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Psychopath In The Family -

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Psychopath in the Family

Could you have a psychopath in your family? Jonica Newby explores the science behind psychopathic
behaviour, and ongoing trials to curb callous conduct in children.

TRANSCRIPT

Dr Jonica Newby

Apparently one in a hundred people can be defined as a psychopath. So that means you've probably
met one. You may even know one. Hell, you may even have a psychopath in the family.

NARRATION

So what if you have a potential psychopath child?

Prof Mark Dadds

Very challenging for their parents, very challenging in that we love to think that our children are
going to be caring, empathic people.

NARRATION

And is being a psychopath all bad?

Dr Jonica Newby

It's scary, murky research, but let's take a deep breath and confront the mind of the functional
psychopath.

NARRATION

And how appropriate to start near the old haunts of Jack the Ripper, where I'm meeting forensic
psychologist and author Dr Kevin Dutton.

Dr Jonica Newby

So you have a psychopath test with you?

Dr Kevin Dutton

I do, yeah. It's called the psychopathic personality inventory, the PPI.

Dr Jonica Newby

Yeah.

Dr Kevin Dutton

And what this test is looking at, we're picking up characteristics like fearlessness, ruthlessness,
social dominance, charisma, tough mindedness, those kind of things - impulsivity. So let's see how
you get on.

Dr Jonica Newby

Alright.

Dr Kevin Dutton

Okay. Um, 'I've never cared about society's values of right and wrong.' Is that false, mostly
false, mostly true or true?

Dr Jonica Newby

False.

Dr Kevin Dutton

False. Okay. Um, 'I don't let everyday hassles get on my nerves.'

Dr Jonica Newby

False.

Dr Kevin Dutton

False. And how about, 'If I want to, I can get people to do what I want without them ever knowing?'

Dr Jonica Newby

No, I don't have that skill. They know.

Dr Kevin Dutton

Well, you know what? I can honestly say you are a very bad psychopath.

NARRATION

This is just a small sub-section of the hundred-and-fifty question standard PPI. And despite common
perceptions, violence is not one of the defining features of a psychopath. Of course, if you
combine violence and psychopathy, well the outcome is chilling. But that's not the case for many we
classify as psychopathic.

Dr Jonica Newby

Well you've met a number of psychopaths, you've tested them. You admire them, don't you?

Dr Kevin Dutton

I do to some extent. I think that there are certain contexts in life where being a psychopath can
predispose you to great success. I've interviewed psychopathic special forces soldiers,
psychopathic surgeons. I've also interviewed a top barrister and he proved very high on the
psychopathic spectrum. Now he can cross-examine an alleged rape victim, for instance, and literally
destroy that person's life. But at the end of the day, he can go out for dinner with his wife and
not give it a second thought.

NARRATION

I'd hate to be married to him though. And it does make you wonder what they were like when they
were kids. Back here in Sydney is someone who knows.

Dr Jonica Newby

Now no psychologist will labela child a psychopath. That's because it's still potential at that
stage. What they say instead is that they score highly on 'callous unemotional traits'.

NARRATION

Professor Mark Dadds has helped develop powerful training programs to help kids with conduct
disorders, ten per cent of whom scored high on callous unemotional traits.

Prof Mark Dadds

All children make mistakes, they have times when they're aggressive and they lie and they
manipulate. It's just part of human nature. But the thing about children with these callous traits
at extremes, is that it's done deliberately - deliberately hurting the younger baby in the family,
or doing cruel acts to pets. And then when the parents try to talk to them about why that's wrong ...

Mother

Bradley, be gentle.

Prof Mark Dadds

... it's kind of staring at someone you realise doesn't care. And that moment when an adult sees a
child who seems not to really be connected to the pain of another person is a scary moment.

Mother

Go to your room. Go, go, go.

NARRATION

Even so, Professor Dadds' team was confident their powerful training program could change these
kids.

Prof Mark Dadds

We were kind of touring the country going, we can treat kids even with callous unemotional traits,
and when we looked at the data we were kind of a bit horrified.

NARRATION

The treatment didn't really work, which begged the question, why not? Back here in London is a
scientist who may just have the answer. In a world first, Dr Essi Viding has been imaging the
brains of children with callous unemotional traits.

Dr Essi Viding

So here we are focusing on an area of the brain called amygdala.

NARRATION

The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes fear and negative emotions.

Dr Essi Viding

We showed children pictures of other people in emotionally distressing situations. Typically
developing children have a strong amygdala response to other people's distress. Children who have
high levels of callous unemotional trait show no discernible amygdala response to other people in
distressing situations.

Dr Jonica Newby

So when I'm watching a film, if the character cries, I'll often cry. I guess that's my amygdala
resonating. Would these kids, or the psychopaths ... nothing?

Dr Essi Viding

Would not be bothered.

Dr Jonica Newby

Nothing?

Dr Essi Viding

Nothing.

Dr Jonica Newby

No wonder they're different.

Dr Essi Viding

Yes.

