Empathy, prosociality, & guilt

What happens when the development of empathy, prosociality, and guilt goes awry? How can we use our knowledge of their development to prevent antisocial behavior and violence?

Antisocial behavior is harmful, financially costly to society, and hard to treat. Callous-unemotional (CU) traits, which predict greater risk for antisocial behavior, are defined in theoretical and diagnostic models as representing low empathy, guilt, and prosociality. However, no meta-analytic reviews have systematically integrated the findings of studies that have reported associations between measures of CU traits and empathy, guilt, or prosociality, or potential moderators of these associations, including gender, age, severity of antisocial behavior, and informant (i.e., self or other reports of measures). To address this gap in the literature, we conducted three separate meta-analyses exploring the association between CU traits and empathy, guilt, and prosociality. In follow-up analyses, we explored associations between CU traits and affective versus cognitive empathy. The results revealed statistically significant and moderate-to-large negative associations between measures of CU traits and empathy (ρ = −.57), guilt (ρ = −.40), and prosociality (ρ = −.66). The negative association between CU traits and cognitive empathy was stronger when the informant was a parent or teacher rather than the child, and in younger children. CU traits were also more strongly related to cognitive empathy than affective empathy when the informant was a parent or teacher rather than the child, and in younger children. The findings establish that CU traits are moderately-to-strongly correlated with the presence of callous (low empathy), uncaring (low prosociality), and remorseless (low guilt) behaviors.

Waller, R., Wagner, N.J., Barstead, M.G., Subar, A., Petersen, J.L., Hyde, J.S., & Hyde, L.W. (2020). A Meta-Analysis of the Associations between Callous-Unemotional Traits and Empathy, Prosociality, and Guilt. Clinical Psychology Review, 75, 101809