'Red-Ball Test' for Babies Could Predict Future Psychopathy

It's hard to imagine a tiny baby displaying any traits of psychopathy. But according to scientists, it might just be possible to detect some early warning signs for this behavioral disorder.


Some of the markers of psychopathy are diminished empathy and remorse, uninhibited behavior, and carelessly acting in ways that could cause harm to others ... which are all also traits related to being a baby. So how can someone look at one infant and tell that he's more likely to grow up to be a psychopath than another?

The answer is that you can't, exactly. But what you can do is make some predictions based on how babies interact with objects from a very young age: such as whether they prefer a red ball, or a human face. Researchers tested the preference of over 500 5-week-old babies to see whether they chose a toy over human interaction, and then tested them again at age 2. This time it wasn't toy preference they were looking for; instead, they were looking to see whether the toddlers were showing any so-called "callous-unemotional traits." These traits include lack of guilt over misbehavior, a decrease in sensitivity to being punished, and disinterest in the feelings of others. (Yes, these do still sound like fairly typical 2-year-old traits, I know. I'll let the researchers figure out where the line falls between "normal toddler" and "Hannibal Lecter, Jr.")

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It may sound bizarre to be hovering over tiny babies trying to predict whether they might be the next Dexter. But early intervention is a big deal, especially when it comes to potentially preventing very serious behaviors from that child as a teen or adult. The researchers also noted that, during a lab-setting playtime session, parents who responded quickly and supportively to their toddlers when they were upset were the ones less likely to have toddlers showing those callous-unemotional traits.

Of course, the red-ball test isn't a be-all end-all for early psychopathy diagnostics. There are other factors that might cause some infants to prefer the red ball over a face -- autism, for example. Or some kids might just be fascinated by the color! But more chances for early diagnosis can only be a good thing, because more chances for early diagnosis means more options for parents to get the help their child will need to grow up as a healthy adult.


Image via © Ale Ventura/PhotoAlto/Corbis

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