Can Children Be Psychopaths?

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    Default Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    What does everyone think of this article from The New York Times on "psychopathy" in children?

    Quote Originally Posted by The New York Times
    By the time he turned 5, Michael had developed an uncanny ability to switch from full-blown anger to moments of pure rationality or calculated charm — a facility that Anne describes as deeply unsettling. “You never know when you’re going to see a proper emotion,” she said. She recalled one argument, over a homework assignment, when Michael shrieked and wept as she tried to reason with him. “I said: ‘Michael, remember the brainstorming we did yesterday? All you have to do is take your thoughts from that and turn them into sentences, and you’re done!’ He’s still screaming bloody murder, so I say, ‘Michael, I thought we brainstormed so we could avoid all this drama today.’ He stopped dead, in the middle of the screaming, turned to me and said in this flat, adult voice, ‘Well, you didn’t think that through very clearly then, did you?’ ”

    ...

    For the past 10 years, Waschbusch has been studying “callous-unemotional” children — those who exhibit a distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy — and who are considered at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults. To evaluate Michael, Waschbusch used a combination of psychological exams and teacher- and family-rating scales, including the Inventory of Callous-Unemotional Traits, the Child Psychopathy Scale and a modified version of the Antisocial Process Screening Device — all tools designed to measure the cold, predatory conduct most closely associated with adult psychopathy. (The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” are essentially identical.) A research assistant interviewed Michael’s parents and teachers about his behavior at home and in school. When all the exams and reports were tabulated, Michael was almost two standard deviations outside the normal range for callous-unemotional behavior, which placed him on the severe end of the spectrum.

    Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children, but a growing number of psychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5. Crucial to this diagnosis are callous-unemotional traits, which most researchers now believe distinguish “fledgling psychopaths” from children with ordinary conduct disorder, who are also impulsive and hard to control and exhibit hostile or violent behavior. According to some studies, roughly one-third of children with severe behavioral problems — like the aggressive disobedience that Michael displays — also test above normal on callous-unemotional traits. (Narcissism and impulsivity, which are part of the adult diagnostic criteria, are difficult to apply to children, who are narcissistic and impulsive by nature.)
    It's certainly interesting and, if it turns out that psychopathy is a real medical disorder, it's good if we're detecting it early. But I'm also worried about the implications of this. I've seen some calls in the Facebook comments on this article and such that we should start sterilizing psychopaths or locking them up pre-emptively and, yeah, that would be pretty terrible if you got the diagnosis wrong. (Not that I think those are real possibilities, but there could be other cases where people overreact to this.)

    Also, it seems like a lot of the criteria here to distinguish psychopaths are really close to other disorders, like autism. I mean, autistic kids aren't going to be showing the more obvious signs they describe in the article, like cutting off the family pet's tail "just to see how it reacts," but how does one pin down what looks like "a lack of remorse or empathy" to actually lacking those things as opposed to just having difficulty expressing them (as is often the case in autistic children)? Empathy - which is different from merely being sympathetic, but requires you to be able to put yourself in the other person's shoes and really feel for them - is also a rather complex emotion that I wouldn't think we should expect out of young children necessarily. They seem to be trying to distinguish it from other disorders, but I still think it's a leap to say that acting one way when you're a little kid and your brain isn't fully developed means you are destined to act that way later - at least, without a brain scan to show they actually do have a lack of activity in the amygdala and other genetic, hardwired characteristics associated with psychopathy.

    Also: "Like, we worry about hurting others, because we feel empathy. Or we worry about other people not liking us. Or we worry about getting caught. When you start to take away those inhibitors, I think that’s when you end up with psychopathy." Did anybody else think of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory here?
    Last edited by Misato Katsuragi; 14th May 2012 at 11:32 PM.

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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    This article right here is why I'm on the neutral side of child discipline. Psychopathy appears to be a very serious mental disorder, because it's like a slasher film that's coming true.

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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    I don't see why children couldn't be psychopathic. In a case of this, it's pretty much the same effect as other kinds of mental illness being exhibited by kids.

