Exposure to violence predicts callous-unemotional traits and aggression in adolescence in the context of persistent ethnic-political conflict and violence

Aggress Behav. 2023 Nov;49(6):655-668. doi: 10.1002/ab.22103. Epub 2023 Aug 4.


According to social-cognitive ecological theory, violence exposure increases emotional factors-such as callous-unemotional (CU) traits-which then contribute to engagement in aggressive behavior. However, previous research has generally not tested this mediational pathway, particularly in the context of persistent ethnic-political violence exposure. The present study examined associations among violence exposure, CU traits, and aggression in a sample of 1051 youth in the Middle East (Palestine and Israel), using youth- and parent-reported data in a cohort-sequential design with three age cohorts (starting ages 8, 11, and 14 years) assessed over four waves spanning 6 years. Results from structural equation models with latent variables indicated that cumulative violence exposure in childhood and adolescence (measured annually for 3 years, and comprising exposure across multiple settings including political, community, family, and school) predicted later CU traits and aggression in adolescence and early adulthood, even after controlling for earlier levels of aggression and CU traits and demographic characteristics (child age and sex and parental socioeconomic status). Additionally, in mediation analyses, CU significantly mediated the association from earlier cumulative violence exposure to concurrent aggression, while aggression did not significantly mediate the association from earlier exposure to concurrent CU traits. The results of this study suggest that violence exposure leads to both aggressive behavior and a constellation of traits that place youth at greater risk for subsequent aggressive behavior, and that CU traits could partially explain the increased risk of aggression after violence exposure.

Keywords: adolescence; aggression; callousness; exposure to violence; longitudinal.