About one in 100 children in the UK could be a psychopathic “Kevin”, research suggests.
Like the budding serial killer in the novel and film We Need To Talk About Kevin, they are liable to lie, cheat, manipulate and commit acts of remorseless cruelty.
Appealing to their sense of fair play and conscience is a waste of time because they lack empathy.
So, too, are standard punishments, including “time out”, which involves brief periods of isolation, such as sitting in a corner or on a “naughty chair”.
Psychologists are only now starting to recognise that psychopathic children, described as callous-unemotional (CU), form a distinct sub-group.
Unlike most children who display antisocial behaviour, they are not primarily products of bad parenting, according to Professor Essi Viding, of University College London.
Her group has carried out twin studies, which suggest that psychopathic traits in children are largely genetic.
“This does not mean these children are born antisocial or are destined to become antisocial,” said Prof Viding. “But in the same way as some of us are more susceptible to heart disease, these children are people who are more vulnerable to environmental influences that trigger the antisocial outcome.”
For other children with conduct problems, a “dose relationship” could be seen with bad parenting, she said. The worse the parents were, the more these children were likely to be antisocial. But this was not the case for children with psychopathic tendencies.
Prof Viding, who will give a talk at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen next week, said between a quarter and half of children with conduct problems might fall into the CU category. That amounts to slightly less than 1 per cent of all children.
The British Science Festival opens on Tuesday.