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What Causes Psychopathy?

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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.

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A common question is: “What causes psychopathy?” As is true for other developmental disorders (such as autism, for example) there is no single cause of psychopathy. Research indicates that psychopathy results from a complex combination of genetic and environmental (non-genetic) risk factors.

It is important to keep in mind that a risk factor 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.

Line art of DNA

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. 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.

Hand holding cigarette

Other Risk Factors

Some risk factors for psychopathy are environmental. 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. Environmental factors that increase risk for psychopathy include:

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.  For example, most children of mothers who smoke while pregnant will not develop psychopathy. 

Additional risk factors for psychopathy include:


Differences in Brain Biology

Genetic and environmental influences do not cause psychopathy directly. Instead, they influence the way certain brain structures and systems develop in a way that increases the risk a person will develop psychopathy.

For example, one brain structure that seems to be particularly important for the development of psychopathy is the amygdala. This structure is involved in social responsiveness, empathy, and outcomes related to fear. Children with psychopathic traits may have amygdalas that develop differently from other children. In children with psychopathic traits, this region may be smaller or less active than in other children. This may be why children with psychopathic traits are relatively fearless and less socially responsive than typical children. The amygdala also sends information to 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 parts of the brain 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 for people with psychopathic traits.

Although some children are born at higher risk for psychopathy, what parents do still matters

Although some children are born at higher risk for developing psychopathy due to genetic variations that affect brain development, parents still play an important role. They can learn to use specific therapeutic techniques with their high-risk children which can reduce the chances that their child will develop psychopathy.  These techniques are not intuitive, so parent training is usually needed. 

Parents often feel guilty about their child’s mental disorders, including psychopathy. And it is common for parents–particularly mothers–to be blamed by others, including mental health providers, for their child’s disorders. For decades, psychiatrists and psychologists blamed disorders like autism and schizophrenia on, respectively, “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 psychopathic traits also have other children without psychopathic traits. This makes it less plausible that the parents are causing their child’s psychopathic traits. Although scientific research shows that warm and responsive parenting has the potential to reduce the chances that a high-risk child will develop psychopathy, many children and adults with psychopathic traits have parents who are warm and responsive. 

It is of the utmost importance for parents, teachers and clinicians to understand that if a child develops psychopathic traits, it cannot be assumed their parents were cold and unresponsive. Unfortunately, it is still common for parents to be blamed if their child develops psychopathic traits.

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, listening attentively to your child’s concerns, asking questions, or offering a hug if your child is upset.

Some research suggests that children with psychopathic traits 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.

How parents can help children at risk for psychopathy

Parents can be trained to use specific behavioral techniques to improve their child’s symptoms. These techniques can be unintuitive. They often seem to be the opposite of what affected children want. But using these specific therapeutic parenting techniques can improve behavior and relationships in children with psychopathic traits similar to the way Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy can improve behavior and relationships in children with autism spectrum disorders.

It is important for parents of children with psychopathic traits to learn effective techniques in part because a child’s psychopathic traits can change parents’ behavior toward their child over time in maladaptive ways. For example, some children with psychopathic traits resist affection. So parents may become less verbally and/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 from their parents than other children do.

If you are a parent of a child of any age with psychopathic traits, please know you are not alone. The researchers and clinicians who created Psychopathy Is are very sympathetic toward parents like you. We are working to create an alliance of parents  who are interested in helping to support further research and education on psychopathy, such as helping to raise funds for psychopathy research.  

Please complete this form if you would like to be added to our parent mailing list.  

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