These subtle clues can help you identify an adult psychopath, but is it possible to tell whether a child is on the road to becoming one later in life? Actually, it might be. A newly devised test purportedly spots signs of antisocial behavior in infants and toddlers.
The “red ball” test
Psychologists at King’s College London used a red ball to track the visual preferences of 213 five-week-old babies, to see if they preferred interacting with an object or a human face. Then, when the babies were two and a half years old, the researchers tested them for callous-unemotional traits, also called CU traits, a range of characteristics and behaviors including limited empathy, difficulty recognizing the emotions of others and a lack of guilt.
The research, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in July, found that babies who were more interested in the red ball than in a person’s face tended to have higher levels of unemotional traits later in childhood – one possible precursor to adult psychopathy.
As some psychologists have noted, there is a strong correlation between CU traits and severe antisocial behaviors.
“Callous unemotional behaviors in children are known to be associated with an increased emotional burden on families as well as later criminality and antisocial behavior,” Dr. Rachael Bedford, a psychologist at King’s College London and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email.
She added that the researchers don’t yet know how strong the relationship between CU traits and adult psychopathy might be.
So does the test really work?
It’s too early to tell. A child’s visual preference for the ball doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she will grow up to be a psychopath – just that there may be some very early indicators of antisocial traits. A visual preference for objects over faces could suggest developmental issues,such as autism. It could also mean there’s absolutely nothing wrong.
“Even as young as five weeks of age, children are already individuals with their own preferences, abilities and emotional styles,” Bedford said. “All infants are drawn to the human face, but some more than others, and it may be that those who are more drawn to objects are less likely to look at their parents’ faces.”
In other words: Parents, don’t try this one at home just yet.
What else did the test reveal?
The study also found that sensitive parenting can actually prevent the development of antisocial behaviors in children. When a mother responded more sensitively to her infant during a play session in the lab – defined as her tendency to engage with the infant with “appropriate, supportive and warm” responses – the child’s chances of developing antisocial traits were significantly reduced.
“Looking at infant behavior and parental responses to those behaviors may provide an important insight into how callous and unemotional behaviors first emerge,” Bedford said. “In the longer term this could help us to understand what parental responses may help to promote healthy social-emotional development in both boys and girls.”