The Psychopathology of Evil Children

Question: What makes good people do evil things?

Michael Stone: Well for people who are not typically prone to do evil things, right.  You would never say that’s an evil person, but rather what he or she did as a one-off was an evil act.  Some of them, there would be brain changes in the sense that their braking system is not good. 

Now you have to realize that adolescents, in general, young people have a poorer braking system then people in their 20s.  That’s why you don’t vote until you’re around, in my generation, until you were 21, now it’s 18.  But the point is the frontal part of the brain that constitutes this moral decision-making and braking system is not fully developed until you are around 22, 23 years old.  Therefore, that’s explanatory of the impulsivity and those impulsive crimes of violence, et cetera. that many adolescents get involve with that you don’t see so often in adult people.  It’s also the reason why some adolescents will go bad, but who were okay as kids and get okay again as they get to be in their late 30’s and 40’s.  And there would be brain changes demonstrable in the adolescent that might be then less easy to pick up as they got more mature and those parts of the frontal lobe develop their full complement of fatty tissue, what we call myelin sheathing that prevents the wires from getting crossed, so to speak.

Question: Can evil be spotted in children?

Michael Stone: Well, there are certain types of children, mercifully rare, called callous-unemotional youths.  Now they are the ones who become psychopaths as they become older.  Not all psychopaths started as callous-unemotional youths.  But practically all callous-unemotional youths end up as psychopaths.  They’re the kids who could throw a kid off the roof at the school because they were annoyed at him.  They are heartless, they can do terrible things.  

I got called by the mother of such a child, a twelve-year-old, in the midst of my doing my Discovery Channel program, who had been born when she was a young woman and she was having an affair with an ex-con in one of the southern states.  So the boy, you know, was... had some genes probably from that ex-con.  When he was 12, by that time she had remarried to a nice man, they had a nice daughter, but the boy had the famous triad of bedwetting—he still wet his bed at 12—fire setting, and animal torture, which is usually a prelude to violent crimes, especially sexual ones as you get older.  He also stole, he bullied kids in school, and he tried to strangle his own sister.  So, he was unmanageable at home.  And I was personally helping that family to get him into an institution, which is where he is now.  But the point is, that’s a callous-unemotional youth and for sure there would be some brain changes that you could pick up then. 

The problem is, what do you do with a callous-unemotional kid?  Very little.  So that’s the kind of kid, if you spot him really... you really, the therapy that we have available today really doesn’t reach them very easily because they don’t have the emotional machinery in their brain, you know, to feel compassion for other people.

Question: Is there any way to treat these callous-unemotional youths?

Michael Stone: Well, this fellow is in a particular institution where they may be able to give him medications that would lower the tendency to act impulsively, like mood stabilizers and so that would be to lower the irritability, for example.  They might also try to institute some kind of behavioral treatment where they gradually teach him that if there’s certain things you do it has bad consequences, even if he doesn’t feel in his heart that it was wrong.  He might feel, “Well if I beat up this other kid, what’s the difference?”  And you don’t make him feel compassion.  You don’t try to educate him to feel compassion because it wouldn’t work, but you might educate him to say, “Well, okay so you don’t really feel in your heart of hearts that what you’re doing is unacceptable, but accept the fact that it is unacceptable and if you get caught, you could end up in jail or in very unpleasant circumstances.  So from the cost/benefit analysis that these people are capable of carrying out, it’s not to your advantage.  So that some of them can be deterred from doing what they want to do, thinking of the consequences not because they suddenly develop a full flower of compassion for their fellow human being.

Recorded on July 27, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Some children—thankfully few—are born without a conscience or the ability to feel compassion.

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