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Love, eye contact and the developmental origins of empathy v. psychopathy

  • Mark R. Dadds (a1), Jennifer L. Allen (a2), Bonamy R. Oliver (a2), Nathan Faulkner (a2), Katherine Legge (a2), Caroline Moul (a2), Matthew Woolgar (a2) and Stephen Scott (a2)...
Abstract
Background

A propensity to attend to other people's emotions is a necessary condition for human empathy.

Aims

To test our hypothesis that psychopathic disorder begins as a failure to attend to the eyes of attachment figures, using a ‘love’ scenario in young children.

Method

Children with oppositional defiant disorder, assessed for callous–unemotional traits, and a control group were observed in a love interaction with mothers. Eye contact and affection were measured for each dyad.

Results

There was no group difference in affection and eye contact expressed by the mothers. Compared with controls, children with oppositional defiant disorder expressed lower levels of affection back towards their mothers; those with high levels of callous–unemotional traits showed significantly lower levels of affection than the children lacking these traits. As predicted, the former group showed low levels of eye contact toward their mothers. Low eye contact was not correlated with maternal coercive parenting or feelings toward the child, but was correlated with psychopathic fearlessness in their fathers.

Conclusions

Impairments in eye contact are characteristic of children with callous–unemotional traits, and these impairments are independent of maternal behaviour.

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Copyright
Corresponding author
Mark R. Dadds, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK. Email: m.dadds@unsw.edu.au
Footnotes
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See editorial, pp. 175–176, this issue.

The research was funded by the Department of Children, Schools and Families through the National Academy for Parenting Research, Institute of Psychiatry, and by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

Declaration of interest

None.

Footnotes
References
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Love, eye contact and the developmental origins of empathy v. psychopathy

  • Mark R. Dadds (a1), Jennifer L. Allen (a2), Bonamy R. Oliver (a2), Nathan Faulkner (a2), Katherine Legge (a2), Caroline Moul (a2), Matthew Woolgar (a2) and Stephen Scott (a2)...
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