Child’s Play: A psychological perspective on the murder of Ana Kriegel
Over the past few weeks, the horrifying story has come out that two boys, boy a and boy b, have been found guilty of brutally raping and murdering 14 year old Ana Kriegel. As people come to terms with the shocking story, the main question on everyone’s lips is why? Why would these boys or anyone else ever do something so disgusting? How would then not have known to stop? Why were they not aware how wrong this was? While I would like to note that the reasons behind this act of psychopathy is because of a string of complex interactions between tens if not hundreds of different factors, I would like to highlight one particular fact that most will underestimate.
I’ve been listening to several experts speak on the matter and the issue is that they’re trying to give an explanation with the ten minutes they have assigned to them on radio or television. The word evil gets thrown around several times, because they not only carried out the brutal acts, but they also continuously lied about the crimes. The truth in the matter is that there is no ‘evil’ gene. People are not born evil. Genes don’t know what is seen as right and wrong in a given society. For example, there was no such thing as murder for our Stone Age ancestors. There was only survival. And alternatively, it’s not completely how they were raised. It is not only the parents’ fault. These are simplistic solutions to complicated child and morality development. It is like trying to explain quantum physics in one word. Let’s look into some of the influential factors. Psychopathy refers to an abnormal personality who repetitively carries out antisocial behaviours, lacks empathy, remorse or the ability to read facial expressions and is unconcerned by negative consequences. This differs to anti-social personality disorder (ASPD) and ASPD is based on behaviours rather than personalities. There are several theories that have attempted to explain this type of development. One is Patterson’s coercion theory. The idea that the boys learned their anti-social behaviour through their family. There is then the developmental learning model. This states that if children aren’t punished correctly, then there is no conditioning to what we deem as bad behaviour. Hare took this a step further by looking at response to punishment by looking at some psychopaths’ physiological response to the punishment to electric shock. They found that psychopaths had less anticipation and less fear of the punishments. It is likely that all of these theories probably have a role to play. I'm sure this isn't new news. You've seen classic psychopaths on the news and in tv shows and movies. However, we are now going to discuss one of the most influential factors involved, and one you have probably underestimated: the act of play.
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development. He played a major role in child cognitive development theory and even coined the term ‘the zone’ for children who are in the zone of proximal development. He believed that children successfully integrating into adults was determined by one systematic process of learning, which is play. Children begin engaging in play at around one and this is before they have language to articulate objects, people and most importantly, morality, or what is right and what is wrong. Play is the language that allows children to learn enough to survive. It is during play that children also begin developing internal representations of everything, which is referred to as schemata by psychologists. For example, children generally develop positives schemata with dogs but if a child was bitten by a dog, they will have a schema of fear and resentment. As knowledge clashes with experience through assimilation in play, schemata are updated.
During this time, schemata also develop about morality. This begins at the age of one. If play is successful, children begin developing a sense of morality. All children want to play and if one child doesn’t play by the rules, they are excluded. Hence, they know that playing by the rules is good and not playing by the rules is bad. This is why rules are there. They create order. Emotions then develop alongside these rules. Children who break the rules feel guilt and shame and children who follow the rules feel joy and pride. Our brains reward successful play. If kids can’t play successfully, they then develop difficulties socialising and this isolates them. These are the children that will bite, kick and scream when playing and more detrimentally, these are the children that develop abnormal schemata of morality. Children are socialised by age 4 and if they are not socialised by then, they will never be successfully socialised. This is scary but it is true.
By age 5, heteronomous morality, or moral realism develops, which means that rules have been created by forces of nature and they are simply governed by people in authority or such as judges, teachers and parents. Therefore, rules can’t be changed and breaking rules is bad. The more you break a rule, the worse the consequence, regardless of circumstance or intention. The result of this is that children with this morality development believe that a child who accidentally bumps into a child and they break their ankle is worse than purposefully pushing another child and they only cut their knee. However, in order for this to continue, there needs to be consistency of punishment. This type of morality is governed by the idea that breaking rules results in punishment.
Then at the ages of 9-11, children begin developing autonomous morality or moral relativism. They develop egocentrism or their own selfish perspective, and they understand that morality depends on intentions and not consequences. They now know that rules have been created by people and they can be broken. They’ll turn the offside rule off on Fifa and they’ll question every move of the banker in monopoly. At this age, children then also believe that if their intentions were good, they will not be punished. Therefore, it becomes ok to lie as long as it does not involve betrayal. Their loyalties change and they will protect their friends rather than confess to the teacher. Children then begin to realise that justice and punishment is an imperfect system.
Through these stages of moral development, children can begin developing false beliefs at any stage. Get it wrong at the autonomous morality stage and children will grow up naively. Get it wrong at the heteronomous morality stage and children may develop beliefs that they are above the law. But get it wrong at the early early stages, and children will have a complete lack of understanding of what is right and what is wrong. This is again why, early intervention really is everything. Mix this incorrect development of morality with psychopathic traits and the consequences can be deadly.
A question we commonly get at our parent seminars is how to balance discipline and punishment with correct child development. You’ll see plenty of new age parents let their children do whatever they want. No discipline to help them grow. However, if we don’t set rules, we teach children to do whatever they want. It makes them above the system. On the other hand, we discipline a child too much and they are overly obedient. They become passive. Punish for them to learn from something such as not staying out too late because the street can be dangerous at night. Not for you to show your dominance such as I am your parent so you have to do what I say. When punishing, be aware of your non-verbal and verbal communication. For example, try not to raise your voice and kneel down to your child's level. Remember you are trying to teach them. Not to be authoritative. Now I can’t tell you what rules to stick to and what not to. That's up to you. However, I will point out that certain rules are there for a reason but also, think critically about them. The saying goes rules are there to be broken. And most importantly, keep consistency with your punishments. If there isn't consistency, punishment is irrelevant.
And finally, several caring parents will of course ask, how can I protect my children from dangerous psychopaths? The truth is we can't. But we can educate. Fear expert Gavin De Becker advises us to stop referring to people who do terrible things as monsters. It makes them out to not be human and it makes them harder to detect. Be aware that all humans can be violent and they can all seek something pleasurable that is inappropriate. By telling others that they’re not human, it makes them believe they are special and more important than others. All people are charged for their immoral behaviours, regardless of who they are. Calling someone a monster is a judgement, which operates under our prefrontal cortex but fear should operate under our amygdala. So don’t isolate these people but be more aware. If they are showing the psychopathic symptoms mentioned above, don’t marvel at them. Listen to your fear instinct and get away as fast as you can.
THE BEST DEFENCE IS EDUCATION
Our most sincere thoughts and condolences go out to Ana's parents and her family. It was reassuring that they got justice and well done to everyone involved. It is an absolute tragedy that no parent should ever have to go through and they stood bravely throughout. However, please learn from it and educate your children and students about the dangers that could be closer than you think. This should never happen again.