Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

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Steve B. Tuber

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Callous-Unemotional Traits, Disrespect Murder, Juvenile Offenders, Mentalization, Street Culture


National statistics are not available on the proportion of violent juvenile offenses driven by the experience of being disrespected. However, the New York Police Department estimates that about 40% of the city's shootings involve members of violent crews of 12 to 20 year olds with most of this gun violence driven by incidents of disrespect. Mentalization, defined as the ability to envision mental states (i.e., feelings, beliefs and intentions) in oneself and others, is viewed as underlying affect regulation, impulse control, self-monitoring, and the experience of self-agency, all of which are implicated in interpersonal violence (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2002). From a developmental psychodynamic perspective, the capacity to mentalize is seen as developing within the context of secure early attachment relationships via the process of caregiver affect attunement (Fonagy et al., 2002; Stern, 1985; Winnicott, 1963) with further scaffolding optimally provided by secure social contexts such as school and the wider socio-cultural environment (Twemlow, 2003).

This mixed-methods pilot study investigated the extent and nature of breakdowns in mentalization in the context of street violence in a community sample (N = 18) of violent offending versus non-offending male adolescents from low-income New York City neighborhoods and the degree to which these breakdowns are shaped by level of street code adherence and callous-unemotional (CU) traits. Secondary analyses examined the relationship of CU traits with street code adherence and with the capacity to mentalize in the context of attachment relationships given the limited investigation of social-cultural and relational factors that may shape the development of CU traits. Self-report measures assessed participants' level of street code adherence, CU traits and the capacity to mentalize in attachment relationships. Mentalizing capacity in the context of street violence was assessed through a semi-structured interview using movie clips of disrespect murders involving teenaged perpetrators that was coded for level of reflective function by an independent rater as well as analyzed qualitatively.

Violent offenders presented with significantly lower overall mentalizing capacities (M = 3.30, SD = .67) than controls (M = 4.19, SD = .88), t (df) = -2.41, p = .03) in the context of street violence. Qualitatively, violent offenders exhibited more frequent and extensive breakdowns than controls when called upon to mentalize both the perpetrators' and victims' experiences ranging from a more limited affective repertoire to the complete collapse of mentalization and greater defensive distancing (e.g., yawning). A higher level of street code adherence was found to be moderately related to a lower capacity to mentalize in the context of street violence. A medium effect size was found for the relationship between higher levels of CU traits and lower capacity to mentalize the victim's (though not the perpetrators) experience. While this latter finding was not statistically significant it is suggested that with a larger sample size this effect may be statistically significant. Lower mentalizing capacities in the context of attachment relationships were found to be associated with higher levels of street code adherence. From this perspective, individuals whose early attachment related experiences did not support the acquisition of adequate mentalizing capacities may be more drawn to the predictable yet organizing framework for interpersonal interactions provided by street code. Finally, a case study of one of the violent offender participants is presented to demonstrate how impoverished emotional responses among high CU and high street-code adhering youth may, in part, represent a "turning off" of emotions secondary to the trauma of community violence. Implications for the adaption of mentalization-based therapy for street code-invested violent youth are discussed.

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