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Affective empathy, cognitive empathy and social attention in children at high risk of criminal behaviour

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Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Published online on


Background Empathy deficits are hypothesized to underlie impairments in social interaction exhibited by those who engage in antisocial behaviour. Social attention is an essential precursor to empathy; however, no studies have yet examined social attention in relation to cognitive and affective empathy in those exhibiting antisocial behaviour. Methods Participants were 8‐ to 12‐year‐old children at high risk of developing criminal behaviour (N = 114, 80.7% boys) and typically developing controls (N = 43, 72.1% boys). The high‐risk children were recruited through an ongoing early identification and intervention project of the city of Amsterdam, focusing on the underage siblings or children of delinquents and those failing primary school. Video clips with neutral and emotional content (fear, happiness and pain) were shown, while heart rate (HR), skin conductance level (SCL) and skin conductance responses (SCRs) were recorded to measure affective empathy. Answers to questions about emotions in the clips were coded to measure cognitive empathy. Eye‐tracking was used to evaluate visual scanning patterns towards social relevant cues (eyes and face) in the clips. Results The high‐risk group did not differ from the control group in social attention and cognitive empathy, but showed reduced HR to pain and fear, and reduced SCL and SCRs to pain. Conclusions Children at high risk of developing criminal behaviour show impaired affective empathy but unimpaired social attention and cognitive empathy. The implications for early identification and intervention studies with antisocial children are discussed.