Assessing callous-unemotional traits: development of a brief, reliable measure in a large and diverse sample of preadolescent youth

Psychol Med. 2020 Feb;50(3):456-464. doi: 10.1017/S0033291719000278. Epub 2019 Mar 8.


Background: Callous-unemotional (CU) traits are critical to developmental, diagnostic, and clinical models of antisocial behaviors (AB). However, assessments of CU traits within large-scale longitudinal and neurobiologically focused investigations remain remarkably sparse. We sought to develop a brief measure of CU traits using items from widely administered instruments that could be linked to neuroimaging, genetic, and environmental data within already existing datasets and future studies.

Methods: Data came from a large and diverse sample (n = 4525) of youth (ages~9-11) taking part in the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. Moderated nonlinear factor analysis was used to assess measurement invariance across sex, race, and age. We explored whether CU traits were distinct from other indicators of AB, investigated unique links with theoretically-relevant outcomes, and replicated findings in an independent sample.

Results: The brief CU traits measure demonstrated strong psychometric properties and evidence of measurement invariance across sex, race, and age. On average, boys endorsed higher levels of CU traits than girls and CU traits were related to, yet distinguishable from other indicators of AB. The CU traits construct also exhibited expected associations with theoretically important outcomes. Study findings were also replicated across an independent sample of youth.

Conclusions: In a large, multi-site study, a brief measure of CU traits can be measured distinctly from other dimensions of AB. This measure provides the scientific community with a method to assess CU traits in the ABCD sample, as well as in other studies that may benefit from a brief assessment of CU.

Keywords: Antisocial behaviors; callous-unemotional traits; conduct disorder.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / psychology
  • Child
  • Conduct Disorder / psychology*
  • Emotions*
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Parents
  • Personality Assessment*