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The University of Liverpool PodcastDr Luna Centifanti is a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Liverpool. Before moving to the UK, she studied in New York, Pennsylvania and New Orleans.

Dr Centifanti appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss psychopathy in children, the traits that are most often displayed, and how new technology could offer hope of developing potentially effective treatments.

What are the 5 key traits of psychopathy in children?

  1. The first signs of child psychopathy can appear very early
    Thanks to the pioneering work of Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare, psychopathy can be accurately identified in adults. Hare’s checklist, in particular, is regularly used to identify callous and unemotional traits. But Centifanti says we don’t have to wait until adulthood to be able to spot psychopathy.

    She says: “Research has been done in America that shows you can measure it [psychopathy] at about two or three years of age, and it predicts conduct problems that will arise a year or two later. But in talking to other researchers, we generally agree that around three or four years old is where you’re going to more reliably see it.”
  2. Manipulative behaviour is a common indicator
    During her doctoral research, Centifanti spent time working at a clinic that assessed children. She vividly remembers meeting a nine-year-old girl who had used a pencil to stab another child in the hand before threatening her teacher with violence.

    “In all the sessions, she was really sweet,” says Centifanti. “But she was noticeably overly polite and clearly trying very hard to earn my good favour.” Centifanti then describes how the child wrote to the teacher she had threatened, insisting she was sorry and that she ‘loved’ the teacher. “The teacher just found it very chilling.”
  3. Physiological reactions can be strikingly different in those exhibiting psychopathy traits
    Centifanti also studied several boys in a detention centre in New Orleans. While playing a competitive game, those with psychopathy traits were aggressive in response to provocations. But it was their other reactions that marked them out.

    “When they were being aggressive, the sweating from their palms went down,” says Centifanti. “Usually when people get angry, their heart rate increases and they sweat more. You get hot under the collar. They [Psychopaths] don’t seem to do that. They seem to stay as cool as a cucumber while being aggressive… They seem to do it with a kind of disconnect from the normal emotional arousal that you would expect.”
  4. Parents lacking emotional intelligence could contribute to the development of child psychopaths
    When children play, parents often talk to the child about how they’re feeling, with phrases like “You like that toy, don’t you?” or “You’re cranky today, aren’t you?”

    But what happens if the parent misreads the child’s emotions? Centifanti says: “Think about the internal state of that child when they’re told that they’re angry, when they’re actually afraid. It means the parent can’t support them through the emotion they’re actually facing…They’re left to deal with it alone.”
  5. An effective psychopathy therapy could still be developed
    Many people believe psychopaths cannot be helped or treated, according to Centifanti. But she believes that treatment programmes specifically designed for those exhibiting psychopathy traits have yet to be fully tested. She says: “I think of The Simpsons quote: ‘We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas.’”

    A ‘warm’ parenting approach has been shown to help adopted children overcome callous and unemotional traits. Now Centifanti believes tech advancements could prove critical, citing the work done by Elizabeth Meins on a potential psychopathy app.

    She says: “If we can develop an app that helps parents understand what their child is thinking and feeling, parents can then act accordingly and support their children through those feelings.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online psychology programmes? Find out more about the MSc in Psychology and our other psychology programmes.

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