Posted in Alienation


Recently a British official in the criminal justice system had what he thought was a very good idea. He suggested that children who exhibit early indications that they might grow up to be psychopaths should have their DNA put into a database; later, I suppose, he thought that this would make them more readily identifiable when police are looking for suspects in criminal cases.

Most experts agree that there are in fact some children who look very much like young psychopaths. A recent study lists some of the commonly agreed-upon traits, as follows:

  1. Makes a good impression at first but people tend to see through him/her after they get to know him/her
    2. Shallow emotions.
    3. Too full of his/her own abilities.
    4. Is not genuinely sorry if s/he has hurt someone or acted badly.
    5. Can seem cold-blooded or callous.
    6. Doesn’t keep promises.
    7. Not genuine in his/her expression of emotions.

According to the article in Mindhacks, however, “the recent studies that looked at these traits in the general population found that these traits reliably, but only very weakly, predict antisocial behaviour during the following years.”

What does this mean? Well, it really just means that these early traits do not strongly indicate that the child will be readily identifiable as “antisocial” in adulthood. But it should be noted that a diagnosis of “antisocial personality disorder” in an adult almost always occurs only in individuals who are caught up in the criminal justice system. It appears that these “kiddie psychopath” children are not necessarily going to become criminals.

However, the results of these studies do not say anything about whether the child is likely to grow up to be a person who could be diagnosed as a psychopath. Not all psychopaths (or “sociopaths,” as they are still sometimes called) are criminals. Many of them are what we call “successful” psychopaths, those who enter legitimate occupations (and often do so very successfully).

Take another look at the list of characteristics, just above. In your own work (and social) lives, have you ever met anyone (not a “criminal”) who displays a lot of these characteristics? Most people would likely respond in the affirmative. There are plenty of people who are highly psychopathic in mainstream occupations such as business, academia, politics, and law. Some of them manage to get ordained, and they can rise high in the church hierarchy. They “get by” with a lot, because they are masters at manipulating people and systems for their own ends, while portraying themselves as good and caring individuals. An early phrase used to describe their interpersonal and emotional characteristics was “the mask of sanity,” meaning that although they are highly abnormal, they are able to study normal human emotional responses, and to mimic them (more or less) successfully.

So, how about that database idea? I tend to agree that it would not be helpful in the criminal justice system, for the reasons stated, as well as many other reasons (civil liberties and privacy issues are no small matter, here!). Some of us might wish there were such a database against which to compare names of individuals who we are dating, or thinking about voting for, or interviewing as potential nannies… but, no. Never mind. It was just a thought… We are always wanting to find ways to solve the problem of human brutality (whether it be inflicted by physical violence, or by more covert and “civilized” means). I am not very optimistic that databases will provide us with any more relief than does retaliation.