Dr. Adelle Forth, Carleton University, sent several questions to Dr. Essi Viding, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology in the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London. Dr. Viding is also the President-Elect of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy.
- How did you get involved in the area of psychopathy research?
I considered training as a clinical psychologist and in the U.K. you have to work in a clinically relevant area before you can apply for a clinical psychology training programme. I got a job working as a research assistant in Dr. James Blair’s team. Dr. Blair is a well-known psychopathy researcher who has done a lot of pioneering neuroimaging and behavioural work with children at risk of developing psychopathy. It was exciting to work in his team and I really got the research bug. I ended up applying for a PhD programme instead of clinical training as a result.
- Around what age do you think it is possible to identify psychopathic-like traits?
Current research seems to indicate that you can reliably pick up traits that increase risk of developing psychopathic presentation in children as young as 3-4-years. Although all young children may appear less empathetic and more egocentric than their older peers, there is still considerable variation in how children within a particular age group present. This means that some 3-4 year olds are a lot less empathetic, a lot more egocentric and more aggressive than their 3-4-year-old peers.
Although it is possible to identify these traits from a young age it is important to remember that psychopathic-like traits are not fixed. Longitudinal studies have shown that some children persist with these traits, but many others show reduction in psychopathic-like traits over development. We also know that treatments are successful in reducing problem behaviours in children.
- What is the role of genetics and environment in the development of psychopathic traits?
Research by my group and others indicates that a lot of the individual differences in psychopathic traits are explained by genetic vulnerability. In other words, some people get unlucky and get dealt a genetic hand that substantially increases their risk of developing psychopathy. This does not mean that these individuals are destined to become psychopaths, but they are more likely to develop psychopathic features than individuals without the genetic risk. Genetic risk for personality traits and behaviours is probabilistic. There are likely to be multiple genes (and we are yet to find most of them!) that each add a little bit to the risk of developing psychopathic traits and act in concert with environmental risk factors. So we are not talking about the kind of genetic effects we see for eye colour or for single gene disorders such as Huntingdon’s disease. This is good news, because it suggests that there is a lot of room to counter the genetic risk via helpful social and behavioural interventions.
Recent work by Dr. Eva Kimonis and others also suggests that some individuals develop psychopathic features following extreme childhood adversity, such as maltreatment. It is thought that callous behaviour in these individuals is in effect a ‘coping strategy’, a way to deal with extreme threat and / or neglect in their surroundings. In a chapter that we wrote together, Eva and I called the psychopathic features in these individuals a ‘behavioural phenocopy’. What we mean by this is that although their behaviour is callous, these individuals show heightened emotional arousal to other people’s distress. This is not something we typically see in individuals with psychopathy, who usually do not usually show arousal response to other people’s suffering. We need a lot more work to understand different developmental routes to psychopathic traits.
- Have you identified any protective or resilience factors that lower the likelihood of the development of psychopathy?
The genetically informative work by my group suggests that there are both protective genetic and environmental factors that must explain why some individuals don’t develop psychopathic traits in the first place and others show reductions in such traits over time. Recent work by Mark Dadds, Luke Hyde, Rebecca Waller and others strongly indicates that warm and consistent parenting can lead to reductions in psychopathic traits and accompanying antisocial behaviour – even in children who are at genetic risk of developing such traits. The most convincing evidence of the efficacy of this sort of parenting approach comes from adoption studies, but we know that adoptive parents are typically well-resourced and highly motivated. In typical families where parents and children are related to each other, parents often share some of the same vulnerabilities that their children have and may be less well equipped to respond to a particularly challenging child. They will need a lot of support.
- Considering research is generally ahead of application in the field, what is one improvement in the field of psychopathy that you hope to see take place over the next five to ten years?
It would be nice to see more research that combines multiple methodologies to address the same research question. For example, we know from genetically informative research that many of the social factors related to the development of psychopathy, such as parenting, partly reflect genetic vulnerability within families. We need to get better at studying this ‘genetic confounding’ and understand how it may impact our ability to deliver helpful interventions. Some families may require a lot of ‘scaffolding’ to get on the right parenting track and they may need help in using very different parenting strategies than we typically apply (for example, children at risk of developing psychopathy may be motivated to be prosocial only if it benefits themselves). It is worth improving our understanding of how the environment operates and what individuals contribute to generating certain environmental conditions. This can improve our ability to help the children at risk and to reduce the impact of psychopathic behaviour on the society.