The Jeff Wise Blog

Toddlers Headed to Jail

One of the main counterintuitive takeaways of the book is the idea that fear, though generally considered a negative emotion, can both feel good and be good for you. Now comes a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry that points to the harm that can result from an inadequate fear response: The researchers found a link between fearlessness and future criminality in children as young as three years old.

The team, led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Adrian Raine, revisited a group of subjects in Mauritius who had been tested for their reaction to loud noises as young children.  In the experiment, the children listened to two noises. One was followed by an uncomfortably loud blare; the other wasn’t. The New Scientist describes the outcome:

The children learned to anticipate which sound preceded the blare, and sweated in response to it – an indicator of fear. Decades later, Raine’s own team looked to see if any of the subjects had criminal records and found 137 that did. The team discovered that, as toddlers, these people had sweated significantly less in anticipation of the blare.

The result held true even after allowances were made for race,  gender, and socioeconomic conditions. The implication is that people who are unable to generate a sufficient fear response will not be able to correctly respond to threats in their environment — including punishment for aberrant behavior. The result is not wholly surprising. Damage to the amygdala has previously been linked to sociopathic behavior. And studies of pre-adolescent boys have found a correlation between fearlessness and the risk of later alcoholism.

All this raises a conundrum. Should we be testing our toddlers for this kind of deficiency as a way to identify those at risk of criminality? If so, should treatment for the excessively fearless be mandatory? At the far extreme, we can imagine a “Minority Report” type situation in which those with a supposed predilection toward law-breaking will be identified in childhood and either treated, incarcerated, or both. As the father of a one-year-old son, I think I’d prefer not to know about my boy’s predilections. I’d rather let myself believe that his future course will be a product of free will and fate.

The children learned to anticipate which sound preceded the blare, and sweated in response to it – an indicator of fear.

Decades later, Raine’s own team looked to see if any of the subjects had criminal records and found 137 that did. The team discovered that, as toddlers, these people had sweated significantly less in anticipation of the blare compared with subjects of similar race, gender and background for whom no criminal record was found.

Filed under: Extreme Fear, Fearlessness, Research, ,

One Response

  1. waltinseattle says:

    Well, this is a true conundrum, no question there. What do we do with the incipient sociopaths and how do we change the legal system to take into account the “sane” maniac who is not so dysfunctional as to be committed to a home for the criminally insane.

    And as you ask, what do we do with the issue of “future crime” as it is refered to now that term hit mass consciousness via the big screen?

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise

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