A little girl scrapes her knee. Crying follows. A little boy laughs at the girl. A decade later, antisocial behavior follows. An exaggeration? Or could the link be true?
It’s not a trivial question. It is estimated that antisocial behaviors cost American society over a trillion dollars each year. Understanding why some people engage in such behavior is critical to preventing such costly consequences in the US and elsewhere.
A recent study shows that predicting antisocial behavior in teens might be possible before kids even start preschool. The study found that toddlers who showed an active, negative reaction to another person’s distress – for example, laughing at them – were more likely to show antisocial behavior as teenagers.
How do you test this with toddlers?
Using data from nearly 1,000 participants in the Longitudinal Twin Study in Colorado, Soo Hyun Rhee and colleagues tested the relationship between toddlers’ concern for others in distress and antisocial behavior during adolescence.
Concern and disregard for others were measured via observations and through interviews with the child’s mother. The observations for concern and disregard and other interviews were conducted at age 14, 20, 24 and 36 months. For the observations, the children were exposed to two “empathy probes” – staged scenarios meant to elicit empathy.
In the first probe, the child’s mother or a researcher pretended to be hurt. The supposedly hurt person made hurt noises and pained facial expressions. In the other empathy probe, a recording of an infant crying was broadcast from a speaker in a room containing ten toys, including a baby doll. The toddler was rated as showing “concern for others” when he or she tried to help, approach, or comfort the distressed person or baby doll. The toddler was rated as showing “disregard for others” if he or she responded with active, negative responses such as hitting, running away, laughing, or reacting with anger or hostility.
During the interviews, mothers were asked questions about their child’s helpfulness and reactions to distress. The questions included things like, “Do you ever see [your child] spontaneously help pick up things?” Mothers were also asked how their children responded when either the co-twin or mother was distressed. They were asked to answer “yes” or “no” to several possible responses shown by their children, such as “approaches,” “comforts,” “hits,” “runs,” and “laughs.” The first two were coded as showing concern and the last three as showing disregard.
Disregard for others
Existing research suggests that people with greater empathy are less likely to have antisocial behavior, and vice versa. So the researchers believed that toddlers who showed concern for others would be less likely to grow into antisocial teenagers.
Contrary to predictions, however, these empathetic were not less likely to have antisocial behavior in later years. On the other hand, Rhee and colleagues found that a toddler’s disregard for others strongly predicted antisocial behavior up to age 17. In other words, toddlers who showed an active disregard for others’ distress were more likely to grow into children and teenagers who demonstrated antisocial behavior.
The link held true for two different measures of disregard (observers’ ratings and mothers’ ratings), and for measures of antisocial behavior in three different age ranges (from parents when their children were aged 4-12, from teachers when the kids were aged 7-12, and from the teens themselves at age 17). The relationship between observed disregard for others and antisocial behavior was found for both boys and girls. It remained even when the child’s family’s socioeconomic status, which has historically been found to be closely related to behavior, was taken into account.
Put simply, no matter how they measured it or what else they thought could explain it, mean toddlers made for anti-social teens. While that may be the cynical view, Rhee and colleagues see potential here. They advocate for “…early assessment of disregard for others and the development of potential interventions...” to divert these kids from antisocial behavior at an early age.
Rhee, S.H., Friedman, N.P., Boeldt, D.L., Corley, R.P., Hewitt, J.K., Knafo, A., Lahey, B.B., Robinson, J., Van Hulle, C.A., Waldman, I.D., Young, S.E. and Zahn-Waxler, C. (2012). Early concern and disregard for others as predictors of antisocial behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02574
For more on the costs of antisocial behavior:
Anderson, D.A. (1999). The aggregate burden of crime. Journal of Law and Economics, 42, 611–642.Back to Archives