Are you father or mother to a mischievous son? Have you ever wondered if his disregard towards you and others is something more than just childhood or teenage mayhem? Well, you may be right: a new study in the journal Current Biology suggests that there’s a way to tell if your son will develop psychopathic tendencies.
According to the research led by University College London, if your son tends not to laugh when others around him do, then he is at a higher risk of becoming a psychopath when he's older.
“It is not appropriate to label children psychopaths,” senior author Essi Viding, a professor at UCL, said in a statement.
“However, we do know… that there are certain children who are at a higher risk for developing psychopathy, and we screened for those features that indicate that risk.”
One of the hallmarks of psychopathy – which can only concretely develop in adulthood – is a lack of empathy (the ability to understand and share the emotions of others on an intuitive level). Empathy explains why we cry when others around us do; the same goes for yawning and, of course, laughter.
In order to find out if this lack of empathy could be detected in young boys aged 11 to 16, the team of psychologists recruited 62 of them with known disruptive social behaviors and low-to-high callous, unemotional personality traits. In addition, 30 normal boys were used as the control group. They were matched on cognitive ability, socioeconomic background, ethnicity, and so on.
While hooked up to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner – something which tracks the movement of oxygenated blood in the brain – the boys were played audio clips of genuine laughter, along with fake laughter and crying noises. They were then asked to rate, on a scale, how much they wanted to join in with each sound.
As expected, boys that were known to be disruptive and act callously were the least likely to want to join in with the laughter.
Significantly, even though they showed similar brain activity to the rest of the boys – particularly when it came to the auditory cortex where sounds are processed – there were some key differences in the brains of the less empathic boys. In particular, they showed less activity in two parts of the brain that are thought to facilitate emotional resonance.
Previous research has found that the neurological wiring in the brains of those who score strongly on psychopathic tests is fundamentally different to those that do not. Along with the new research, this suggests that although there are some societal aspects to the condition, it’s also a hard-wired trait to some degree.
“Boys at risk of psychopathy have reduced neural/behavioral responses to laughter,” the study concluded. At present, it’s unknown if the same applies to girls.
Here’s an important point to note, though: even if your kid does turn out to be a psychopath, it might not necessarily be a bad thing.
Yes, psychopathy itself, if diagnosable, is a personality disorder that’s characterized by multiple traits including, but not limited to, an ability to become emotionally detached, a poor sense of self-preservation, having anti-authority proclivities, a lack of fear, unconscientiousness, and a lack of empathy.
Sure, someone with these traits could turn out to be rather malevolent – but they could also use them to excel in their careers. Plenty of surgeons, spies, journalists, adventurers, climbers, negotiators, CEOs, and even astronauts have psychopathic tendencies, which allows them to perform in ways that others couldn’t conceive of.
So who knows? Maybe your children will grow up to become supervillains, or maybe they’ll just leave footprints on Mars.