New research identifies cardiac markers of insensitive and emotionless traits in juvenile offenders

Limited guilt, lack of remorse and empathy, and heartless interpersonal behavior characterize what are known as callous and unemotional traits. New research published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that certain cardiac markers such as resting heart rate and heart rate variability are linked to insensitive and unemotional traits in juvenile offenders, but not in adult offenders.

People who possess callous and emotionless traits tend to exhibit severe antisocial behavior (i.e. behavior that harms others), an early onset of delinquency, and an increased likelihood of committing future offenses. Antisocial behavior is also associated with low resting heart rate. One theory proposes that an individual with an extremely low (compared to average) baseline heart rate may crave excessive stimulation which results in antisocial behavior (eg, getting into a fight).

Heart rate variability could also be linked to antisocial behavior. “In a resting position, higher [heart rate variability] is indicative of successful self-regulation and cognitive control, which enables flexible and rapid response to environmental needs,” wrote study author Hanne M. Duindam and colleagues.

“Studies have shown that those with [heart rate variability] are more successful on a socio-emotional level, for example by establishing relationships of mutual understanding and by adopting cooperative behaviors.

Thus, given that insensitive-emotionless traits are characterized by reduced socio-emotional functioning (i.e. lack of empathy and remorse), it could be that heart rate variability is more low is associated with these traits. Overall, it is unclear to what extent resting heart rate and heart rate variability can be used as physiological markers of insensitive and unemotional traits.

To address this issue, the researchers collected data from 190 male inmates who were part of an ongoing dog training program in some correctional facilities in the Netherlands. Assessments were conducted in a private room by one or two trained research assistants. The researchers monitored the heart activity of all participants throughout the evaluation. Participants were assessed for insensitive and unemotional traits using a validated self-rating scale.

The researchers measured several other variables that may be related to heart rate and ruthless traits such as physical activity, smoking habits, caffeine intake, medication and drug use, and respiratory rate. They also collected demographic information such as ethnicity and age.

The researchers divided the sample into juvenile and adult offenders to account for the influence of development. The results show that resting heart rate is positively associated with insensitive and unemotional traits, but only in juveniles. In other words, juveniles who had higher levels of insensitive and unemotional traits also tended to have elevated resting heart rates. This trend was not observed among adult offenders.

Similarly, heart rate variability was negatively associated with insensitive and unemotional traits in juveniles only. In other words, higher heart rate variability in juveniles was associated with lower insensitive and insensitive trait scores. These variables were not related for adults.

Overall, the results suggest that general impairment in autonomic cardiac activity (i.e., higher resting heart rate, lower heart rate variability) is associated with insensitive traits. and unemotional in young people, not in adult offenders.

“It is unclear to what extent the current null results differ from previous research in adults due to divergent design choices (e.g., use of different assessment methods to measure [callous-unemotional traits]sample composition) – or because the relationship between cardiac markers and [callous-unemotional] traits may only be present in juveniles.

The researchers cite some limitations of this study. On the one hand, basic heart rate information was determined during a single 3-minute video clip. However, conducting research with vulnerable populations such as incarcerated people comes with unavoidable constraints, so the researchers deemed this manipulation appropriate and feasible for this study.

The study, “Heart-wired to be cold Exploring heart markers of callous-unmotional traits in incarcerated Hanneke E. Creemers.

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