Primary and secondary variants of juvenile psychopathy differ in emotional processing

Accumulating research suggests that psychopathy can be disaggregated into low-anxious primary and high-anxious secondary variants, and this research may be important for understanding antisocial youths with callous–unemotional traits. Using model-based cluster analysis, the present study disaggregated 165 serious male adolescent offenders (M age ¼ 16) with high scores on the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory into primary and secondary variants based on the presence of anxiety. The results indicated that the secondary, high-anxious variant was more likely to show a history of abuse and scored higher on measures of emotional and attentional problems. On a picture version of the dot-probe task, the low-anxious primary variant was not engaged by emotionally distressing pictures, whereas the high-anxious secondary variant was more attentive to such stimuli (Cohen d ¼ 0.71). Although the two groups differed as hypothesized from one another, neither differed significantly in their emotional processing from a nonpsychopathic control group of offending youth (n ¼ 208). These results are consistent with the possibility that the two variants of psychopathy, both of which were high on callous– unemotional traits, may have different etiological pathways, with the primary being more related to a deficit in the processing of distress cues in others and the secondary being more related to histories of abuse and emotional problems.