Crime & Punishment: Rethinking the Bad Seed

Are psychopaths born or made? Problem children can't be scared straight.

By Josh Gowin, published on May 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

In February, an 11-year-old boy in Pennsylvania shot his father's pregnant girlfriend in the head as she slept. Then he headed off to catch his school bus. Was he born bad?

Some kids inherit an extremely fearless temperament that can be detected soon after birth, says Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans who studies children with severe behavioral problems. They seek danger and show no conscience, lacking empathy and guilt. They respond unemotionally to negative events—such as punishment or the distress of others—and they use people for their own gain. Imagine a child tormenting a peer despite repeated scolding, or coolly severing the tail of a shrieking cat just to see what will happen.

Most risk factors for future problem behavior can be assessed before birth—such as having a mother who smoked during pregnancy, coming from a dysfunctional family, or having parents with a history of antisocial behavior, says Richard Tremblay, a psychologist at the University of Montreal who studies violent behavior in children.

Most problem children grow up to become violent offenders only if their conduct is left unchecked. But Frick notes that kids who are extremely callous can't simply be scared straight with punishment. Their behavior improves only when parents learn how to reward positive actions. With proper support given at a young age, they may learn to express their temperament in a more socially appropriate fashion. After all, fearless stock traders and cutthroat lawyers fit in perfectly at some firms.