Psychologists don't really know how to treat psychopaths who engage in chronic and sometimes violent criminal behavior, but a Florida State University professor has found a method that may identify psychopathic tendencies at an earlier age, opening the door for preventive treatment.
Bryan Loney, an assistant professor of psychology, has found that certain adolescents with antisocial behavior problems may have an underlying impairment in the processing of emotional stimuli. Researchers had previously linked psychopathic traits in adults to this kind of impairment, but there is limited research examining whether such a connection exists in teenagers.
"We know problems are easier to treat the earlier we spot them," Loney said. "This study is a small step forward in trying to reliably assess the emotional impairment that we believe plays a role in psychopathy. We want to continue to develop and refine measures like this one in order to increase our ability to pinpoint and potentially divert a severe trajectory of antisocial behavior as early as possible."
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, involved 65 boys in a diversion program for delinquent behavior. The teens were assessed for various conduct problems as well as callous and unemotional traits, such as a lack of concern about the feelings of others, a general lack of remorse or feelings of guilt and a misuse of others for personal gain.
Theoretically, these traits can develop into the rigid and dysfunctional interpersonal style of adult psychopaths who are able to mimic normal emotional responses but not truly feel them.
The teens in the study were given a word recognition task in which they were presented with a series of letter strings and were asked to identify whether the letters formed real words. The letter strings included non-words and words with either positive, negative or neutral connotations.
Loney found that the teens who measured high on a scale of callous-unemotional traits had slower reaction times to negative words, such as "mad," "pain," and "gun." The findings were consistent with those from studies of adults.
"The results of this and similar studies suggest that antisocial youths who show callous and unemotional traits differ from those who do not on many important characteristics, especially in the regulation of emotion," Loney said.
In contrast, those with impulse control problems who were not elevated in callous-unemotional traits were associated with faster recognition times for negative emotional words. The findings suggest that different patterns of emotional reactivity may characterize distinct subgroups of antisocial youth, Loney said.
Loney's results add to a growing body of research focused on better understanding the processes that may lead to adult psychopathy, a severe, chronic and difficult-to-treat personality disorder.
"We don't have the faintest idea how to treat adult psychopathic behavior, and that comes at a tremendous cost to society," he said.
People with this disorder may be charming and liked by others but often embark on habitual criminal behavior that can involve anything from stealing from their workplace to rape and murder. Psychologists' best hope is to identify psychopathic tendencies early and begin intervention efforts, Loney said.
"Eventually, this research could provide an empirical basis for designing prevention and treatment programs that are specific for these and other pathways to antisocial behavior," he said. "Already, such individualized approaches to treatment have proven to be the most effective alternatives for changing the life course of the most severely antisocial children and adolescents."