A 9-year-old psychopath?

Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?  A fascinating, terrifying article in the New York Times Magazine describes a boy whose “periodic rages alternate with moments of chilly detachment.” He’s callous, cold, manipulative — but is he destined to be a psychopath? The parents — mom is a former elementary school teacher with a child psychology degree — seem like decent, normal people.  The younger brothers are fine.

About Joanne


  1. I don’t think it’s necessarily inevitable, but on the other hand there often seem to be “red flags” early on. Short of a brain tumor causing a dramatic change in behavior (e.g. Charles Whitman, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Whitman), most psychopaths don’t become one overnight.

  2. SuperSub says:

    Like numerous other neurological disorders, I would expect psychopathic behavior to be rooted in genetics or early neural development, so finding a 9 year old psychopathic seems plausible.

  3. palisadesk says:

    The nature vs. nurture debate will never be conclusively settled, but the evidence currently leans towards a biological basis for psychopathy but with environemntal triggers needed to bring it to full bloom. One of the best books on the topic, by a leader in the field, is Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us
    by Robert Hare.


    He deals with the issues of children and youth with signs of psychopathy and notes that research and evidence on this population is limited, but that most of the criminal psychopaths he studied also lacked a stable and affectionate upbringing with strong and positive adult role models.

    An article by Dr. Hare on “This Charming Psychopath” is here:

    I have had occasional students (as young as 8 or 9) who showed some propensity towards psychopathic traits, most notably a deliberate cruel streak, cunning manipulation of others and complete absence of shame, guilt or empathy. Usually they have a diagnosis of “conduct disorder.” Yet so far none has made headlines for criminal behavior (and some are adults now), so their negative inclinations may have subsided over time. I hope.

    BBC Horizons had an interesting program on this topic a few months ago. It’s on You Tube here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u88lYs4FMTY&feature=list_related&playnext=1&list=SP4B8EC020E34E227F “What Makes Us Good or Evil?”

  4. Having worked for the Dept. of Juvenile Corrections in my state for a few years (in the secretarial pool – though I was inside the prisons and 1 of the schools) – I became familiar with many of the case histories of some of the kids in there. I have no doubts some of them were sociopaths/psychopaths (though none of them were labeled as such). Some of the crimes they were convicted of were absolutely unbelievable. Some came from basically normal backgrounds, others, it is no wonder they turned out the way they did. And yes, some of them were as young as 8 or 9 and were in prison for crimes as horrific as murder…

    • There is evil in this world. It’s not all just a misfortune of genetics, rough environment, and bad timing… And some people are just evil, period, their whole lives. It’s sad, but true.

  5. If I understand correctly, in Republican Rome the paterfamilias had the power of life and death over his children.

    What would the social ethos of Caesar’s Rome have recommended for Michael… and what would have been the efffect over time of the consequences?  Something to think about.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      In Caesar’s Rome Michael’s unique qualities would have been prized. He would go on to become a successful soldier, military commander, or politician – depending on his family’s class status.

      • Supersub says:

        Was watching a special on psychopathy the other night… it described a study that found that the percentage of psychopaths in executive positions at large companies was significantly higher than in the general population

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Let’s see. A “study” produced by academics and promoted by media that “proves” businessmen are psychos. Yeah, I’m sure that’s unbiased. Yawn.

          When will they study the level of mental illness among academics and the media? Oh, right, never.

          My prediction: Modern day Michael will end-up an environmentalist. He will passionately inform us all that if we don’t drastically change our lifestyle then the only option will be a police state to save us from ourselves. He’ll be only to happy to volunteer as one of the cops. Because the ends justify the means.

          • SuperSub says:

            Actually, the special was rather complimentary towards the executives… stating that the emotional detachment and manipulative ability associated with psychopathy gave them an advantage in the business world.

          • Close, he’ll be one of those guys who blows up pipelines (causing massive deaths and environmental damage) to… save the Earth. (?)

      • Ponderosa says:

        Stacy, did you read the article? How can you find that kind of behavior anything other than horrifying? That mother fears that Michael may harm or kill her other children.

  6. Ponderosa says:

    Waschbusch’s research vindicates my long-standing hunch that the signs of psychopathy start showing up early. My gut has told me that several of my students over the years have been psychopaths –remorseless, manipulative, and cold in a truly frightening way. As one who disciplines them, I know that I am a risk of reprisal. And yet no counselor or school psychologist wants to hear what I have to say, so I don’t say anything. No one wants to touch this issue.

    • Because none of the progressives you deal with wants to admit that there is actual evil in this world. Period. Some people are just evil, and are evil their entire lives. But the progressives want to take the blame off the boy, and say he’s just a ‘victim’ of bad genes, bad luck, etc.

      • Ponderosa says:

        I agree that there is evil in the world and my fellow liberals have a maddeningly hard time acknowledging this. And I tend to believe in free will and that people can often choose good or evil. But this article leads me to think that some evil is caused by genetically-malformed brains. I don’t believe in demons.

  7. Cranberry says:

    First thought? A summer camp for budding psychopaths strikes me as a really bad idea. If they learn behavior from peers, shouldn’t their models for behavior be, well, peers who aren’t possible psychopaths?

    Second, we don’t know enough about the reasons for the behavior. Maybe it’s genetic. Even if it’s genetic, we don’t know if every child who is callous and cold has the same condition. The 50% who are not adult psychopaths might have a different variant. It is not necessarily nurture which “saves” them.

    We don’t have brain scans of children who grew into identified adult psychopaths, because it’s very new technology. More study is needed before we can assume that 1) therapy has any effect whatsoever, and 2) that the experts are identifying the right candidate.

    • Some people will never have role models. You could put a truly evil person in an environment with lots of good role models. But you know what will happen? You’ll end up with some dead role models…