Reflective functioning (RF) refers to the understanding of one’s own and others’ behaviors in terms of mental states, whereas empathy entails the abilities to understand (cognitive empathy) and to share (affective empathy) the emotions of others. Low RF and low empathy have been previously related to externalizing behaviors, such as aggression and rule breaking. However, few longitudinal studies have simultaneously examined the relationships between these variables during adolescence. The aim of the present study is to investigate the longitudinal effects of both RF and empathy on potential changes in externalizing behaviors over time, in a group of 103 adolescents and young adults from the general population assessed repeatedly up to four times. We conducted multilevel analysis in order to examine the effects of RF and empathy on the initial levels and the trajectories of externalizing behaviors over time, while accounting for other variables previously associated with externalizing behaviors, such as age, gender, internalizing problems, and cognitive abilities. The results suggest that the ability to reflect on behaviors in terms of mental states predicted a sharper decrease in externalizing behaviors over time. Moreover, externalizing behaviors at the first assessment were associated with RF impairments and low affective empathy. Age, gender, cognitive abilities, and cognitive empathy were not associated with externalizing behaviors. We discuss how our results, based on a typically developing population, might inform primary or indicated prevention strategies for externalizing behaviors by focusing on socio-cognitive processes such as RF and affective empathy.
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This work was supported by Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant Number 100019_159440).
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the Ethical Standards of the Institutional and/or National Research Committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
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