I’ve just finished reading this chilling article from the New York Times Magazine, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?” (5/14/12). Using the story of a frighteningly cruel and cold-blooded 9-year-old as an illustration, the article presents evidence that violent adult psychopaths manifest a “distinctive lack of affect, remorse, or empathy” in childhood, and that these tendencies result from genetic brain defects. According to the author, Jennifer Kahn,
[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.
Researchers have linked coldblooded behaviors to low levels of cortisol and below-normal function in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes fear and other aversive emotions, like shame. The desire to avoid these unpleasant feelings, [researcher] Waschbusch notes, is what motivates young children to behave. “Normally, when a 2-year-old pushes his baby sister, and his sister cries, and his parents scold him, those reactions make the kid feel uncomfortable, Waschbrusch continued. “And that discomfort keeps him from doing it again. The difference with the callous-unemotional kids is that they don’t feel uncomfortable. So they don’t develop the same aversion to punishment or to the experience of hurting someone.”
. . . .
Magnetic resonance imaging on the brains of adult psychopaths has shown that appears to be significant anatomical differences: a small subgenual cortex and a 5 to 10 percent reduction in brain density in portions of the paralimbic system, regions of the brain associated with empathy and social values, and active in moral decisionmaking. According to James Blair, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, two of these areas, the orbitofrontal cortext and the caudate, are critical for reinforcing positive outcomes and discouraging negative ones. In callous-unemotional children, Blair says, that connection may be defective, with negative feedback not registering the way it would in a normal brain.
The article focuses on the dilemma of what to do with callous-unemotional children. Some experts favor formal diagnosis and treatment of this disorder in the hope of preventing future criminality. Others question whether this sort of personality disorder can be accurately diagnosed in kids, and express concern about the consequences of labeling a child as a psychopath, especially when no treatment for the condition has yet been proven effective.
I wonder about the implications of this research for the punishment of adult psychopaths who commit crimes. According to Kahn, it is estimated that between 15% and 25% of the prison population are psychopaths. If this is true, then psychopathy is a very important reality in the criminal-justice system. Judges and prosecutors, for instance, may routinely encounter psychopaths. Can they be readily identified? Do legal professionals understand the genetic basis for this condition and how it affects moral reasoning? Should such an understanding affect the way that the criminal-justice system responds to crimes committed by psychopaths?
On the one hand, the fact that a crime results from an underlying neurological condition beyond the offender’s control should lessen the blameworthiness of the offense. On the other hand, rehabilitative prospects are poor, which may point in the direction of a long incapacitative sentence.
Last week, I blogged about new research suggesting that interventions with impulsive offenders may prove effective in enhancing self-control. Ironically, helping psychopaths to better control their impulses may actually make them more dangerous, given their proclivities for cold-blooded assaults.
Another wrinkle is this: while nearly all adult psychopaths may display callous-unemotional tendencies as children, not all children with such tendencies grow up to be dangerous criminals. It seems that many kids with severely stunted moral emotions (perhaps something like half) manage eventually to figure out how to live their lives in conformity with basic social norms.
All of this reminds me of the TV series “Dexter,” which I have been watching recently. Dexter certainly seems a paradigmatic example of the person who lacks any sense of empathy or remorse, and we know that these deficiencies marked his childhood, too. Yet, with the rigorous training of his step-father, Dexter manages to figure out how to fake a normal emotional life and, at least by day, lives a life that any external observer would characterize as quite well-adjusted. To be sure, there are those night-time killings, but they, too, are consistent in their own way with a strict moral code instilled by the step-father.
I thus found intriguing Kahn’s observation that the right sort of treatment of callous-unemotional children may “teach a kind of intellectual morality,” as contrasted with the “normal” morality that is grounded in emotions like empathy and remorse. I have long been fascinated by the interplay of emotions and logic in moral judgment. Research on the neurological causes of psychopathy seems to lay bare the crucial role of emotions in moral behavior. Research on treatment, though, may ultimately give us a better appreciation for the potential contributions of the intellect.