Odd Childhood Trait Linked To Psychopathy In Men

Laughter isn't so contagious for sons at risk of developing psychopathy. esthermm/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 10 Oct 2017, 14:43

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.”

The sample size for this study is extremely small, though, so it almost goes without saying that far more research on the topic is required. In the meantime, this study at least provides an insight into a poorly understood phenomenon.

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.

The same study hasn't been conducted on girls yet. Tatyana Dzemileva/Shutterstock

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.

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