Crime Research

Sociopathic Children and Psychopathic Behaviour

When you hear the words ‘sociopathic children‘, Damien from The Omen springs to mind but in real-life psychopathic traits and sociopathic behaviour can be seen in children who are not ‘evil‘ but are showing signs of behavioural disturbances. As psychology and neuroscience develop we are beginning to understand more about the behaviour and personalities of children than ever before.

The early identification of conduct disorders and sociopathic tendencies in children are being associated with future anti-social personality disorders and criminal activity as they grow into adults.

Antisocial personality disorder has been found to be present in 50-80% of convicted offenders and it is unlikely this developed without a prior history of some psychopathic tendencies. Furthermore, when certain signs and symptoms are recognized in a child below the age of 10 years, this signals a high risk for behavioural issues in later life such as criminal involvement and mental health difficulties.

We are seeing increasing evidence being presented that the brains of adolescents are still under development and this stage means they can be more impulsive, take more risks and display anti-social behaviours and traits, to the extent that it may mitigate against them having full responsibility for their actions during this time period.

Equally, neuroimaging techniques are being used in studies of known criminals to explore the idea of the criminal brain being different from the non-criminal brain with a view to providing some scientific evidence as to why some people are violent and aggressive and others are not.

Childhood Development

Children learn and grow and the early years of their life can be vital for the development of their personality and their behaviour. They learn what is right and wrong, what their morals are. They find the boundaries to what is acceptable and what is not and develop a sense of self and an individuality which will lead their actions and behaviour choices in the future.

The nature-nurture debate is one of the oldest debates within psychology as to how much of a person’s personality and behaviour can be attributed to nature; their biology and innate functions they are born with and how much is shaped by their environment and experiences as they are growing up.

Within this scientific world of criminal psychological profiling, neuroimaging and identification of features and traits which may point to an anti-social personality or psychopathic personality, children, and specifically psychopathic children, are being looked at as how we can potentially implement this learning and these discoveries for the greater good.

However, this itself poses some very serious moral and ethical concerns. How should intervention take place, who should decide when intervention is necessary and what is the exact nature of that intervention going to be?

Childhood Studies

Dr Adrian Raine has been studying the criminal brain for a number of years and has more recently become interested in the development of children. Specifically he has been studying which children go on to become criminal offenders and which do not and what the determining factors or differences may be.

A paper published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2010 detailed a study of 1,795 children from the ages of 3 to 23 years. The study focused on aspects of their growth and development and found that 137 of the children studied grew up to engage in criminal activity by age 23 years. The study highlighted the results from fear conditioning tests they had carried out with the children when they were 3 years old. These tests aimed to condition children to fear an outcome, in this case a loud and unpleasant noise.

The children were conditioned through training to associate this unpleasant outcome with a particular sound. Whenever they heard this sound they would expect the unpleasant noise to follow and this would entice a fear conditioning response. Electrodermal responses were measured from the children during the tests which tracked their unconscious responses to the feared noise through the skin on their index and middle fingers.

They found that those children who did not show fear conditioning during such tests, i.e. did not come to expect and fear the unpleasant noise, were the ones who later engaged in criminal behaviour including property, drug, violence, and serious driving offences.

This is thought to be the first study that has linked a deficit in fear conditioning in young children to adult criminality. It is believed that poor fear conditioning suggests these individuals lack fear and are therefore more likely to be involved in dangerous and risky behaviour with little regard for the consequences.

Related: Serial Killers and Childhood Abuse: Is There a Link?

Behaviour Disorders in Children

Childhood predictors of antisocial behaviour may be strong enough to justify early intervention in order to try and prevent serious behaviour issues in adulthood (Hill, 2003) Furthermore, aggressive and disruptive behaviours displayed before the age of 11 years are strongly associated with antisocial behaviours in adulthood.

The development of antisocial behaviour disorder for example is rare without a prior history of behaviour problems. Around 15-30% of convicted criminals show the characteristics of psychopathic disorder which include traits such as callousness, grandiosity, deceitfulness and lack of remorse.

Research has suggested that psychopathic children do not process the behaviours of others in the same way, particularly regarding distress and are unable to control their aggressive behaviour in response.

Childhood Personality Disorders

Callous-unemotional (CU) traits are closely associated with a high risk of psychopathic tendencies as adults. Psychopathy in adults is a personality disorder very much linked to violent and criminal behaviour and an overall pattern of antisocial behaviour. Traits which can characterize the condition include arrogance and manipulation, lack of remorse or emotion, irresponsible and impulsive behaviour.

Children who show callous-unemotional traits often lack empathy and guilt, can come across as uncaring to others and often show little interest in the feelings of others or in the consequences of their own behaviours.

Further associations have been identified:

  • aggression and delinquency and a fearless temperament
  • unaffected by punishment with low levels of stress
  • prefer excitement, dangerous activities and are easily board
  • rarely anxious or stressed

This can be why attempts at socialization often fails for these children. For psychopathic children, the normal cues needed to elicit a response, such as someone crying, does not entice a reaction from the child because these things do not cause an unpleasant emotional state for them to react to i.e. they don’t feel guilty or worried.

Often psychopathic children will tend to continue engaging in behaviour for which they are repeatedly punished for; the punishment has little effect emotionally and does not act as a deterrent for the future.