    I'm not really qualified to speak on all the specifics of mental illness, but again, I think it's perfectly possible for kids to be psychopathic.

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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    Psychopaths will be psychopaths no matter what the age, is what I believe.

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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jack Pschitt View Post
    I don't see why children couldn't be psychopathic. In a case of this, it's pretty much the same effect as other kinds of mental illness being exhibited by kids.

    I'm not really qualified to speak on all the specifics of mental illness, but again, I think it's perfectly possible for kids to be psychopathic.
    I think it's because, right now, psychopathy isn't an actual medical disorder (the people in the article are trying to change that), and also because of the way psychopaths in our culture are viewed as beyond repair and as the sickened and most hardened people out there.

    A lot of the debate here is also whether psychopathy is genetic or environmental, and if it's the latter that would suggest kids can't be because you'd have to be turned into a psychopath through your rough life, and kids aren't done developing yet. It could also be a combination of the two, though, which looks like the case with what they're describing in the article.

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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    Interesting. I'd be curious to know what they found in the end, if it is a real condition or a side affect of a tough lifestyle...

    I do think children can be Psychopaths though, like the case of Alyssa Bustamante who killed her next door neighbor and wrote in her diary "I just f***ing killed someone and it was ahmazing". She told police that she "wanted to know what it felt like". Sure, she was 15, not 5, but the brain isn't still fully developed at that age and she isn't an adult (at least not in modern times. Maybe in medieval times).
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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    You know, there are psychopaths who go batshit crazy and start slashing around and have no remorse, but most of the psychopaths in the world are perfectly functional people who contribute to society. That scares me.
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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    Quote Originally Posted by Goodbye Blue Monday View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Jack Pschitt View Post
    I don't see why children couldn't be psychopathic. In a case of this, it's pretty much the same effect as other kinds of mental illness being exhibited by kids.

    I'm not really qualified to speak on all the specifics of mental illness, but again, I think it's perfectly possible for kids to be psychopathic.
    I think it's because, right now, psychopathy isn't an actual medical disorder (the people in the article are trying to change that), and also because of the way psychopaths in our culture are viewed as beyond repair and as the sickened and most hardened people out there.
    .
    Quote Originally Posted by Hallowheart View Post
    Interesting. I'd be curious to know what they found in the end, if it is a real condition or a side affect of a tough lifestyle...

    I do think children can be Psychopaths though, like the case of Alyssa Bustamante who killed her next door neighbor and wrote in her diary "I just f***ing killed someone and it was ahmazing". She told police that she "wanted to know what it felt like". Sure, she was 15, not 5, but the brain isn't still fully developed at that age and she isn't an adult (at least not in modern times. Maybe in medieval times).
    Maybe I'm misinterpreting your posts here, but it seems to me that you're under the impression that the status of psychopathy as a medical problem is up for debate, which is not the case. Psychopathy is accepted as a distinct type of personality disorder, meaning its a mental illness and therefore a "real" medical condition/disease[1][2][3].

    As for the cause of psychopathy, from what I have read, there seems to be a genetic predisposition that can be suppressed or brought on by the environment to varying degrees between subjects.

    EDIT: With regards to reforming psychopaths, I wouldn't hold your breath. Psychopathy is currently considered untreatable, with management & prevention being the best one can hope for at present (though, this may change in the future as research marches on). The main problem is that you can't punish a psychopath because they feel no shame or guilt over their actions. Rehabilitation holds even bleaker prospects over punishment - you can't therapise them since they'll just play mind games and/or manipulate the therapist into believing they're making progress. In fact, therapy tends to worsen the condition as they just use the therapy as a way to broaden & hone their skill set of manipulation, perfecting their ability to mimic remorse and guilt (without actually feeling it).
    Last edited by Green Zubat; 16th May 2012 at 05:20 PM.



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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    Quote Originally Posted by Green Zubat View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Goodbye Blue Monday View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Jack Pschitt View Post
    I don't see why children couldn't be psychopathic. In a case of this, it's pretty much the same effect as other kinds of mental illness being exhibited by kids.

