Nine Year Old Psychopaths and the Limits of Compassion

If you haven’t read Jennifer Kahn’s lengthy piece about child psychopathy in The NY Times […]

David Zahl / 5.16.12

If you haven’t read Jennifer Kahn’s lengthy piece about child psychopathy in The NY Times Magazine, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?,” it’s eye-opening to say the least. Perhaps not recommended for parents of small children…  Ms. Kahn profiles a few of what are officially classified as the “Callous Unemotional” or “C.U.’s”, children whose anti-social behavior includes both an inability to feel empathy and acute rage of the most calculated kind (which distinguishes them from other volatile children, who are more impulsive). It’s pretty chilling. But as gruesomely fascinating as the details are, more relevant to us are the pastoral implications, that is, how one might comfort such children and their parents. Here are a few excerpts from the piece, followed by a bit more commentary and a response that appeared on Slate:

Others fear that even if such a diagnosis can be made accurately, the social cost of branding a young child a psychopath is simply too high. (The disorder has historically been considered untreatable.) John Edens, a clinical psychologist at Texas A&M University, has cautioned against spending money on research to identify children at risk of psychopathy. “This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”

“The thing that’s jumped out at me most is the manipulativeness that these kids are showing,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “They’re not like A.D.H.D. kids who just act impulsively. And they’re not like conduct-disorder kids, who are like: ‘Screw you and your game! Whatever you tell me, I’m going to do the opposite.’ The C.U. kids are capable of following the rules very carefully. They just use them to their advantage.”

According to Waschbusch, calculated behavior like L.’s distinguishes so-called “hot-blooded” conduct disorders from more “coldblooded” problems like psychopathy. “Hot-blooded kids tend to act out very impulsively,” he added as we followed the children inside. “One theory is that they’ve got a hyperactive threat-detection system. They’re very fast to recognize anger and fear.” Coldblooded, callous-unemotional children, by contrast, are capable of being impulsive, but their misbehavior more often seems calculated. “Instead of someone who can’t sit still, you get a person who may be hostile when provoked but who also has this ability to be very cold. The attitude is, ‘Let’s see how I can use this situation to my advantage, no matter who gets hurt from that.’ ”

These differences, researchers say, are most likely genetic in origin. One study calculated the heritability of callous-unemotional traits at 80 percent. Donald Lynam, a psychologist at Purdue University who has spent two decades studying “fledgling psychopaths,” says that these differences may eventually solidify to produce the unusual mixture of intelligence and coldness that characterizes adult psychopaths. “The question’s not ‘Why do some people do bad things?’ ” Lynam told me by phone. “It’s ‘Why don’t more people do bad things?’ And the answer is because most of us have things that inhibit us. Like, we worry about hurting others, because we feel empathy. Or we worry about other people not liking us. Or we worry about getting caught. When you start to take away those inhibitors, I think that’s when you end up with psychopathy.”

Since psychopathy is highly heritable, Lynam says, a child who is cold or callous is more likely to have a parent who is the same way. And because parents don’t necessarily bond to children who behave cruelly, those children tend to get punished more and nurtured less, creating what he calls “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” “It reaches a point where the parents just stop trying,” Lynam said. “A lot of the training is about trying to get these kids’ parents to re-engage, because they feel like they’ve tried it all and nothing works.”

Anne admitted to me that this had been her experience. “As horrible as this is to say, as a mom, the truth is that you put up a wall. It’s like being in the army, facing a barrage of fire every day. You have to steel yourself against the outbursts and the hate.”

“I’ve always said that Michael will grow up to be either a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer.” Told that other parents might be shocked to hear her say such a thing, she sighed, then was silent for several seconds. “To them I’d say that they shouldn’t judge until they’ve walked in my shoes,” she said finally. “Because, you know, it takes a toll. There’s not a lot of joy and happiness in raising Michael.”


On Slate, Amanda Marcotte sniffed out the disturbing double-standard at work here. Namely, our cultural sympathy normally extends to those who “aren’t to blame” for their condition — she makes the controversial comparison between the parents of children with autism and parents of these so-called psychopaths. Even though the science seems to be indicating that both diagnoses are neurological in nature, one condition garners sympathy and one does not, revealing some uncomfortable underlying emotional factors (calling Jonathan Haidt!). Not having much grasp of the precise factors at work, I’m not qualified to comment on that specific comparison. However, the notion that sympathy is directly correlated with the inability to control your problems hits a bit closer to home. The idea being that “nurture” is something we can control and “nature” something we can’t, which has always struck me as one of the more superficial assumptions in our culture. Laying aside the obvious objection that no one chooses their parents (or their kids), a cursory understanding of original sin is helpful. Parents are just as susceptible to Adam’s inheritance as their children. They are dealing with just as many reflexive subconscious instincts as anyone else. But that doesn’t make those instincts somehow good or positive ones. It doesn’t exonerate them, regardless of age. Far from it. This is the crucial aspect missing from so much of this literature: the reality that something can be both beyond our ability to control it and subject to judgment. The hope of the Gospel, after all, is that we are forgiven even for those things that we can’t control, which also tend to be the things we most need forgiveness for.

In other words, even if psychopathy were correlated exclusively to “nurture” factors, from a Christian point of view, there would still be both 100% culpability (AKA non-justifying honesty about the depth of trouble here) and 100% compassion (the God who sympathizes–and identifies–with the least sympathetic). Otherwise you get into this cruel game of parsing just how much is a parent’s fault, and how much is in the DNA (as if that doesn’t have to do with the parents…), i.e. how much compassion am I allowed to show this person, etc? It’s not only agonizing, it’s something we by definition will get wrong, since our evidence will always be partial. If original sin puts people on an equal footing of both inherited and inflicted trouble, the Cross unhooks them from the hamster wheel of deserving. Compassion shall be our watchword!

In fact, most social discourse around psychopathy is still demonizing and utterly unsympathetic to the parents, who are often blamed for the condition. It struck me as an interesting logic hole in our cultural narrative around mental illness, since the usual assumption is that sympathy for mental illness is directly correlated with inability to control your problems. Psychopaths give lie to that narrative. Turns out that we sympathize more with austistic people than psychopaths because we feel empathy for the struggles of autism, but psychopaths just make us angry. There’s no logic or rationality in play, just pure emotional reasoning, and the parents of psychopaths are the victims.

Parents of autistic children were upset with me for daring to compare their plight to that of psychopaths, which only makes sense if you see those others as beneath you. Others cast around looking for a “good” reason that we care about autistics but not psychopaths. Others attached themselves to irrelevant details; that the exact brain chemistry is different in psychopaths and autistics should be obvious, but to the larger point, it’s irrelevant. I was just interested in the fact that there’s no relationship between how much we care about those with a mental disorder and how much those with it can help having it. Turns out that a lot of people are willing to expend a lot of effort at defending the greater levels of sympathy we have for autistics and their parents over psychopaths and their parents, even though both groups of people are in similar situations of facing a biological disorder that manifests as a mental illness for which no real cure is available. That there’s better treatment options for autism only makes this cultural calculation more chilling; for parents of psychopaths, there isn’t much hope at all.

One final note: I hate to say it, but completely absent from this discussion is the topic of evil, which is admittedly not a neuroscientific comfort zone (a conclusion explored with some help from Christopher Hitchens here). But it certainly has some implications when it comes to culpability and compassion. Hollywood, of course, seems to be peculiarly obsessed with it these days, especially as it applies to children…