NARRATION

This is the first time such a study has been done in kids so young. But it reflects many other
studies done on adult psychopaths, and these findings are changing researchers' perception and
definition of psychopathy. Many now believe it is an under-arousal of the amygdala.

Prof Mark Dadds

So most of us learn to care about how other people feel by seeing the emotion and the fear in other
people. And then that causes our own discomfort. So if you don't feel discomfort or fear yourself,
or you don't notice it in other people, you're highly unlikely to develop the higher-order human
functions of empathy and moral conscience.

Mother

Come on! Bradley, Bradley, look at me.

NARRATION

And to be clear, this is a very different empathy disorder to autism spectrum.

Dr Jonica Newby

I think of it this way: empathy has two parts - feeling and understanding. Now with autism, you
resonate with other people's emotions, you just don't understand them. With psychopathy, you
understand other people's emotions, you just never feel them.

Dr Kevin Dutton

So that's one of the reasons why psychopaths make very good persuaders and very good manipulators.

NARRATION

The under-aroused amygdala theory would also help explain why Professor Dadds' parenting
intervention did not really work with the callous unemotional kids.

Mother

Play with him gently, softly. Bradley, look, go. Quick, go.

Prof Mark Dadds

The thing we found was that they were not at all perturbed by the time out, the discipline
strategy. These kids just seemed to be completely unmoved by it. Came back, did the same sort of
misbehaviour again. So that's very consistent with the idea that these callous unemotional, or cold
traits, are associated with punishment insensitivity. These kids are very reward-driven. But they
don't care about being chastised.

Martin Bryant, as people will recall, was one of Australia's worst mass-murderers.

File footage of Martin Byrant Interview

Interviewer

Martin, what happened to you?

Prof Mark Dadds

There's an extraordinary video about Marin Bryant when he was a little boy.

Martin Bryant

I had this coloured skyrocket and I wanted to see if the wick went quick, so I lit it.

Prof Mark Dadds

I believe he'd set fire to something and had actually hurt himself. And they were interviewing him
on local TV, and they said, 'Well you'll never do that again, will you?' Expecting him to say, 'Oh
no, no I was burnt.' And he looked at them and said ...

Martin Bryant

Yes.

Interviewer

Don't you think you've learnt a lesson from this?

Martin Bryant

Yes, but I'm still playing with it.

Prof Mark Dadds

Very, very interesting. Classic example of that fearlessness or that insensitivity to punishment,
where for most of us, you do something, something yucky happens, you learn not to do it again.

NARRATION

And the million-dollar question - is it hereditary?

Prof Mark Dadds

In kids with callous unemotional traits, the evidence is that it's more genetic.

Dr Jonica Newby

So it runs in families?

Prof Mark Dadds

So it probably runs in families.

NARRATION

So now what?

Dr Jonica Newby

Okay, so put yourself in this situation. You're a mother with regular empathy, and you have a kid
who's showing high signs of callous unemotional. Is there anything you can do? I mean, it's not
like you can cut and run.

Prof Mark Dadds

Go up to your son ...

Toby's mother

Yep.

Prof Mark Dadds

Look him in the eyes, which is comfortable and natural to you ...

NARRATION

Well despite his earlier setback, Mark Dadds is optimistic, and the reason is this experiment,
which sent a storm through psychopathy science when it was published last year. In this
re-enactment, the mother has been asked to look her child in the eye and show love.

Toby's mother

Toby, Toby, look at Mummy please, darling.

NARRATION

Look what the child does.

Toby's mother

Toby, I love you so much, Toby.

Prof Mark Dadds

Sure enough, the young kids with conduct problems and callous unemotional traits, rarely looked
their parents in the eyes.

Dr Jonica Newby

Why does that excite you?

Prof Mark Dadds

Well we think that eye contact is one of the critical early human behaviours that turns on those
emotional parts of the brain.

NARRATION

And if he can train the young kid to look at their parents, can he change their very development?

Toby's mother

What a good boy you've been today, but lots of things this afternoon. What would you like to do,
Toby?

NARRATION

Alongside modified versions of their parenting program, that's what they're working on now.

Toby's mother

Good boy. Look at Mum, look at Mum. I love you.

Dr Jonica Newby

Are you sure you won't just train them to be better manipulators earlier?

Prof Mark Dadds

There's a, there's a folklore in the area of adult psychopathy which is if you train them in
empathy or any kind of skills, they'll just use what you've trained them in to further their kind
of bad-ass tendencies and become better, more effective psychopaths. I don't think that there's any
chance of that happening with children. We wouldn't just be giving them verbal skills that they
could use to manipulate. We hope that we will fundamentally change the development of the neural
systems associated with emotion and empathy.

Dr Jonica Newby

You hope?

Prof Mark Dadds

We hope.

Dr Jonica Newby

Watch this space, I guess.

Prof Mark Dadds

Watch this space, yeah.

NARRATION

And if Kevin Dutton is to be believed, just slightly turning down the dial of psychopathy traits
could mean the difference between a criminal career and a high-flying one. The family psychopath
may yet make you proud.