Beyond physiological hypoarousal: The role of life stress and callous-unemotional traits in incarcerated adolescent males

Andrew J. Gostisha, Michael J. Vitacco, Andrew R. Dismukes, Chelsea Brieman, Jenna Merz, Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


The development of antisocial behavior in youth has been examined with neurobiological theories that suggest that adolescents who are less responsive to their environments are less likely to develop empathy in the absence of extant physiological arousal. However, little attention is paid to these individuals' social context. Individuals with adverse early experiences can also exhibit attenuated physiological arousal. The current investigation examines whether psychopathic symptoms or life stress exposure is associated with cortisol and its diurnal rhythm within 50 incarcerated adolescent boys (14-18. years old). Ten saliva cortisol samples were collected 1-2. weeks after admission to a maximum-security juvenile facility. Hierarchical Linear Modeling distinguished waking cortisol levels, the awakening response (CAR) and the diurnal rhythm. Multiple interviews and self-report measures of CU traits and stressor exposure were collected. Boys with higher levels of CU traits or greater life stress exposure had flat diurnal rhythms and a steeper awakening response in analyses with lifetime stress exposure specifically. Nonetheless, boys who were elevated on both CU traits and prior stress exposure had steeper diurnal rhythms. These results extend neurobiological theories of cortisol and illustrate that boys with the combination of severe stress with CU traits have a unique physiological profile.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)469-479
Number of pages11
JournalHormones and Behavior
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2014


  • Adolescence
  • Context
  • Cortisol
  • Incarceration
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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