Research Fellows Directory
Professor Essi Viding
University College London
Conduct problems in children, including cruelty and physical aggression, represent a major societal problem. About five per cent of children in the UK qualify for a diagnosis of conduct problems. Some, but not all of these children also lack empathy and can appear ‘callous’.
My research focuses on trying to better understand the origins of conduct problems, as well as the way in which children with these problems see the world around them. In order to sensitively study these children, we need to develop new tasks that can help us understand what explains their behavior. For example, my group has recently examined what happens in the brain when people think about doing something wrong and how guilty that would make them feel. We found that a part of the brain called anterior insula tracks the degree of guilt people report feeling. The more guilty they anticipate feeling, the more engaged their anterior insula is. But that is not the case for everyone. For individuals with high levels of psychopathic (callous) traits, the anterior insula is not sensitive to anticipated guilt. We think that being able to anticipate guilt may influence behaviour, acting as a ‘‘moral brake’’ and decreasing the likelihood of those behaviours that will cause harm to others and guilt in ourselves. Insensitivity to anticipated guilt may help explain the lack of care for others’ well-being and difficulty in adhering to moral rules which are characteristic of individuals with high levels of psychopathic (callous) traits. Next we want to use this task when we study juvenile offenders with callous traits and compare them to other juvenile offenders, as well as typically developing young people.
Interests and expertise (Subject groups)