Psychopathy has long captured the public imagination. Newspaper column inches and Hollywood films alike mirror our curiosity and capture our natural fear of characters who seem to lack basic humanity. Why do some people develop psychopathy and can it be prevented? We now understand psychopathy as a developmental disorder characterised by lack of empathy and guilt, manipulation of other people and premeditated violence. Research has demonstrated that some individuals are genetically vulnerable to developing psychopathy and display atypical brain responses to other people’s distress and social affiliative cues. These insights suggest why the typical socialisation processes can derail in those at risk for psychopathy, but also indicate what might be helpful in preventing the condition.
Essi Viding is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at University College London.
Her main aim is to understand how antisocial behaviour arises and persists. She does this by charting different developmental pathways using a variety of methods, including molecular genetic analyses, twin model-fitting and neuroimaging. In this way she has begun to characterise biological and psychological risk factors for callous-unemotional traits, such as lack of empathy, in children.
These traits are thought to place children at risk of developing psychopathy. Professor Viding has shown that children with such traits are distinct from other children showing antisocial behaviour. Professor Viding’s research has been instrumental in getting these children recognised and has clear implications for treatment approaches.
She has received several prizes for her work, including the British Academy Wiley Prize in Psychology, The British Psychological Society Spearman Medal, The Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award, The British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship and the Turin Young Mind & Brain Prize.