Q: We're talking about predictors of dangerously violent behavior in kids,
and I've read in the literature that one of the predictors is what is referred
to as the classic triad, which is the kid is a bedwetter and sets fires and
displays any sign of cruelty to animals. Do you subscribe to that? To those
findings and that triad as being at least three symptoms or predictors of
violent behavior in children?
Hyman: The question of predicting violent behavior in children is really
a complex one. There certainly are elements of the classic triad signs
associated with violence--bedwetting that is age-inappropriate, setting
fires, harming animals, have been good indicators of people who subsequently,
we've been able to see, have engaged in very violent behavior. The difficulty
with even looking at these three factors, however, is that ... what comes first,
the chicken or the egg? Are these really indicators of some innate element
that indicates that this is basically a violent person, as if that were some
characteristic of the person that were inherent. Or is it really telling us,
particularly in a child, that this is somebody who is needing attention.
Somebody who is needing adequate parenting, adequate guidance. We certainly do
have people who, in an age-inappropriate way, wet their beds, hurt animals, set
fires, who go on to be very good citizens, who contribute to society and have
wonderful families, and do wonderful things. So even these elements are not
terribly good predictors. They allow most frequently not prediction of who's
going to become violent but allow us after the fact to look at a violent person
and say, "Oh yes, he did harm animals." But it doesn't tell us much about the
youngsters who harmed animals who don't become violent.
Q: What about lack of empathy for your victim? Your lack of empathy for
other people? Is that a characteristic of kids who become violent?
Hyman: When we look at kids who've become violent, we often point to
lack of empathy as something that we want to be concerned with. And certainly
in adults who have well-formulated patterns of personality, an abjectly poor
lack of empathy is something that we see in the psychopathic syndrome, in a
real psychopath who engages often in violent and very destructive behavior.
Whether that person is a violent criminal or perhaps is even a corporate
executive making a decision to employ various toxics or to produce a car that's
very injurious to thousands of people.
So we have these psychopaths. But if we look at empathy, certainly in
children, often what we're looking at is that when a person was a child, was
that person the subject of empathy? Was that person allowed to have
sympathetic, understanding, empathetic interactions?
And we observed that quite often--we've done many studies on this--that the
incapacity to develop empathy is quite often a social phenomenon in a family
where there is no empathy for that child.
We've seen this in our studies of serial murderers. There are certainly
patterns in the parenting that indicate that these children were victimized--
quite often the victims of physical and/or sexual abuse, of controlling and
dominating parents, or absent and disinterested parents--but parents who, in
one way or another, were not terribly good parents. Now again, this is not a
universal. There's some indication, for instance, in the case of Jeffery
Dahmer, that he had good parents.
Q: Is it possible to diagnose a 6-year old as a psychopath?
Hyman: One element that emerged in this case was the suggestion that a
6-year-old could be diagnosed as a psychopath. And from the perspective of
science, this is one of the most ludicrous assertions that we can contend with
since there's no basis for understanding this personality syndrome, or for that
matter any personality disorder, as being discernable in a 6-year-old.
Quite the opposite. By definition in the system for diagnosing disorders,
personality disorders can only be diagnosed in people in the immediate
pre-adult, or in the adult stage of life. Most commonly they emerge in young
We do see patterns that persist and thus we consider it a personality disorder
or some more enduring aspect of the individual. But the research is quite
clear--and all the experts in personality disorders agree --that these are
factors that become more stable in early adulthood or in the period immediately
approaching it. In some individuals, the latest stages of adolescence.
To talk about the stability of personality or personality disorders, or
personality syndromes in a 6-year old child, or in any child around this age,
a child who hasn't attained that immediate, pre-adult adolescent stage, is
really a vast error.
Q: What about the argument, however, that Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer were
once 6-year-olds? And that if a trained psychiatrist had examined them at
that age, they would have been able to determine that they were psychopaths in
the making or sociopathic personalities?
Hyman: There have been behavioral scientists, psychiatrists,
psychologists who've suggested that with Dahmer or with Ted Bundy, that had
studies been done of these individuals as children, that we would have been
able to discern at that point psychopathic elements of psychopathic syndrome.
However, the empirical data contradicts that. We have had serial
murders--indeed we had one down in Santa Cruz County--committed by an
individual who had been apprehended in youth. As a matter of fact, he had been
a youthful offender, and had actually killed his grandparents. And so we did
have some data from that period. But we didn't have data sustaining the notion
that we have a psychopathic syndrome that's characteristic of a child. We
certainly had data that indicated problems. And that's not to say that we
don't have problem children. We certainly do have children with serious
problems. In this case, obviously, we had a child with a serious problem.
But to take these children and to characterize them as psychopathic, to suggest
that perhaps this is simply a problem beyond our capacities to address, and
that these children should be cast aside, locked up forever, or otherwise
neglected, that there's no attention that we can effectively focus on them, is
in and of itself a type of abuse. It's something that we, in the professional
community, are dedicated to combating, not to perpetuating.
Q: How would you feel about a professional, a psychiatrist who comes to a
diagnosis of a psychopathic disorder--in a 6-year-old child--after only
meeting with them for less than an hour?
Hyman: Unfortunately, we have in the forensic profession among forensic
psychiatrists, psychologists, certain individuals who believe that after
meeting with an individual, particularly a child, for an hour or even two, that
they can generate a diagnosis of psychopathy. That what we have here in their
opinion is a psychopathic individual.
