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Predicting bad behavior: Sounds nice, but not worth the risks

By Armin Brott

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Dear Mr. Dad: With all the talk of bullies and school violence, isn’t there a way to predict which kids will grow up to be criminals and which won’t?

Answer: Sounds like an interesting idea, but if you ever saw the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” you know the potential pitfalls of punishing people for crimes they haven’t committed yet. What if the predictions are wrong? “Minority Report” was set in 2054, but I just read two different studies that make it look like the future is already here. Both purport to be able to ferret out those bad seeds before they turn aggressive, violent or commit crimes. Personally, I’m scared. And you should be, too.

In the first study, Drew Barzman, a child psychiatrist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and his team were looking for a way to predict violence among pediatric psychiatric patients. They developed a simple test that measures levels of cortisol, testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in boys’ saliva. The test proved to be quite accurate.

I’m OK with the part about helping doctors, but how can they possibly use the saliva test to improve safety in schools? I can just imagine every little boy being required to spit on a card. And based on the saliva analysis, some will be expelled. Or maybe even sent to jail for some future crime that hasn’t happened yet – or might not happen at all.

In the second study, a team of researchers, led by Dr. Sheilagh Hodgins of Universite de Montreal, compared teacher-rated conduct problems (CP) and hurtful and uncaring behaviors (HUB) at age 6 and 10 with criminal convictions up to age 24. And, sure enough, they found a connection.

Six-year-old boys who were rated by their teachers as having the highest degree of CP and HUB were four times more likely to be convicted of violent crimes and five times more likely to be convicted of nonviolent crimes than boys with lower ratings.

Pretty much the same was true for the girls.

According to Hodgins, “If their conduct problems could be identified and reduced early in life, this would potentially allow these children to alter their developmental trajectories, live healthy and happy lives, and to make positive rather than negative contributions to our society.”

Whoa there. Alter their trajectories? How? Are we going to lock up a bunch of first-graders? Does anyone else think that 6 years old is a little early to be labeling kids as violent, or criminal, or even likely to misbehave? Especially when basing “interventions” on the assessment of classroom teachers, most of whom aren’t trained child psychologists?

Sure, being able to predict kids’ future bad behavior sounds kind of cool, but the potential for abuse makes it not worth the risk.

Read Armin Brott’s blog at, send email to, and follow him on Twitter @mrdad.