'Fearless' 3-year olds might be tomorrow's criminals
Children who are fearless at 3 years of age might just be poised for a life of crime. According to a new study, poor fear conditioning at the tender age of 3 can predispose that person to break the law as an adult. Yet other factors, such as education... also play a role, the researchers concluded....
Specifically, what Gao and his associates set out to determine is whether dysfunction of the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass... leads to an inherent intrepidness and disregard for the law.
Every single one of these sentences is a lie.
The study, Association of Poor Fear Conditioning and Adult Crime, is three pages long in which the word "amygdala" appears 17 times. However, the study has nothing at all to do with the amydgala. It measures something that is thought to originate in the amygdala. To say that "specifically" Gao was studying the amgydgala is like saying that when Fox News reports on Obama, they are "specifically" referring to Hawaii. Nor does the study have much to do with fearlessness as I'll show.
But the news article links permanently three unrelated words: "fearlessness" "crime" and "amygdala."
The study, started in 1970, tested 3 year olds for a "fear response" and then followed these kids over 20 years.
Two decades later Gao and his team tracked down 137 study participants who had committed serious crimes. These individuals had shown an absence of fear during testing at age 3, whereas 274 study participants who had grown to adulthood without a criminal record had displayed typical fear responses.Create your own narrative: "fearless" babies grow up undisturbed by consequence, punishment, or threats to their own safety, and live a life of immediacy and selfishness.
But "fear" has nothing to do with it. Babies were hooked up to a sweat monitor, and subjected to Pavlovian classical conditioning: Every time they played a sound (say, "doorbell") they followed it with the sound of a "car crash." So the babies were conditioned to anticipate "car crash" whenever they heard "doorbell"-- and so would sweat more.
Sweating upon hearing the loud noise indicated a sense of fear, while no sweat meant the child lacked fear -- that is, had poor fear conditioning.
Not exactly. Sweating meant they had been conditioned. By example, all babies would exhibit "fear" when they heard only a car crash. What was going on here was that some babies had increased sweat when they heard the doorbell-- i.e. they had been conditioned-- and some didn't.
The false link is to couple "conditioning" with "fear" and then amygdala. But this paradigm isn't really about fear; and while the amygdala is implicated in fear and conditioning of many different kinds that all fall under the umbrella of "fear conditioning" (e.g. taste aversion, etc), the role of the amydgala is drastically altered depending on what conditioning paradigm you use.(1)
Apparently, those that didn't respond to the conditioning went on to be criminals.
Well, that's not exactly true either.
No main effects of criminal offender group or stimulus type were found. A significant group-by-stimulus inter-action indicated that the criminal offender group failed to show fear conditioning at age 3 (F=4.554, df=1, 409, p=0.033) (see Figure 2). The comparison group (N=274) showed a greater response to the CS+ than to the CS- (t=2.852, df=273, p=0.005; d=0.345), whereas the offender group (N=137) failed to show this effect (t =-0.604, df=136, p=n.s.; d=-0.104).
Those three sentences represent the entire body of information and discussion on the results of the study. The first half of the paper is introduction and methods; the last half is discussion about the amygdala and speculations on the neurobiology of crime that have nothing at all to do with the study they conducted. Go see if I'm lying.
And, you will notice, the study failed on its primary outcome. Here's the context: 1700 kids were studied. 20 years later, only 137 had become criminals. Looking at the original conditioned response data, there was no way to predict which 137 were going to become criminals. Starting with the criminals and working backwards, they were only slightly less responsive to the conditioning than a selection of controls.
So what do the results mean for individuals with fear conditioning deficits and their loved ones, and for society at large? It's a wake-up call about potential problems, said Gao and other experts in the field. To enhance the proper working of the amygdala, which is believed to reduce criminal behavior in later life, enrichment programs are essential.
I'll admit, having lived through 20 years of the "decade of the brain" I didn't fully appreciate the shift in direction modern psychiatry was taking. They have moved from a "fixed trait," "everything is genetic" bias, to a "neurodevelopmental dysfunction" bias.
The importance of this bias is entirely social, not scientific, as the science itself is the same, only the interpretation differs. This new interpretation allows early intervention programs to target the biological aspects, and not the social aspects. It justifies psychiatry to use its techniques for social change, which it had previously been doing without official sanction.
You say: "Are you insane? We couldn't do anything about criminality before; now maybe we can. Why is that so bad?" Because you can't do anything about it at all. Because you can't do anything about it at all. You had these same medications and techniques before but they didn't work and you didn't really expect that they'd work. Believing that they will work now won't change anything.
This is the reclassification of social ills as "neurodevelopmental disorders;" the offloading sociology to psychiatry.
Addressing parental concerns, Benedek added: "Don't be discouraged if your child has early brain dysfunction. It doesn't mean that he or she is going to grow up and be a criminal. The brain can change and grow."My God, my God.