Toward an Understanding of the Role of the Environment in the Development of Early Callous Behavior

J Pers. 2017 Feb;85(1):90-103. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12221. Epub 2015 Sep 25.


Key to understanding the long-term impact of social inequalities is identifying early behaviors that may signal higher risk for later poor psychosocial outcomes, such as psychopathology. A set of early-emerging characteristics that may signal risk for later externalizing psychopathology is callous-unemotional (CU) behavior. CU behavior predicts severe and chronic trajectories of externalizing behaviors in youth. However, much research on CU behavior has focused on late childhood and adolescence, with little attention paid to early childhood when preventative interventions may be most effective. In this article, we summarize our recent work showing that (a) CU behavior can be identified in early childhood using items from common behavior checklists, (b) CU behavior predicts worse outcomes across early childhood, (c) CU behavior exhibits a nomological network distinct from other early externalizing behaviors, and (d) malleable environmental factors, particularly parenting, may play a role in the development of early CU behaviors. We discuss the challenges of studying contextual contributors to the development of CU behavior in terms of gene-environment correlations and present initial results from work examining CU behavior in an adoption study in which gene-environment correlations are examined in early childhood. We find that parenting is a predictor of early CU behavior even in a sample in which parents are not genetically related to the children.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Child Behavior Disorders / etiology*
  • Child Behavior Disorders / genetics*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Gene-Environment Interaction*
  • Humans
  • Parenting / psychology*
  • Social Behavior*