Child surrounded by mess

“Callous” children no more likely to display psychopathy as adults

But may be at greater risk of committing violent crime.

21 August 2019

By Emma Young

Is it possible to spot the signs of future psychopathy in a child? Some researchers have argued that it is — by looking at the child’s level of “interpersonal callousness” (IC), or the extent to which they are manipulative, dishonest, and show a lack of guilt, remorse or distress at being punished. Indeed, previous studies have found that children who rank high for IC are more likely to develop psychopathic features, as well as to commit violent offences in adolescence and adulthood. So, case closed?

Not according to a new study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. This work, led by Meagan Docherty and Jordan Beardslee at Arizona State University, suggests that other important risk factors for these negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood haven’t been properly taken into account — and that when they are, the apparent link between childhood callousness and psychopathy in adulthood disappears.

Docherty and Beardslee’s team analysed data collected for the Pittsburgh Youth Study (PYS), in which boys were regularly interviewed and assessed using a variety of measures, from their early childhood in the late 1980s through to adulthood. The PYS group was deliberately skewed to over-include boys who, based on early problem behaviour, were considered to be at a higher risk of going on to commit serious crimes. The datasets also included any official records of later offending, and the results of follow-up assessments of psychopathic features, physical aggression and antisocial behaviour on into adulthood.

The 503 participants included in this study had been rated for callousness each year from the ages of 8 to 15 by their teachers, who assessed their level of agreement with statements like “doesn’t seem to feel guilty after misbehaving.” The team divided the participants into various callousness groups: those deemed to have low, moderate or high IC levels, for example; groups who’d shown callousness only during childhood, or in whom it appeared only in adolescence; and also a group in which IC developed early on and remained high and stable. They then compared this data with levels of psychopathic features (such as being manipulative or antisocial) and physical aggression at age 29, and also, as a measure of antisocial behaviour, official criminal records.

The researchers also took into account a number of potentially confounding factors that might themselves relate to later violent crimes or psychopathy. These included any records of arrests by age 15, and also “externalising” behaviours (physical aggression, verbal bullying and defiance, for example) during adolescence.

When these factors were included in the analysis, membership of the various callousness groups during childhood or adolescence did not predict later adult psychopathic features. This means that people who’d been deemed to have high IC as children were no more likely to show signs of psychopathy in adulthood than those who’d had no or low levels of callousness in childhood. “These results suggest that the stability from IC early in life to psychopathic features in adulthood might be overstated in prior studies that do not control for early problem behaviours,” the researchers write.

There were, though, associations between certain callousness groups and aggression and antisocial behaviour in adolescence and adulthood. Those participants with early-onset, high-level and stable callousness were more likely to be aggressive and to engage in serious violence in adulthood. (Members of this particular IC group were two to three times more likely to be arrested for serious violence than those in any other IC group.)

The team says that they would like to see more research into why IC follows distinct patterns in different young people. Perhaps warm parenting can ‘treat’ deficits in moral development, which might appear as symptoms of IC in childhood that vanish by adolescence, for example; in contrast, harsh parenting might encourage the emergence of IC in otherwise typical adolescents.

Further reading

– Developmental Trajectories of Interpersonal Callousness From Childhood to Adolescence as Predictors of Antisocial Behavior and Psychopathic Features in Young Adulthood

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest