‘Red ball test’ tells if babies will be psychopaths

A little wind or something more sinister? Picture: Getty/iStcokphoto
A little wind or something more sinister? Picture: Getty/iStcokphoto
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EXPERTS have found that it is possible to predict whether tiny babies will develop so-called callous-unemotional traits – a proposed precursor to adult psychopathy.

Children with callous-unemotional (CU) traits are defined as showing impaired emotion recognition, reduced responsiveness to others’ distress, and a lack of guilt or empathy.

For the first time, psychiatrists have discovered that it is possible to predict at just five weeks old whether babies will develop CU traits by checking if they prefer to look at a human face – or a red ball.

They also found that, in girls at least, babies can be turned away from developing callous unemotional behaviour as toddlers by sensitive mothering.

“Limbs in the Loch” murderer William Beggs, the Dunblane mass killer Thomas Hamilton, and the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik are all known to have displayed psychopathic traits, though the researchers warn they are “extreme” examples.

For the study, researchers recorded the responses of a random sample of 213 mothers and babies, drawn from a population-based sample of 1,233 first-time mothers.

Infants’ preferential face tracking at five weeks and maternal sensitivity at 29 weeks were entered into a weighted linear regression as predictors of CU traits at 2.5 years. After allowing for a range of extraneous factors, for example deprivation, the researchers found lower preferential face tracking predicted higher CU traits. Higher maternal sensitivity predicted lower CU traits in girls.

Writing in the journal Biological Psychiatry, the researchers said theirs is the first study to show that decreased preferential tracking of the human face soon after birth is associated with later CU traits.

The effect was slightly stronger in girls, whereas the beneficial effect of maternal sensitivity was significant only in girls, said to be consistent with an emerging theory that developmental mechanisms in CU traits may differ between boys and girls.

The researchers said: “The results support the hypothesis that reduced attention to social features in infancy can have downstream consequences for the development of socioaffective behaviours.

“Given the high economic and societal cost of CU traits, increased burden on families, higher rates of marital discord, criminality and antisocial behaviour, understanding the role of parental sensitivity and infant social attention provides a critical first step toward developing early parent-based interventions.” Lead author of the paper Dr Rachael Bedford, Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, said yesterday: “We found that increased preference for a person’s face rather than a ball at just five weeks of age was associated with lower callous unemotional traits.

“We also found that if a mother responds more sensitively to their baby during playtime, then the child is less likely to display callous unemotional behaviour as a toddler.

“We are the first to find this and others will need to confirm it before it can inform how we support families.”