Study reveals that teenagers with emotionally cool traits show signs of psychopathy

Young people with high levels of emotional coldness show low levels of guilt over the possibility of committing immoral acts and have difficulty judging an immoral action as wrong, indicating psychopathic signs, reveals a pioneering study conducted with adolescents from the Portuguese population.

Published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, the study brought together the universities of Coimbra (UC), Porto (UP) and Minho (UMinho), as well as the University College London and Royal Holloway University, in the United Kingdom.

In this investigation, which involved 47 young men between the ages of 15 and 18, the traits of emotional coldness were assessed, that is, the lack of empathy and contempt for the well-being and feelings of others. To this end, young people viewed video animations with examples of moral transgressions, such as taking an elderly woman’s place on public transport or saving money that fell out of someone else’s pocket.

“The cartoon approach allowed us to create more real and closer stimuli to young people that can happen in our daily lives”, says Óscar Gonçalves, researcher at the Proaction Lab of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the University of Coimbra (FPCEUC), clarifying that “young people were asked how guilty they would feel if they were themselves to commit immoral actions and how wrong they judged them to be”.

The traits of emotional coldness observed in childhood and adolescence are considered precursors of psychopathy – a disorder marked by severe and persistent antisocial behavior – in adulthood.

The main finding of this study is related to the moderating role of the traits of coldness in the association between the feeling of guilt and moral judgment. Margarida Vasconcelos, a researcher at the University of Minho, explains that “adults with psychopathy have low levels of guilt, but judge immoral actions as wrong, but our study shows that young people with high levels of emotional coldness have low levels of guilt and judge immoral actions as less wrong”.

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