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‘Acquired Callousness’ In Young People Is Not The Same As Psychopathy – Childhood Trauma Recovery

‘Acquired Callousness’ In Young People Is Not The Same As Psychopathy

A recent study conducted at the University of Vermont and published in the Journal Of Child Abnormal Psychology by psychological researchers Gill and Stickle (2016) suggests that those in the medical profession who are prone to see young people displaying certain characteristics and behaviours as nascent psychopaths may not properly appreciate the complexities involved in the diagnosis of psychopathy.
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnessedition 5 (DSM V), psychopathy is listed under antisocial personality disorders and it is currently hypothesized that the disorder is rooted significantly in genetic determinants and involves chemical abnormalities in the brain. In other words, the condition is thought to be substantially determined by biological factors.
 What Is A Psychopath?
Typically, a psychopath
ignores the rights of others
highly egoistical/narcissistic
disinhibited / impulsive / problems delaying gratification
– lacks empathy
– is callous, cold and unfeeling
– disregards the law (although many psychopaths never break the law)
– is prone to violence (though, again, many psychopaths are not)
– have little or no conscience / do not feel remorse or guilt
– do not fear punishment
The Study :
The study referred to in the first paragraph involved 150 participants (both male and female) residing in juvenile detention centres.
All of the participants were aged from 11-years-old to 17-years-old.
All the participants had been classified as :
– unemotional
– extremely, behaviourally antisocial
– incipiently psychopathic
What Did The Study Find?
Using more sensitive and sophisticated means of testing (especially with regard to examining personality traits) than is usually used to investigate psychopathy and psychopathic characteristics it was found that although, superficially, the young people appeared callous, unemotional, and pre-psychopathic their actual diagnosis (according to the more accurate and appropriate tests used), in the main, was that they were :

severely depressed

– severely anxious

– in a state of high emotionality

(In other words, they were not psychopathic but suffering from intense emotional distress).

Implications Of Study :

Due to these findings, the researchers pointed out that young people displaying behavioural problems such as those in this study should not be unthinkingly labeled as incipient psychopaths, punished and stigmatized but, instead, be given appropriate support and treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and help to control their intense and volatile emotions.

Non-Treatment Stores Up Problems For The Future:

Unfortunately, however, research by Ford et al., (2012) found that young people who are given such labels as ‘delinquent’, ‘antisocial’ and ‘aggressive’ are frequently judged not to be suitable for therapy even when they are also showing signs of severe distress connected to their traumatic upbringings – this is clearly a travesty and not only a betrayal of the young person but extremely damaging to society as a whole as such an approach only creates more problems down the line with, potentially, devastating, cumulative effects. It cannot be stressed enough that when you people are showing signs of acute distress the earliest possible intervention is crucial.

Acquired Callousness As A Defense Rather Than As A Sign Of Untreatable Psychopathy:

Ford et al., (2010) conducted research suggesting that young people with a history of complex trauma do NOT develop PROACTIVE AGGRESSION (e.g. going out looking for aggressive confrontations for the sake of it) but, rather, REACTIVE AGGRESSION as a learned defense mechanism that emerges due to a desperate need for self-preservation and self-protection in the face of extreme, ongoing abuse. As a consequence of protracted, repetitive, severe trauma, such reactive aggression can be easily triggered even by (objectively speaking) minor triggers (or even imagined threats). This can occur because severe, ongoing trauma has altered the way in which the brain functions (I have written about how childhood trauma can impair brain development extensively elsewhere on this site, e.g. see my previously published article about a phenomenon known as ‘amygdala hijack‘). Ford and colleagues also found that, in addition to developing tendencies towards reactive aggression, such traumatized young people may also display a reduced bodily response to physical pain and that this combination (i.e. learned, reactive aggression and a high pain threshold) can result in the young person being miscategorized as a psychopath and as ‘callous’ and ‘unemotional.’ However, many researchers argue that such ‘callousness’ be better referred to as ‘acquired callousness’ and is the result of dissociation and alexithymia rather than true signs of authentic psychopathy.



Gill, A.D., Stickle, T.R. Affective Differences Between Psychopathy Variants and Genders in Adjudicated Youth. J Abnorm Child Psychol 44, 295–307 (2016).

JULIAN D. FORD et al 2010  University of Connecticut School of Medicine TRAUMA AND AGGRESSION IN SECURE JUVENILE JUSTICE SETTINGS,



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE). is reader-supported. When you buy through links on this site, I may earn an affiliate commission.