I conducted an honors thesis under the advisement of Dr. Rebecca Waller on the topic of callous-unemotional (CU) traits and their impact on friendship quality in adolescence. CU traits are the affective precursors to psychopathy measured in children, specifically marked by deficits in empathy and guilt. Youths with high CU traits exhibit the most severe forms antisocial behaviors, exhibiting many of these poor behaviors in schooling settings (i.e. bullying). Developing and maintaining positive friendships is critically important in adolescence as this is the time when children beginning spending an increasing amount of time away from parents and under peer influence. Adolescent friendships support interpersonal development by providing a framework for learning the socioemotional skills necessary to cultivate positive adult relationships. Importantly, the ability to maintain positive, supportive friendships is dependent on empathy and guilt, the two emotions that are critically lacking in those with CU traits. In exploring this topic, we found that children with higher CU traits have lower friendship quality, characterized as friendships lower in support and emotional connection. In our second study, we reciprocated these results and found that affiliation acts as a mechanism for why CU traits precipitates lower friendship quality—higher CU traits are associated with decreases in affiliation reward processing which in turn is related to lower friendship quality. As a result of our study, we were able to pinpoint possible areas of improvement for current interventions aimed at mitigating the emergence and continued development of these maladaptive traits in children and adolescents.
Through the process of conducting this independent research study, I was able to truly experience every stage of scientific research. This project pushed me to work independently and collaboratively, which served as a very realistic introduction to how psychology research is conducted in an academic setting. I really enjoyed learning from my mentors and was especially excited that we were able to apply our findings to currently implemented interventions. I also appreciated being able to apply the knowledge I have gained from my psychology courses in a more applied fashion.