Psychopath Myths and Facts

  • People think of psychopaths as psychotic killers and people who stand out from the crowd – that is not necessarily the case
  • People can function quite normally and blend into society with a complete lack of morals and indifference to others and their suffering
  • Not all psychopaths will commit the most horrendous of acts and such acts are not the criteria for being labelled a psychopath
  • Psychopaths are generally very intelligent, they know what other people are feeling, they just don’t feel it themselves
  • About 1% of the general population are psychopaths, but not all of them are criminals
  • Many use their skills to become very successful in life

Early Identification of Risk

The idea of identifying those at risk and intervening for psychopathic children is not new. A number of studies in the 1940’s highlighted the importance of treating such conditions in younger populations where it was believed the issues were rooted, in order to prevent them becoming problematic in later years.

However, it has been the last 20 years that has really seen a movement forward in this area. What is clear is that while the research suggesting early intervention would be beneficial for psychopathic children has built quite a strong argument, exactly how to go about this remains vague.

There are a number of questions still outstanding which include:

    • How would children be screened and identified for such early interventions?
    • Which groups of children would be identified, i.e. which traits should be targeted (fearlessness, narcissism, manipulation, aggression)
    • Which type of treatment would be most effective in each case?
    • If children or teens score highly in psychopathy, anti-social and/or criminal behaviour areas, how should they be treated, when should they be treated and by whom?

General behaviour problems can be addressed very effectively with cognitive behavioural approaches, but psychopathy does not respond as well to this treatment. Some studies have suggested family, cognitive behavioural and motivational type interventions have been successful but much more research would be needed before this could be taken forward in any form of practical manner.

The Benefits of Early  Intervention

Research carried out by criminologist Nathalie Fontaine of Indiana University is intriguing as it highlights these traits are not fixed and permanent within children. She found that as psychopathic children grow older and develop, such traits can change highlighting that intervention at an early stage, even for children who are already showing such risk factors, may well be very effective.

There are many cases of individuals who have engaged in criminal activity at some point in their lives and now no longer do so. Just as not all children who show psychopathic tendencies will grow up to have anti-social behaviour issues, not all children who commit criminal acts go on to become life-time criminals. However, the risk is considerably higher and at a level where early intervention could make difference to the future path of a child.

What types of intervention however, does not appear to be clearly understood at this stage. Certainly the extreme type would involve surgery of some form to ‘correct’ or ‘modify’ brain areas to encourage better behaviour and less impulsive and risk taking behaviour. However, social interventions can also be very effective and may be a more realistic type of intervention that could be made available to psychopathic children which is much less dangerous, invasive and severe.

Fontaine’s studies have highlighted that those children with callousness and who show little emotion do not respond as well as children without those traits to the standard parenting methods. Therefore, more tailored programme based on the psychology of such behaviour may be more appropriate and more effective. If such behaviours can be controlled and modified at an early age, they are less likely to become problematic, and potentially dangerous, behaviours in the future.

Association of Poor Childhood Fear Conditioning and
Adult Crime

Journal: American Journal of Psychiatry
Authors: Gao, Y., Raine, A., Venables, P.H., Dawson, M.E., and Mednick, S.A.

Objective: Amygdala dysfunction is theorizedto give rise to poor fear conditioning,which in turn predisposes to crime,but it is not known whether poor conditioningprecedes criminal offending. This study prospectively assessed whether poor fear conditioning early in life predisposes to adult crime in a large cohort. Method: Electrodermal fear conditioningwas assessed in a cohort of 1,795 childrenat age 3, and registration for criminal offendingwas ascertained at age 23. In acase-control design, 137 cohort members with a criminal record were matched ongender, ethnicity, and social adversity with 274 noncriminal comparison members. Statistical analyses compared childhood fear conditioning for the two groups. Results: Criminal offenders showed significantly reduced electrodermal fear conditioning at age 3 compared to matched comparison subjects. Conclusions: Poor fear conditioning at age 3 predisposes to crime at age 23. Poor fear conditioning early in life implicates amygdala and ventral prefrontal cortex dysfunction and a lack of fear of socializing punishments in children who grow up to become criminals. These findings are consistent with a neurodevelopmental contribution to crime causation.

Read the full paper


  1. Chivers, T (2014) Psychopaths: How can you spot one? The Telegraph, 06 April 2014
  2. Da Silva, D.R., Rijo, D., and Salekin, R.T (2013) Child and Adolescent Psychopathy: Assessment Issues and Treatment Needs, Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 18, pp71-78
  3. Fontaine, N.M.G., McCrory, E.J.P, Boivin, M., Moffitt, T.E., Viding, E (2011) Predictors and outcomes of joint trajectories of callous-unemotional traits and conduct problems in childhood, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 120(3), pp730-742
  4. Hill, J (2003) Early identification of individuals at risk for antisocial personality disorder The British Journal of Psychiatry, 182, s11-s14
  5. Kimonis, E.R., Ogg, J., and Fefer, S (2014) The Relevance of Callous-Unemotion Traits to Working with Youth with Conduct Problems, NASP, Vol 42, Issue 5, Research Based Practice

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2015, July 14). Sociopathic Children and Psychopathic Behaviour. Retrieved from


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  • Hi Liam, it certainly is and I think as time goes on we are going to discover more and more. There are some great Big Think talks by Dr. Stone, glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by!

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  • I have taken a lot of college class at Pikes Peak Community College. Mostly psychology and sociology. And like all Psy and Soc majors, in order to help solve my own problems. Looking over the last few years text books, it is all genetic. The only two things that are not genetic are religion and politics. Those are learned from the parents who raised you. This is very important. From my new book Military Sex Police

  • In my opinion “evil” is exactly sociopathic, psychopathic and is a behavior disturbance. The pathology of all of those categories is in the brains of each disturbing individual. There is either too much or two little of the substances which causes the behaviors or a malformation in the frontal or other area of the brain. Being evil is a behavior disturbance caused by brain pathology.

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