    I'm not really qualified to speak on all the specifics of mental illness, but again, I think it's perfectly possible for kids to be psychopathic.
    I think it's because, right now, psychopathy isn't an actual medical disorder (the people in the article are trying to change that), and also because of the way psychopaths in our culture are viewed as beyond repair and as the sickened and most hardened people out there.
    .
    Quote Originally Posted by Hallowheart View Post
    Interesting. I'd be curious to know what they found in the end, if it is a real condition or a side affect of a tough lifestyle...

    I do think children can be Psychopaths though, like the case of Alyssa Bustamante who killed her next door neighbor and wrote in her diary "I just f***ing killed someone and it was ahmazing". She told police that she "wanted to know what it felt like". Sure, she was 15, not 5, but the brain isn't still fully developed at that age and she isn't an adult (at least not in modern times. Maybe in medieval times).
    Maybe I'm misinterpreting your posts here, but it seems to me that you're under the impression that the status of psychopathy as a medical problem is up for debate, which is not the case. Psychopathy is accepted as a distinct type of personality disorder, meaning its a mental illness and therefore a "real" medical condition/disease[1][2][3].

    As for the cause of psychopathy, from what I have read, there seems to be a genetic predisposition that can be suppressed or brought on by the environment to varying degrees between subjects.

    EDIT: With regards to reforming psychopaths, I wouldn't hold your breath. Psychopathy is currently considered untreatable, with management & prevention being the best one can hope for at present (though, this may change in the future as research marches on). The main problem is that you can't punish a psychopath because they feel no shame or guilt over their actions. Rehabilitation holds even bleaker prospects over punishment - you can't therapise them since they'll just play mind games and/or manipulate the therapist into believing they're making progress. In fact, therapy tends to worsen the condition as they just use the therapy as a way to broaden & hone their skill set of manipulation, perfecting their ability to mimic remorse and guilt (without actually feeling it).
    Nah, that's the impression I am giving. I don't know if it is a condition or or not--I don't spend my time researching psychopathy, so yes I'm unsure what it is. Either way, I did say that I was interested to know which it was in the end.
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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    I actually didn't know psychopathy was a medical disorder. I'd think I'd heard somewhere that it wasn't, but I guess it was wrong; maybe it was the way someone was using the word, as a catch-all term for dangerous mentally-ill people rather than a specific disorder. (I also thought what was being described was considered sociopathy.)

    This response article from The Huffington Post, an interview with another psychologist who is also knowledgeable in this area, also seems to go more with what you're saying, Green Zubat. Although he does think that these particular children might be treatable, but basically because they're not quite as slick as the article makes it out to be, that they're not as psychopathic as others (he sees it as a continuum). He says for the truest psychopaths, only people who knew them extremely well would be able to detect them as such and usually far after anything could be done; that wouldn't be the case for the kids in programs like the one described in the article.

    That said, while psychopaths may not respond to therapy, if it's truly due to something defective about their brain (like the stuff the original article describes about issues with their amygdala) couldn't they eventually research a way to provide them medication or surgery that would fix the problem? I mean, they'd have to consent to it if they were adults, but if they were caught early enough their parents could have them go through with it.

    ETA: I also like that he emphasizes that psychopathy requires a lack of empathy and anxiety. I remember that I was always a kid who some school counselors and stuff thought was "sick" because I wasn't very good with empathy until about halfway through adolescence; I would do things to kids that were mean because I didn't realize how it hurt them. As soon as I realized how hurt the other kid was, though, I would feel bad about it. And I was an extremely socially anxious child. The emphasis on lack of empathy in the original article bothered me, because that's also common in lots of other disorders (like autism-spectrum ones, for instance) and this is really one, given the way people see psychopaths, where you'd want to avoid false diagnoses.

