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Effortful Helping in Teenagers at Risk for Psychopathy

New research shows adolescents with conduct problems are less willing to help.

Key points

  • Adolescents with conduct problems often display antisocial behavior.
  • People with conduct problems and high callous-unemotional traits are at risk of developing psychopathy.
  • Research finds those at risk of developing psychopathy are especially unwilling to make an effort to help.
  • The data highlight differences between individuals and new targets for research on behavioral interventions.

This post was written by Anne Gaule, Ph.D., and Essi Viding, Ph.D., with edits from Patricia Lockwood, Ph.D., and Jo Cutler, Ph.D.

Helping other people—be it your friend moving house or a colleague with their work—often requires effort. However, research has shown that helping others or engaging in what psychologists call "prosocial" behaviors has a range of positive impacts on our social relationships, our physical and mental well-being, and even our longevity.

This is as true when we are young as it is in adulthood. There is good evidence that when young people engage in prosocial behaviors, this helps them to form the building blocks they need to establish good relationships with others, which, in turn, can be protective against common mental health and behavior problems.

However, there is a group of young people that engage in antisocial behavior, have difficulty in their social relationships, and also appear to show worryingly low levels of prosocial behaviors. This pattern of behaviors in adolescence is termed "conduct problems." A new study explores how teenagers with conduct problems engage in effortful prosocial behaviors and highlights important factors we may need to consider when designing interventions to support this vulnerable group.

nikitabuida / Freepik
Damaging other people's property is one example of antisocial behaviour.
Source: nikitabuida / Freepik

Individual differences matter

As outlined above, research indicates that young people with conduct problems show low levels of prosocial behaviors. However, just because someone behaves antisocially does not mean that they will never behave prosocially. Individual differences among adolescents with conduct problems (or psychological characteristics that define who we are and how we process information about the world) have not received a lot of attention when it comes to prosocial behavior. These differences matter—especially when we are trying to design effective interventions.

One source of individual differences that is thought to be very important when considering how conduct problems develop and are expressed is a person’s level of what researchers call callous-unemotional traits. These traits include having difficulty empathizing with other people, lacking remorse for poor behavior, and not placing importance on social relationships. Research has shown that adolescents with conduct problems who also show high levels of these traits have poorer treatment outcomes and are at a greater risk for continued antisocial behavior and psychopathy in adulthood.

Given the social and psychological benefits that prosocial behaviors can have during development, understanding how these traits influence prosocial behavior in young people with conduct problems could be hugely important.

Source: Cottonbro Studio/Pexels
Lots of the ways we help other people require effort.
Source: Cottonbro Studio/Pexels

The importance of effort

When we consider prosocial behaviors in young people with conduct problems and how these impact their social relationships, it is important to think about what people generally value when it comes to prosocial behavior. Of course, this probably varies from person to person, but as a general rule, it seems as though people care a lot about effort. For example, if a friend is moving house and you wish to support them, simply saying that you will help probably is not enough to contribute to the good relationship you have with that person—you have to actually show up and help with the packing!

Supporting this, a research study carried out in 2018 found that people often care more about the personal sacrifice involved in a prosocial action than about the social benefit produced by the action itself, as they take this sacrifice to be an indication of a person’s moral character.

Therefore, if we want to get a full picture of prosocial behaviors, we need to understand how willing people are to put in effort to help others. This is especially important in the context of social relationships and understanding how willingness to help others may vary between people, such as those with conduct problems. Surprisingly, however, this is rarely looked at in research studies—which often look at whether people donate money to help others.

Building our understanding of prosocial behavior in adolescents with conduct problems

In our recent study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, we tested a sample of 94 adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 16 from mainstream and specialist provision schools in the UK. The teenagers played a game where they could squeeze a hand-held gripper to earn points towards gift vouchers—with rounds where they played for themselves and prosocial rounds where they played to earn vouchers for another boy at a different school.

On each round of the game, the boys had to first choose if they wanted to have a go at squeezing the gripper to get more points towards vouchers, or if they would rather rest. If they chose to exert effort for a higher number of points, they were then asked to squeeze the gripper with the required force in order to earn their points.

We found that boys who met our criteria for having conduct problems chose less prosocially than the boys without conduct problems. However, once choices had been made, there was a distinction within the group of boys with conduct problems related to levels of callous-unemotional traits. Boys with conduct problems who were also rated by their teachers as being high in callous-unemotional traits put in considerably less effort to help others (relative to for themselves) compared to both boys without conduct problems and boys with conduct problems with lower levels of these traits.

So, while boys with conduct problems overall were less likely to choose to help someone else, once the choice to be helpful was made, only those boys who had both conduct problems and callous unemotional traits made less effort to follow through.


Our findings underscore the importance of nuance when trying to understand social behavior. By looking at prosocial effort as well as prosocial choices, and by also accounting for differences among adolescents with conduct problems, we have demonstrated a number of things. First, it is not enough to just study prosocial choices; knowing about people’s willingness to make effort for others is also important if we want to fully understand adolescents’ social lives.

Furthermore, even among adolescents with conduct problems, there is substantial variation in prosociality. If we want to promote more prosocial behavior in adolescents who have behavioral problems, we need to understand the precise difficulties that they have, which may need to be targeted specifically in interventions. Our study clearly shows that we should not treat all the young people in this vulnerable group the same way and that some of them may need more help than others.


Gaule, A., Martin, P., Lockwood, P. L., Cutler, J., Apps, M., Roberts, R., Phillips, H., Brown, K., McCrory, E. J., & Viding, E. (2024). Reduced prosocial motivation and effort in adolescents with conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Johnson, S. G. B. (2020). Dimensions of Altruism: Do Evaluations of Prosocial Behavior Track Social Good or Personal Sacrifice? OSF.

Memmott-Elison, M. K., & Toseeb, U. (2023). Prosocial behavior and psychopathology: An 11-year longitudinal study of inter- and intraindividual reciprocal relations across childhood and adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 35(4), 1982–1996.

Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66–77.

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