Jennifer Kahn has a fascinating longform piece in the New York Times magazine about budding psychopaths, children whose utter lack of conscience sets them apart even from other emotionally disturbed kids at an early age:
In some children, [Callous-Unemotional] traits manifest in obvious ways. Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans who has studied risk factors for psychopathy in children for two decades, described one boy who used a knife to cut off the tail of the family cat bit by bit, over a period of weeks. The boy was proud of the serial amputations, which his parents initially failed to notice. “When we talked about it, he was very straightforward,” Frick recalls. “He said: ‘I want to be a scientist, and I was experimenting. I wanted to see how the cat would react.’” [NYT]
Many experts believe that psychopathy is a hardwired developmental disorder, like autism. Alike in hardwiredness, of course, not symptoms. People with autism have trouble reading other minds and sifting sensory information. Whereas, psychopaths can make very astute guesses about what other people are thinking and feeling, and they have no compunction about using these insights to prey on others because they lack empathy.
Psychologists have attempted to cure psychopaths before, only to realize that so-called anti-psychopathy training makes better psychopaths. Trying to teach adult psychopaths about empathy just makes them better manipulators.
Kahn writes about a new generation of psychologists who are focused on early intervention with budding psychopaths. One researcher runs a summer program for callous unemotional kids. The results sound decidedly discouraging:
With short-cropped iron gray hair and an earnest, slightly distracted manner, Waschbusch came across as surprisingly cheerful — though he was also vigilant. While leading me down the school’s main hallway, he warily scanned each classroom door we passed, as if to confirm that no child was about to burst out of it. The study had a ratio of one counselor for every two children. But the kids, Waschbusch said, quickly figured out that it was possible to subvert order with episodes of mass misbehavior. One child came up with code words to be yelled out at key moments: the signal for all the kids to run away simultaneously. [NYT]
Even when the kids seem to be behaving better, there's always the pervasive and well-founded fear that they are simply getting better at feigning normalcy.
The story captures the existential horror facing the parents and doctors of budding psychopaths. Every "solution" is probably going to make the problem worse, but inaction is unthinkable.