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Finding the root of anti-social behaviour in children

October 5, 2017

 

In a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (ACAMH), scientists investigate the root of antisocial behaviour in children. They found that the problem lies with affective empathy, which is the ability to take on the emotions of others. This has implications for future research on empathy disorders, and for leveraging interventions that can help reduce the risk of children developing anti-social, criminal lives.

 

To understand empathy, psychologists divided it into two key types; cognitive empathy, which is the ability for a person to understand the feelings of others, and affective empathy where the feelings of others are felt as if it were their own.

 

The Preventive Intervention Trajectory (PIT) project in Amsterdam seeks to reduce the risk of children displaying anti-social tendencies and develop criminal behaviours as they grow up. By assessing their emotional abilities, they aim to offer the children the appropriate interventions that can lead them down a more positive path in life.

 

Children aged between of 8 – 13 years old were registered to this project, as a result of their absenteeism at school, extreme anti-social behaviour or delinquent parents. As presented in a recent publication in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry researchers from Leiden University (the Netherlands) recruited the children in order to test their responses to emotional video clips.

 

The children at high-risk of anti-social behaviour were compared against a control group from the same schools, who were not at risk. They were asked to watch four video clips while wearing electrodes that measured the electrical response in their skin, and their heart rate. An eye-tracking tool gauged their level of attention to the videos. A neutral clip showing an aquarium was used as a baseline measure, compared against three other clips representing happiness, fear and pain. After the viewing, the children were asked about the types of emotions observed, as well as the intensity and reason for the emotions.

 

 

Results showed that high-risk children had impaired affective empathy when viewing the emotional clips. Compared to the controls, they had reduced heart rate to pain and fear, and lower skin conductance levels - signifying less emotional arousal.

 

However, both groups showed no difference in their social attention, or cognitive empathy. The key difference was that the high-risk group struggled to take on the negative emotions of others, though this was not the case for happy feelings.

 

 

This study shows that social attention is not the reason for the affective empathy deficits occurring in the children, and so cannot always be assumed to be the cause of empathy disorders. Scientists have boiled down the leading cause as affective empathy. The children at high-risk of antisocial behaviour could identify the emotions shown in the video clips, but struggled to feel and empathise with the negative ones.

 

This study has pin-pointed affective empathy as an influence on anti-social behaviour in children, laying the groundwork for future interventions to train for compassion in high-risk groups.

 

 

 

 

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