Sensitive Caregiving May Reduce ‘Psychopathy’ in Boys

Adult holding a toddler's handSensitive care from adults who competently respond to children’s distress may reduce the rates of callous, uncaring behavior in boys, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Research has shown children raised in conditions that may be challenging, such as in foster care or institutions, are more likely to show traits associated with psychopathy.

Psychopathy is not a mental health condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Instead, it is a group of personality traits, the most prominent of which is a lack of empathy. Psychopathy affects about 1% of the population.

It can be difficult to treat symptoms in adults, so some researchers have turned their attention to preventing psychopathy in children.

Creating Compassionate Children with Responsive Care

For the study, researchers compared children raised in institutional settings to those who were never institutionalized. The group of institutionalized children included abandoned Romanian children who were part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. Half of these children were assigned to high-quality foster care homes as toddlers, with the other half growing up in institutional settings.

Because children who are orphaned typically face an array of experiences that have the potential to be traumatic, they may be more vulnerable to behavior associated with psychopathy. Sensitive caregiving appeared to reduce this vulnerability. When they were toddlers, children in both groups were observed with their caregivers. Those raised in foster care were more likely to receive sensitive caregiving, with caregivers promptly responding to the child’s distress.

Researchers evaluated participants at 12 years old and found boys reared in institutional settings had higher levels of callous-unemotional traits compared to boys raised in foster homes. These traits are linked with callous and unempathetic behavior in adulthood, suggesting early neglect might play a role in psychopathic traits. A correlation between caregivers who were highly responsive and boys who were low on callous-unemotional traits emerged. Researchers determined that promptly and lovingly responding to a child’s distress might have long-lasting effects on how that child may treat others in the future.

Kathryn Humphreys, a postdoctoral mental health fellow at Tulane University and the study’s lead author, says her team’s results may provide important data for child advocates and social service workers.


  1. Don’t want to raise a psychopath? Be sensitive to a child’s distress. (2015, December 3). Retrieved from
  2. Humphreys, K. L., Mcgoron, L., Sheridan, M. A., Mclaughlin, K. A., Fox, N. A., Nelson, C. A., & Zeanah, C. H. (2015). High-quality foster care mitigates callous-unemotional traits following early deprivation in boys: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(12), 977-983. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2015.09.010
  3. Psychopathy: A misunderstood personality disorder. (2011, December 7). Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • shay


    December 14th, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    Makes me so thankful for the childhood that I had and so scared for those who never receive the kind of love and care that we all deserve as human beings.

  • Larkin


    December 14th, 2015 at 3:40 PM

    We very much emulate what we have seen in our lifetimes and the behaviors in which we were raised. For some of us this is a wonderful thing but for others it can be something that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. I wish that we could all say that we have been raised in a compassionate and loving environment but sadly this is not the case for all of us.
    For those of us who were not it can be taking things one day or one step at a time to make things tolerable and help us to learn just how we should treat others.

  • Tony


    December 16th, 2015 at 11:35 AM

    Apparently no one ever told this to the Catholic nuns where I went to school

  • Jennifer


    December 18th, 2015 at 1:19 PM

    Why would this e isolated only in boys?
    Doesn’t it stand to reason that girls would benefit from normalcy too?

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