, relative to a son’s, by pointing out the negative consequences of the behavior on others (Smetana, 1989
In summary, from a young age, girls are encouraged to consider the consequences of their actions, are reinforced for behaviors that do not impinge on the rights of others, and receive negative responses when they fail to control adequately their behavior (see also Gilligan, 1982
; Keenan & Shaw, 1997
). Thus, although a young female with a response modulation deficit should be at greater risk for engaging in impulsive, non-reflective behavior, existing social pressures and expectancies may increase the likelihood that she will develop and use compensatory strategies that offset this risk (see Verona & Vitale, in press).
Although these data provide preliminary evidence that the response modulation deficits observed among psychopathic adults are present among adolescents exhibiting the callous, maladaptive attitudes and disinhibited behavior indexed by the APSD, these data must be interpreted with caution. First, the number of adolescents reporting relatively lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of psychopathic traits was quite small and, thus, our significant findings are specific to a relatively small group of participants. Though relatively specific, these findings should not be construed as weak, however. The effect sizes for our planned comparisons ranged from a Cohen’s d of.45 to.55 and thus qualify as medium effect sizes. In addition, the present results replicate findings obtained with severe psychopathic offenders despite our use of a representative community sample and a median split on the ASPD, thus supporting the reliability of the findings. The fact that the predictions of the response modulation model apply to a relatively specific group of individuals is consistent with the field’s current emphasis on parsing the heterogeneity of disinhibitory psychopathology (e.g., Brinkley et al., 2004
; Hicks, Markon, Patrick, Krueger, & Newman, in press) and will increase our understanding of the specific processes contributing to the disinhibition of particular groups of individuals.
The second limitation involves our use of a median split on the APSD. Relative to their peers, the adolescents who obtained higher scores on the APSD possess higher levels of the emotional, interpersonal, and behavioral characteristics associated with adult psychopathy. Among low-anxious males, they also exhibited significantly greater numbers of externalizing behavior problems than their same-aged peers with lower APSD scores. Nevertheless, such individuals can not and should not be regarded as “psychopaths”. Although this clearly limits our ability to draw conclusions concerning the prediction of adult psychopathy, it does not negate the fact that a processing deficit associated with adult psychopathy can be identified among adolescents who endorse callous, unemotional attitudes and who exhibit impulsive, often hostile behavior. Indeed, such findings may aid in clarifying who is at risk for developing adult psychopathy, based not upon antisocial behaviors alone, but upon complex developmental interactions involving information processing skills, personality traits, and environmental influences (Cicchetti & Richters, 1993
). Moreover, as proposed by Gorenstein and Newman (1980)
identification of adolescents with response modulation deficits may enable investigators to identify the social and environmental factors that interact with the deficit to influence later antisocial behavior.
The delineation of homogenous subgroups among adolescents with conduct problems enables the systematic investigation of the etiologic processes that underlie these problems and the development of theory-driven interventions to address them. However, the assessment of syndromes such as psychopathy in children and adolescents is a challenging endeavor-methodologically, theoretically, and ethically. Diagnoses of psychopathy carry with them associations of dangerous criminality, callous, remorseless attitudes, and isolation from normal emotional experiences. The traditional view that the behavioral and interpersonal problems associated with the syndrome are chronic and intractable only increases the potential dangers of labeling.
The current study, and others like it, however, offers a hopeful, alternative view. By specifying a cognitive/attentional deficit, the response modulation model moves away from categorizations like “psychopathy” as well as the associated connotation that these individuals are “evil” or “born bad”. Instead, such research places emphasis on an information processing problem not unlike those associated with learning disabilities (Newman & Wallace, 1993
). In doing so, the response modulation model not only offers new targets for intervention and treatment, but also works to alleviate some portion of the stigma historically attached to syndromes associated with disinhibited, antisocial behavior.