Young children who showed less fear and desire for social connection, and engaged rarely in copycat behaviour are more likely to exhibit antisocial traits later in life, according to a study which may lead to new psychological interventions for kids. Researchers, including Rebecca Waller of the University of Pennsylvania and Nicholas Wagner of Boston University in the US, studied the mechanisms and processes that give rise to a set of behaviour called callous-unemotional (CU) traits -- known to lead to antisocial behaviour.
The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, used data from the Boston University Twin Project. In this project, during a couple of two-hour lab visits, at age 3 and again at age 5, children played out several scenarios, like offering a parent "candy" from a can that actually contained a stuffed snake, popping bubbles, or separating different-coloured beads into piles.
On analysing the children's behaviours, the researchers found that less fearful kids who cared less about social connections at the first visit were more likely to develop CU traits by the second. "Fearlessness on its own is not the only ingredient. These children also don't feel, to the same degree, that inherent motivation and reward from having positive social bonding with others," Waller said. The scientists also found that harsh parenting -- which includes strategies like yelling and spanking -- intensified the fearlessness and strengthened the link with later CU traits.
"If kids are fearless, including toward the potential for punishment, the likelihood that harsh parenting will exacerbate risk increases. That fits into the model that clinicians understand already. It takes two to tango; what kids bring to the table mixes with what they're experiencing in the environment," Wagner said.
Using a different set of two- and three-year-old BU Twin Study participants, the researchers then compared instrumental and arbitrary imitation. The former means copying behaviours that serve a function -- often done to learn a skill, study noted. According to the researchers, the latter involves following another's actions for no purpose than to exhibit the desire for a social connection.
"Arbitrary imitation is intended to build bonds to show another person that you're in their group, that you accept their ways, that you can and will do what they're doing," Wagner said. The team then built another pair of experiments -- one where children had to free a stuffed bird from a hard-to-open cage, and another where the kids had to use a stick to liberate a cracker stuck in the middle of a clear tube. In the first, an adult showed them how, interspersing necessary instruction with unneeded vocalizations like "Look, it's a birdy!"
And in the second task, an adult modelled the steps, mixing essential and arbitrary directions. As the kids performed these tasks, the researchers observed which behaviours they repeated, and which they ignored. The findings revealed that the two-year-olds who engaged in less arbitrary imitation overall -- meaning, those who ignored more of the unneeded actions -- were at greater risk of developing CU traits later.
"This says to us that these children are less motivated to make connections with other kids or adults. The same was not true for instrumental imitation," Wagner said. "It's not that they're not capable of seeing and watching someone doing something. They simply don't do the social-bonding thing, the funny, quirky behaviour after that would create a nice social moment," Waller added.
According to the researchers, the findings present overall patterns linking CU and antisocial behaviour, not one-off instances. "We don't want to scare parents. It's not like if you notice these behaviours once, you're in trouble. It's part of an overarching dimension," Waller said. The researchers said parents can positively support social and emotional development in kids by artificially creating situations, like one in which arbitrary imitation happens.
"Encourage the child to make the silly noise or movement you did, then laugh about it. You more explicitly scaffold the situation than if it were to happen naturally, but the children still get the positive reinforcement and it can become a bonding moment," Waller said.