Not only is this a determination for a child, absolutely forbidden by all the
research and contradicted by all the research in development, but
forensically, to think that this could be generated by an hour long, or even a
two-hour long interview is the height of abuse. And it's precisely this type
of defilement of the forensic process that leads many people to be critical of
what some forensic psychologists and psychiatrists do. It's precisely because
of this that increasingly we have professional organizations in forensics that
try to take this type of behavior out of the forensic arena.
Q: What role does genetics play and can we inherit traits from our
parents, and what's the difference?
Hyman: The role of genetics in behavior and particularly in violent
behavior has become increasingly in recent years an area of interest. But
there's a rich tradition of biological determinism in which there have been
scientists who've been ideologically attracted to attributing most of behavior
to biology and genetics. Not merely in this century, in which it's become
increasingly popular at various times, but even prior to that. We've seen it
in intellectual areas where my former colleague at Cal, Art Jensen, wanted to
tell us that there were very important racial differences in intelligence. And
yet, John Hearst, another Berkeley psychologist, revealed in a paper written
shortly after Jensen's, that indeed the variance of intellectual differences
was very small, at most five percent. And that social factors, educational
factors, economic factors, could be called upon to explain the vast latitude of
intellectual behavior--95% and perhaps more.
In terms of violent behavior, again, it's become trendy as of late to attribute
many of these things to genetics. We're certainly, at certain levels, the
product of genetics. And yet again we look at this very complex pattern of the
interaction of social factors, broad social factors, familial factors,
community factors, biological factors, personality factors, interacting with
each other over time, over the development of a child and throughout lifespan
of development. So to attribute to any one factor the causal responsibility
for violence is simply folly. It's ideology. It's nothing that is based in
There are these myriad of factors that interrelate. And people who would like
to engage in biological reductionism, in reducing our consideration of this
complexity to a single factor are fooling themselves and attempting to fool the
rest of us.
Q: So there's no such thing as a natural born killer then?
Hyman: There's simply no evidence available to us in science that there
is anything such as a natural born killer. There are many people who would
like to assert--a few of them in science, many of them in other religious and
political areas--that they're not merely natural born killers, but these
youthful super-feral predators. But there's no indication that this is a
reality in any systematic research. As a matter of fact, some of our latest
research indicates that the tendency for youthful offenders to engage in
serious crime is actually decreasing. So policy analysts who would advise us
to create ever more punitive dimensions in our social reaction to youthful
crime probably are expressing more of their own ideological perspective than a
genuine reaction to a social problem.
Q: What role does environment play, and what are the factors in an
Hyman: One doesn't want to solely isolate environmental factors. There
probably are other intrinsic factors. But there's good indication, despite the
fact that environmental factors may not be the sole determinants of violence,
that these are certainly the factors that we can influence, and the ones that
we can interact with in preventing violence. So the importance of these
factors becomes supreme in terms of our ability as forensic experts, as
scientists, and as policy advocates, to isolate what it is that we can do about
violence in general and about youthful violence.
And as we look at environment, if we want to look, for instance, at the
environment in which the 6-year-old emerged, we take a look at Richmond,
California, in Contra Costa County. Of the 3,700 counties in
the United States, Contra Costa County is in the lowest 20 in terms of
their ability to cope with toxic waste. There was a chemical explosion three,
four years back, in which a good portion of the Richmond area and the
population of Richmond was exposed to toxic chemicals.
If we take a look at education, we see that the Richmond public schools indeed
went broke. And they've been reconstituted as the West Contra Costa district.
There's some excellent educators there, but a general tendency for finances for
education to be very, very sparse in California. In the period of the
two-and-a-half decades that I've been in California we've seen education go, in
California, from one of the best in the country to one of the worst.
We have to recognize the significance of providing people with the ability to
cope with their world. And there's also, in terms of environmental factors,
the whole question of employment. When many of the residents of Richmond--the
overwhelming majority, certainly minority residents--came initially to Richmond
in the Second World War and the period immediately following it, there was a
very excellent superstructure for unemployment. Employment was available, and
people were upwardly mobile. They acquired skills, and they acquired education,
and they provided for their families in a way that they hadn't been able to
prior to that.
We're seeing in recent decades the opposite. The tendency is for decline, for
employment to be replaced by unemployment, for generational unemployment. Then
we begin to replace welfare. If we're asking these people to get off welfare
without insuring there will be jobs, what we're really doing is creating a vast
problem that will be reflected in violence. And it will be reflected in
youthful violence, since one out of every four American children, at this
point, lives in poverty. Poverty is not the sole determinant of violence, but
we know statistically, predictively it contributes to violence, it contributes
to the factors that generate violence.
Q: Can violent 6-year-olds be treated successfully? Are there any kids
who can or should be written off?
Hyman: There are certain elements of society, certain politicians, policy analysts,
certain religious leaders, others, who would like to write off various sectors
of youth, indeed various sectors of society, as being beyond the pale of
intervention. And some who might even suggest that in the case of a
6-year-old this would be appropriate.
There's certainly no data to justify such a perspective. And not only in my
review of the scientific literature, my own clinical experience, but in my
personal experience, i've never seen a child who should be written off and i've
certainly never seen a 6-year-old child who should be written off.