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Professor Researches Fear in Psychopathic Children

Abigail Marsh

Psychology professor Abigail Marsh says children with psychopathic traits and behavior problems are relatively normal in terms of being able to respond in appropriate ways to most emotions, with the exception of fear.

March 17, 2011 – Children with psychopathic traits do not experience fear in their daily lives the way other children do, according to a study recently published online by a Georgetown psychology professor.

Abigail Marsh’s study in the online version of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, looked at children ages 10 to 17 with psychopathic traits and others without such traits and had them report on emotional experiences during five life events.

“Kids with traits like these cause a disproportionate amount of the behavior problems among children, so it’s important to understand what makes them tick,” Marsh says.

Except for Fear

Marsh and her research team found that children with psychopathic traits and behavior problems were relatively normal in terms of being able to respond in appropriate ways to most emotions, with the exception of fear. 

“They didn’t rate themselves as experiencing things like a rapid heart rate, or rapid breathing or sweating – the things that usually accompany fear – nearly as much as healthy kids,” the professor explains.  “They also said that they didn’t feel afraid as often or as strongly as other people they knew. And two kids in that group actually said they never felt afraid, of anything, which is a pretty uncommon thing for kids to say.”

This is the first study that looks at subjective emotion in psychopathic children.

“We’re interested in understanding … how these kids process information and how they use emotion in making decisions, because we think that will help us understand the root of their behavior problems,” she explains.

Implications

Marsh says the study has implications for how to treat children with psychopathic traits – namely that trying to correct psychopathic children’s behavior by punishing them is not likely to work. 

“If you are not fearful enough, you will fail to learn from punishment,” the professor notes. “If [a child] doesn’t really experience fear, then threat of punishment isn’t going to do anything – which in fact is the experience of the parents of a lot of the kids we worked with.”

Marsh says emphasizing reward instead of punishment could be better strategies for parents of psychopathic children.

Developing Treatments

There currently are no reliable methods of identifying the likelihood of developing psychopathic traits in young children, the professor says. 

“But if simple fearful responding is a good predictor, then that is something we may be able to identify much earlier on, and maybe treatments can be developed on that basis,” Marsh says.

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