Maria Symchych/Shutterstock
Source: Maria Symchych/Shutterstock

It’s always comforting to think that people can change if they’re given the right conditions. If, as the philosopher John Locke suggested, we are all born as “blank slates,” any writing on these slates that occurs early in life should be modifiable. Even renowned psychologist William James felt that personality wasn’t set in stone until we reach age 30. How, then, do we explain the results of new research by University of Michigan’s Rebecca Waller and colleagues (2016) suggesting that early signs of psychopathy can be seen in children as young as two years old?

When looking back at the behavior of adults with known antisocial or psychopathic tendencies, people often say that they "saw it coming," citing examples such as bullying other children, abusing family pets, and engaging in petty thievery. However, such theorizing about people is generally done retrospectively. In other words, you know that a person has become antisocial or exhibited psychopathic tendencies as an adult, and that colors the way you remember the person as a child. It’s much more meaningful to predict psychopathy in adulthood moving forward, starting with observations of individuals in childhood and following up to see if those traits develop.

To clarify the meaning of psychopathy, most definitions rely on Robert D. Hare’s two-factor model, which distinguishes between Factor 1—the shallow affect, superficial charm, manipulativeness, and lack of empathy—and Factor 2, or the inability to show remorse and the behaviors associated with the socially deviant lifestyle of impulsiveness and criminality. Both of these may become evident in childhood, but how early?

To answer this question, Waller and her co-authors took advantage of an unusual data set in which a sample of 731 two-year-olds and their mothers were followed through the age of nine-and-a-half. The researchers focused on what they call Callous-Unemotional (CU) pre-psychopathic behavior of low levels of empathy and guilt, and a general lack of feeling for others. One limitation to the study is that the participants were not representative of the entire socioeconomic scale, as they were from low-income homes and already had a number of risk factors.

The Waller team's measure of psychopathy asked the primary parent, the other parent, and teachers to rate the child in question on Deceitful-Callous (DC) behavior to assess both the tendency to lack feelings for others and the tendency to lie. (The CU measures in other, similar studies didn't ask for ratings of deceitfulness.)

These were the five items on the DC scale:

  1. Child doesn’t seem guilty after misbehaving.
  2. Punishment doesn’t change behavior.
  3. Child is selfish/won’t share.
  4. Child lies.
  5. Child is sneaky and tries to get around me.

Children’s behavior problems were indicated by items such as getting into fights, destroying toys and other objects, and having temper tantrums.

It is important to note that the study design isolated personality from behavioral difficulties, allowing researchers to rule out the fact that kids who get in trouble early in life continue to create problems for themselves when they get older.

The findings revealed that by age three, toddlers who were rated high on the DC scale developed into children with significant behavior problems. This prediction was significant above and beyond the effect of earlier behavior predicting later behavior. The mothers' DC ratings of their two-year-olds were enough to predict later behavior problems, and by age three, the DC ratings provided by other caregivers and teachers became reliable predictors as well.

It makes sense that the person with primary responsibility for the child would notice problems earlier in a child's life than others. These disruptive behaviors may be written off in two-year-olds by those not as close to them as signs of the “terrible twos,” which, when not outgrown, take on a more serious, if not ominous, quality.

The authors believe that their findings can have preventative value because when very young children are identified as being at risk for psychopathy, parents and teachers can take steps to help them develop more positive, prosocial, emotional ways of relating to others. Such interventions need to take place across the board, though. As the authors note, “parental characteristics, attitudes, caregiving practices, and the broader family ecology” (p. 1817) need to be taken into account when identifying risk and then changing the environment to maximize a child's chances of overcoming personality traits destined to lead to problems later in life.

The answer to the question of how early you can spot a psychopath appears to be almost as early as children’s personalities begin to emerge—the age of two when it comes to parents, and by the age of three when it comes to others in a child’s life. The good news is that, with this knowledge, interventions can be taken to help alter the course of the child’s development.

Whether you believe it's nature or nurture that causes a person to become a psychopath, early recognition of these behavior problems is vital to altering that child’s ultimate path through life. In an earlier paper, a team led by the University of Michigan's Luke Hyde (2016) concluded that parenting style can help children with heritable risk for developing the CU form of early psychopathy. 

If you’re dealing with adults who display psychopathy, though, it is obviously not possible to rewrite their histories. Maybe psychopaths become that way early in life, but recognizing just how early may help you see them from a slightly more empathic perspective.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this post.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

References

Hyde, L. W., Waller, R., Trentacosta, C. J., Shaw, D. S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Ganiban, J. M., & ... Leve, L. D. (2016). Heritable and nonheritable pathways to early callous-unemotional behaviors. The American Journal Of Psychiatry, 173(9), 903-910. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.15111381

Waller, R., Dishion, T. J., Shaw, D. S., Gardner, F., Wilson, M. N., & Hyde, L. W. (2016). Does early childhood callous-unemotional behavior uniquely predict behavior problems or callous-unemotional behavior in late childhood?. Developmental Psychology, 52(11), 1805-1819. doi:10.1037/dev0000165

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