Research suggests that callous unemotional (CU) traits are associated with poor emotion recognition due to impairments in attention to relevant emotional cues. To further investigate the mechanisms that underlie CU traits, this study focused on the relationship between levels of CU and children's attention to, and recognition of, facial emotions. Participants were 7- to 10-year-old Italian boys, 35 with a diagnosis of Disruptive Behavior Disorder (age: M = 8.93, SD = 1.35), and 23 healthy male controls (age: M = 8.86, SD = 1.35). Children viewed standardized emotional faces (happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and neutral) while eye-tracking technology was used to evaluate scan paths for each area of interest (eyes, face, mouth), and for each emotion. CU traits were assessed using parent and teacher ratings on the Antisocial Process Screening Device. In the whole sample, elevated levels of CU traits were associated with a lower ability to recognize sadness, a lower number of fixations, and a lower average length of each fixation, specifically to the eye area of sad faces. In children with Disruptive Behavior Disorder diagnoses, high levels of CU traits were associated with lower duration of fixations to the eye-region on the eye area of sad faces, which in turns predicted lower levels of sadness recognition. The findings confirm that poor emotion recognition is associated with impairments in attention to critical information about other people's emotions. The clinical implications are discussed.
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