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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    Quote Originally Posted by Goodbye Blue Monday View Post
    I actually didn't know psychopathy was a medical disorder. I'd think I'd heard somewhere that it wasn't, but I guess it was wrong; maybe it was the way someone was using the word, as a catch-all term for dangerous mentally-ill people rather than a specific disorder. (I also thought what was being described was considered sociopathy.)

    This response article from The Huffington Post, an interview with another psychologist who is also knowledgeable in this area, also seems to go more with what you're saying, Green Zubat. Although he does think that these particular children might be treatable, but basically because they're not quite as slick as the article makes it out to be, that they're not as psychopathic as others (he sees it as a continuum). He says for the truest psychopaths, only people who knew them extremely well would be able to detect them as such and usually far after anything could be done; that wouldn't be the case for the kids in programs like the one described in the article.
    Yeah, that's what I was on about. We can't cure psychopathy once its developed (well, not yet, anyway), but we can prevent these children who show psychopathic tendencies from developing it.

    That said, while psychopaths may not respond to therapy, if it's truly due to something defective about their brain (like the stuff the original article describes about issues with their amygdala) couldn't they eventually research a way to provide them medication or surgery that would fix the problem?
    Well yeah, there is probably a way to treat it just like there's probably a cure for cancer and AIDS, we just need to bide our time until the "eureka!".

    I mean, they'd have to consent to it if they were adults, but if they were caught early enough their parents could have them go through with it.
    Actually, I'm not sure if I would agree here. Asking for a psychopath's consent to surgically or pharmacologically "normalise" them is, I reckon, akin to asking someone if they want their limbs chopped off. Psychopaths never - genuinely - feel there's something wrong with them, even if they are quite clear that their values are fundamentally different from everyone else. They know what morality is but their pathological heartlessness (along with their lack of fear and shame) leads them to disregard it. Indeed, they see all of US as the sick, weak ones, foolishly allowing ourselves to be restricted by inane concepts such as good and evil. I therefore doubt that they would consent to a surgery that would make them just like us. I mean, I guess its possible, but I just don't see it happening personally.

    Of course, that leads to the question of whether or not its right to just go ahead and alter somebody's personality without their consent, to which I would counter that one must also weigh the economic feasibility of not doing so. To quote the OP's article:

    Quote Originally Posted by NYTimes, "can you call a 9-year old a psychopath?"
    A recent estimate by the neuroscientist Kent Kiehl placed the national cost of psychopathy at $460 billion a year — roughly 10 times the cost of depression — in part because psychopaths tend to be arrested repeatedly. (The societal costs of nonviolent psychopaths may be even higher. Robert Hare, the co-author of “Snakes in Suits,” describes evidence of psychopathy among some financiers and business people; he suspects Bernie Madoff of falling into that category.)
    I'd also argue that people don't have the right to be evil, and so by extension psychopaths shouldn't be allowed the right to refuse treatment (just like they don't have the right to refuse justice), unless said treatment posed them a significant health risk, in which case indefinite detention might arguably be better.

    ETA: I also like that he emphasizes that psychopathy requires a lack of empathy and anxiety. I remember that I was always a kid who some school counselors and stuff thought was "sick" because I wasn't very good with empathy until about halfway through adolescence; I would do things to kids that were mean because I didn't realize how it hurt them. As soon as I realized how hurt the other kid was, though, I would feel bad about it. And I was an extremely socially anxious child. The emphasis on lack of empathy in the original article bothered me, because that's also common in lots of other disorders (like autism-spectrum ones, for instance) and this is really one, given the way people see psychopaths, where you'd want to avoid false diagnoses.
    I see what you mean, and I agree that it is important to avoid false positives, but I'm not sure the confusion would be as easy as to make as I think you might be suggesting (at least, not to a professional trained to assess one for psychopathic tendencies). People with ASD and similar disorders aren't empathetic, or rather, not in the same way psychopaths are. As you said yourself, such people simply don't recognize when they're hurting people, but when do they feel bad about it. Psychopaths on the other hand know when they are hurting people, they just don't care.

