Psychopath Signs in Children: Not Laughing With Others Could be Early Trait in Boys

Updated | We don't know why people become psychopaths and because they are dangerous, psychologists are eager to spot early warning signs. A team of researchers from the University College London wondered if not laughing with others could be such a trait when it accompanies other types of concerning behaviors.

To study this question, the researchers enrolled 62 boys between the ages of 11 and 16 who exhibited what they termed disruptive behavior, some of whom also showed traits considered to be callous and unemotional. They also enrolled 30 boys who did not exhibit these behaviors.

The researchers defined disruptive behaviors as being aggressive and violent, lying, manipulating and threatening others. Traits considered callous or unemotional included a lack of guilt or a lack of concern about others. "These are the characteristics we see in children that may predispose them to developing [antisocial personality disorder] ASPD later in life," David L. Henderson, a psychiatrist in Dallas, Texas tells Newsweek.

The researchers collected information about the children's behavior prior to age 10 and divided them into three groups: those with disruptive behavior only; those with disruptive behavior and who also showed a tendency for callousness; and those with neither of these traits. The researchers also made sure the groups were even in terms of IQ, age, handedness, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

Before the brain scans, researchers collected information about the boys' early behaviors prior to age 10 to determine what boys displayed persistent disruptive behaviors. A total of three groups were observed: 62 boys with disruptive behavior with or without callous-unemotional traits and 30 normal behaved boys.

To evaluate how these boys process emotions, researchers used functional MRI to analyze brain activity as they played recordings of genuine laughter and posed laughter and crying sounds. Using a seven-point scale, the researchers asked: "How much does hearing the sound make you feel like joining in and/or feeling the emotion?" and "How much does the sound reflect a genuinely felt emotion?" The participants' responses to genuine laughter showed activity in various areas of the brain, including auditory, motor, and premotor regions.

In the results, published in Current Biology, boys who displayed both persistent disruptive behaviors and high levels of callous-unemotional traitswere less likely to laugh when they heard recordings of both genuine laughter and posed laughter.

Because laughter is a social cue—we laugh when others laugh—that lack of response raises red flags among psychologists trying to spot early warning signs of problematic patterns.

Related: How to Spot a Psychopath: Music Taste Can Offer Clues

The fMRIs were revealing. In the children who were considered more disruptive, regions of the brain linked to emotions were not as active as they were with the other children.

Essi Viding, senior author of the study at the University College of London, admits they don't know why a lack of laughter is common among these boys. "My educated guess is there are some boys with disruptive behaviors who have a genetic vulnerability, which means they don't find many emotional stigmas as failures. As a result, they will end up paying attention to different things," Viding tells Newsweek.

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Misbehaved boys who lack guilt are less likely to laugh with their friends. AMER ALMOHIBANY/AFP/Getty Images

Henderson notes that the lack of empathy could be connected to problems in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain that houses our executive decision-making abilities, such as choosing right from wrong, based on the information our brain has collected from the environment.

Environmental factors that can influence how the brain functions, says Viding. "The brain is a learning organ and a learning organ that starts off being different can influence subsequent interactions," she says. If the family in which a child grows up does not laugh often, for example, then the child may be less inclined to laugh because of how their brain functions.

Related: Psychopaths Aren't Natural Liars—They're Just Better at Learning How to Do It

Because laughter is considered a social cue that influences bonding, and is so often contagious, the unusual response to it among boys with behavioral issues raises the possibility that such a lack of response hints at further problems to come.

The notion of identifying such markers of underlying problematic behavior has roots in prior research showing ties between certain childhood traits and more severe issues as adults. A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found toddlers who scored high on a Deceitful-Callous (DC) scale (for example, lack of guilt after misbehaving) at age three grew up to have significant behavior problems during adolescence. Callousness and being unemotional are components associated with psychopathy.

Shanna Donhauser, a child and family therapist in Seattle, Washington, remains wary of early diagnosis of psychopathology in children. She cites many potential explanations for why children act and behave differently from others. "Developmental delays, trauma, parental conflict, stress, developmental regressions, there are many potential reasons for different presentations," says Donhauser. "Understanding underlying causes takes time, observation, assessment, and specialized training."

But Viding emphasizes that the study is not intended to predict which boys will turn into psychopaths and should not raise any alarm bells. Rather, the objective is to find better ways to spot concerning patterns so that grownups can help them "conquer their vulnerabilities," says Viding. The ultimate goal of the work, says Viding, is to give such children "a chance to grow up to be happy."

"These children are not effectively helped at the moment," she says. This study is trying to change behavior and outcomes, "not spot a psychopath."

This article has been updated with additional information and to clarify sourcing.

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