What Causes Psychopathy
This information should not be used to diagnose or treat. It is not meant to take the place of consultation with a healthcare professional. If you have concerns, you should contact your healthcare provider for a screening.
A common question is: “What causes psychopathy?” As is true for other developmental disorders, there is no single cause of psychopathy. Research indicates that psychopathy results from a complex combination of genetic and environmental (non-genetic) factors.
Increased risk is not the same as a cause: It is important to keep in mind that increased risk is not the same as a cause. For example, some genetic changes associated with psychopathy can also be seen in people who don’t have psychopathy. Similarly, many children exposed to a particular environmental risk factor for psychopathy will not develop the disorder.
Genetic Risk Factors
There is no “psychopathy gene,” but research tells us that psychopathy tends to run in families. Even if a parent does not have psychopathy, they may carry one or more genetic variants that increase their child’s chance of developing psychopathy.
Most psychological outcomes are caused by the combined effects of many hundreds or thousands of genes. The combined effects of many genes account for about half of the variation in psychopathic traits. This means that some children are born at higher risk for developing psychopathy.
Is psychopathy something people are born with? It’s Complicated. No one is born with psychopathy (or any other psychological disorder). However, some children are born at high risk for developing psychopathy due to inherited (genetic) factors.
Environmental Risk Factors
Environmental influences can increase—or reduce—the odds of developing psychopathy in people who are at risk due to inherited factors. There are many environmental risk and protective factors for psychopathy, most of which have not yet been identified. Each of these factors likely has only a small impact. In other words, each of these factors might only affect the severity of psychopathic symptoms a little bit. Factors that increase risk for psychopathy include:
- Perinatal factors, such as smoking during pregnancy, high-stress levels during pregnancy, or birth complications
- Not experiencing highly warm and responsive parenting in early childhood (Read more about what is meant by ‘warm and responsive parenting’ and its relationship to psychopathy)
Again, it is important to remember that a risk factor is not the same as a cause. Many children with psychopathy have none of these risk factors and did experience warm and responsive parenting. Similarly, most children with these risk factors will not develop psychopathy.
Other risk factors for psychopathy include:
- Low resting heart rate, which may reflect low physiological arousal
- A fearless temperament
The origins of these risk factors are not clear. They probably reflect a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It is also not clear if low resting heart rate or a fearless temperament cause psychopathic traits to emerge, or whether they are simply correlated with psychopathic traits.
Differences in Brain Biology
Genetic and environmental influences do not cause psychopathy directly. Instead, they influence the way certain brain structures and circuits develop in a way that increases the risk a person will develop psychopathy.
For example, one brain region that seems to be particularly important is the amygdala. This structure is involved in social responsiveness, empathy, and outcomes related to fear. Children with psychopathy may have amygdalas that develop differently from other children. In children who are psychopathic, this region may be smaller or less active than in other children. This may be why they are relatively fearless and less socially responsive. The amygdala also sends and receives information from other brain regions that may also be affected in psychopathy. These include parts of the cortex, or surface, of the brain, as well as other brain systems that regulate emotion and decision-making. Research continues to explore these differences with the aim of developing treatments that can improve behavior and quality of life.
Some children are born at higher risk for psychopathy—but what parents do still matters
Some children are born at higher risk for psychopathy due to genetic variables that affect brain development. But parents still play an important role. Learning to use specific therapeutic techniques with high-risk children can reduce their chances of developing psychopathy.
Parents often feel guilty about their child’s mental disorders. And it is common for parents–particularly mothers–to be blamed by others, including mental health providers, for their child’s difficulties. For decades, psychiatrists and psychologists blamed disorders like autism and schizophrenia on “refrigerator mothers” and “schizophrenogenic mothers!” But as scientific research on autism and schizophrenia accumulated, it became clear that these complex developmental disorders are not caused by specific parenting practices.
Similarly, research on psychopathy has made clear it is also not caused by specific parenting practices. Most families in which a child has psychopathy also have other children without psychopathy. This makes it clear that the parents are not causing their child’s psychopathy. Although scientific research shows that warm and responsive parenting can reduce the risk of psychopathy, many children and adults with psychopathy have parents who are warm and responsive.
What does it mean for a parent to be “warm and responsive?” Warm parenting means showing your child positive emotion using your face, voice, and body. Warm parenting behaviors include smiling, speaking in a warm tone of voice, and using positive touch (for example, a gentle touch on the arm, a hug, or a high-five). Responsive parenting means responding appropriately to your child’s needs and emotions. Responsive parenting behaviors include, for example, expressing concern through your face and voice, asking questions, or offering a hug if your child is upset.
Some research suggests that children with psychopathy are less sensitive than other children to positive social and emotional cues. As a result, these children may benefit from unusually strong displays of positive emotion from their parents–beyond what parents would naturally use.
Parents can be trained to use specific behavioral techniques to improve their child’s symptoms. This is also the case for autism: we know parenting does not cause autism, but parents can be trained to use specific techniques (such as ABA) to improve an autistic child’s symptoms.
It is important for parents of children with psychopathy to learn effective techniques in part because a child’s psychopathy can change parents’ behavior toward their child over time in maladaptive ways. For example, some children with psychopathy resist affection. So parents may be less verbally or physically affectionate because they believe that is what their child prefers. But children at risk for psychopathy may actually need more verbal and physical warmth than other children.