    Furthermore, I think psychopathy would be hard to mistake for other disorders when all the criteria are accounted for by a trained clinician.
    Last edited by Green Zubat; 17th May 2012 at 03:26 PM.



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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    Re: the consent thing - the problem is the issue of the slippery slope, which is often a fallacious argument but I think in this particular argument is relevant. Allowing people to be forced to be "cured" for one disorder is going to make it seem legitimate to advocate for with others, and where do you draw the line? For example, there's a huge problem right now in autism advocacy where a good number of the organizations (like Autism Speaks) are not run by anybody who actually has any autism-spectrum disorders, simply people who are friends or relatives who insist they know better than the people who have it do what they want, which is a cure. However, there are a good number of high-functioning autistic people who are able to communicate their desires and do not want a cure (some do, I'm not claiming to speak for all of them especially since I'm not on the autism spectrum, though I have some symptoms of Aspergers) and find that groups like Autism Speaks are denying their agency. I feel like if we start legitimizing it with psychopaths, it'll make that issue even more out-of-control because, even though to people like us there's clearly a distinction between the impact on society of letting psychopaths go without a cure and letting autistic people do so, there are plenty of people out there who do not see it that way, and who is going to be the one who decides? That's a big part of the reason why family members can't force an independent adult to go into a mental home anymore; there's simply too much potential for abuse.


    Quote Originally Posted by Green Zubat View Post
    Furthermore, I think psychopathy would be hard to mistake for other disorders when all the criteria are accounted for by a trained clinician.
    I did have a problem once in elementary school, though, with a school social worker who tried to diagnose me with a bunch of disorders I didn't have, because I was a "problem child" and it was easier to just find some reason to dump me in Special Ed (even though I was actually way ahead of my grade level in most subjects and probably would have been even more bored out of my mind in that class, but she didn't care about my well-being or my education) than actually help me deal with my issues, which were largely due to problems at home. And while she was a social worker, not a psychologist or psychiatrist, she did seem to wield an awful lot of power at that school, and I was just lucky that my mom knew the principal and was able to explain that our actual family psychologist had tested me for everything she was trying to "diagnose" me with and I came up negative. I don't know how common that kind of experience is, though; I'm just saying that given my experience, it might not always be the person who actually is trained who is making those kinds of determinations. Even if only a psychiatrist can prescribe medication it's not like that's the only thing that can go wrong.
    Last edited by Misato Katsuragi; 17th May 2012 at 11:34 PM.

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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    Quote Originally Posted by Green Zubat View Post
    Psychopaths never - genuinely - feel there's something wrong with them, even if they are quite clear that their values are fundamentally different from everyone else.
    As far as I know, few sufferers of mental disorders or diseases do feel like they're different, which has led some, such as Thomas Szasz, to argue that the concept of mental illness is incorrect.

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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    RE: Psychopaths think we're crazy and they're normal. Psychopaths are smart. When you're locked up in a padded room and your meals come to you through a slit in the door (TV-induced inaccuracy ahoy), there's no way that you can't acknowledge the fact that on some level you're fundamentally different from everyone else. I don't see how you wouldn't stumble upon the notion that you are the one outside the norm.
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    Default Re: Can Children Be Psychopaths?

    I myself went through a dark period when I was 9-11 years old where my only interests in life were physically and emotionally harming others for my own pleasure. I was removed from school temporarily as I went over a mental evaluation and went through "treatment" (mostly a "pray the angry away" thing where people showered me with love and undeserved compliments) for my radical thoughts. Granted, I'm still a bit of a depraved loon sometimes...

    Children can definitely be psychopaths. Some people are just wired to snap or think bad things, make plots, etc. no matter the age. Most others are pushed to the edge by society and only demonstrate that kind of behaviour in their adult/late teen years.

    There's not much you can do about it that isn't already being done, though. We can't lock kids up because they think bad things, we can't sterilize them as I don't believe unruly behaviour has ever been tied to genetics. Kids born with mental conditions that make them aggressive and violent need loving, good parents to show them how to properly behave. Prevention comes from that.
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