A new study is claiming 1 in 100 children in the UK exhibit psychopathic tendencies.
According to Professor Essi Viding from University College London who led the study, these children are capable of acute cruelty, manipulation and deceit, and other severe behaviors — often without remorse. Viding carried out twin studies on a control group of children (including her own child) and says the study’s findings indicate that:
“For the group which has callous-unemotional traits [CU], there’s a strong genetic vulnerability.”
“This does not mean these children are born anti-social or are destined to become anti-social. But in the same way that some of us are more susceptible to heart disease, these children are people who are more vulnerable to environmental influences that trigger the anti-social outcome.”
Such children, Viding says, are not primarily the products of bad parenting. Unlike typical problem children, this sub-group of psychopathic-tending children are not simply exhibiting anti-social behavior but something more dangerous.
Viding postulates between a quarter and half of children with conduct issues may fall into the CU category, slightly less than one percent of all children. Typically unresponsive to the standard punishments used on even chronically badly behaved children, time outs and “naughty chairs” are futile with this sub-group.
Perhaps controversially, Viding recounts how she applied a “Kevin test” when she pretended to cry in front of her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. [The reference is to the male, teenage character in the novel, and later film, We Need To Talk About Kevin.]
“I was very relieved when my daughter promptly burst into tears,” Viding says. “I’m not saying that a child who wouldn’t start crying at that point is then diagnostic of being a psychopath, but I think that’s one fairly crude way to see how your child reacts emotionally.”
The professor also says parents of children with CU traits are often aware their child is different to other children.
“The kinds of features that parents report are cruelty to animals, cruelty to younger siblings and lying and not having any remorse or concern about getting caught,” says Viding.
Viding also says there is embryonic evidence that psychopathic children can respond to what she terms “warm parenting.” This is explained as giving such children what they want in return for good behavior.
“We may need to appeal to their selfish motives,” she says.
Professor Viding will be a guest speaker at the British Science Festival, which opens at the University of Aberdeen next Tuesday.