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Are impairments in emotion recognition a core feature of callous–unemotional traits? Testing the primary versus secondary variants model in children

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 April 2017

Mark R. Dadds*
University of Sydney
Eva R. Kimonis
University of New South Wales
Olivia Schollar-Root
University of Sydney
Caroline Moul
University of Sydney
David J. Hawes
University of Sydney
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Mark R. Dadds, School of Psychology, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia; E-mail:


The role of environmental adversity in the development of high callous–unemotional (CU) traits in children is controversial. Evidence speaks to the traits being largely independent of adversity; however, recent data shows that those with high CU traits and high adversity and/or high anxiety might differ in important ways from those with no such history. We tested this using emotion recognition (ER) skills. We tested whether maltreatment history and anxiety levels moderated the relationship between level of CU traits and ER skills in N = 364 children with behavioral problems who were 3 to 16 years old. As hypothesised, in the full sample, the relationship between CU traits and ER differed according to maltreatment history, such that CU traits were associated with poorer recognition for those with zero or negligible history of maltreatment. This moderation of the CU-ER relationship by maltreatment was inconsistent across subgroups, however, and for the cohort utilizing youth self-report of maltreatment, high CU traits were associated with poor ER in those with lower anxiety levels. Maltreatment history and/or anxiety levels can identify different emotional impairments associated with high CU traits, and the impairments might be characteristic of “primary” high CU traits defined as occurring independently of maltreatment and/or high anxiety.

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This research was partly supported by grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council and Australian Research Council, Australia. We are grateful to Royal Far West for support of the research and to the families who participated.


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