Children who display a lack of emotions such as guilt and remorse often go on to develop severe behavioral problems such as fighting, lying and stealing, a first-of-its-kind, long-term study has found.
“We’re not suggesting these children are psychopaths,” said Nathalie Fontaine, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University in Bloomington. “But these ‘emotional’ traits can identify children at risk for persistent and severe antisocial behavior.”
The study, which appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, drew on reports from the parents and teachers of roughly 9,500 twins born in England in the mid-1990s, tracking them at ages 7, 9 and 12.
The most worrisome group of children identified in the study — about 5 percent — rated high on a scale of what psychologists call “callous-unemotional traits” at age 7, then continued to exhibit a disturbing lack of normal emotions through age 12. These children were also at highest risk for destructive, antisocial behavior, including bullying and having trouble making friends. About 80 percent of these high-risk kids were boys.
However, another group of 7-year-olds — 13 percent of those in the study — who initially rated high on the scale of emotional problems improved significantly.
By age 12, they displayed a wider range of normal emotions, including remorse.
Fontaine said child psychologists are eager to understand what factors — which may include improved parenting — led to the emotional health gains seen in this group.
Other research has shown that children who display a lack of guilt and remorse do not improve their behavior when punished. However, there is intriguing evidence that such children respond well — even better than children with more normal emotions — to positive reinforcement.
“Instead of saying, ‘You behaved badly today, it’s time for a timeout,’ it’s probably better to say, ‘Here’s what you did well today,’ ” Fontaine said.
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