Environmental and Genetic Influences on Psychopathy

Researchers from several universities recently collaborated on a study to determine how genetic, environmental, and interpersonal factors influence the development of psychopathy. Psychopathy is characterized by lack of emotion, dysfunctional attachments, lack of remorse or guilt, and often antisocial tendencies, thought to be caused by genetic factors. The researchers sought to determine how environmental factors, such as peer influence, parenting, neglect, or abuse, affected two specific traits of psychopathy—fearless dominance (FD) and impulsive antisociality (IA).

Using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) and the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ), the researchers assessed 2,604 twins, all 17 years old, for several factors. They evaluated the parent-child relationship and social environment, including peer interactions. They assessed levels of antisociality and prosocial behaviors and also gauged academic performance in school. Additionally, the team looked at external events including legal issues, school problems, and other stressful life experiences.

They found that the male twins exhibited more psychopathic behaviors overall. “There was a moderate to large gender difference on MPQ-FD and MPQ-IA, with boys scoring higher on both,” said the researchers. “Boys also scored higher on antisocial peers, mother-child relationship problems, and school and legal problems. Girls scored higher on academic achievement and engagement and family level problems.” They believe these findings regarding relationship problems are significant. “This pattern of disrupted parent-child relationships and antisocial tendencies then initiates a sequence of developmental processes leading to academic failure, peer rejection, deviant peer affiliation, drug use, and delinquency.” They added, “Less discussed are factors that underlie the initial disrupted parent-child relationship, such as a child’s undercontrolled temperament or the parent’s own antisocial traits that then influence his or her parenting practices. We propose that genetic factors are a likely source of such individual differences that then influence other putatively environmental variables such as parent-child relationship problems.”

Hicks, B. M., Carlson, M. D., Blonigen, D. M., Patrick, C. J., Iacono, W. G., and MGue, M. (2011, August 29). Psychopathic Personality Traits and Environmental Contexts: Differential Correlates, Gender Differences, and Genetic Mediation. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025084

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Henry C Demarks

    Henry C Demarks

    September 12th, 2011 at 2:41 PM

    Good to know that psychopath is caused at least partly by environmental issues because while science hasn’t found a way to change human genetics we do have ways to change their environment.

    I think that psychopathy has almost everything to do with what happens as a child. Neglect as a child is much more detrimental than as an adult.
    Here is my wild theory: Twins have a higher chance of becoming psychopathic because one is usually favored making the other one fell very much neglected. Could just be me and my crazy self talking but maybe I’m on to something! Tell me what you think.

  • anon


    November 16th, 2016 at 2:58 AM

    Your theory is too generalized, the two twins, while they may look like each other, personality is a key behavior too, naturally, one twin could need less attention than the other

  • Iris


    September 12th, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    Parents have so much of an influence over our children, more than we even know and it is scary to even contemplate the damage that we could be doing without even knowing it! However one thing that is positive about all of this is that if environment does indeed play such a large role, then this is stuf that can be overcome! We do not have to just sit back and chalk it all up to genetics and think that we have no control. This can be controlled and managed if you just give it a chance. It may not work the first time around but there is HOPE!

  • jude


    September 12th, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    well you may say boys are tougher to parent and handle in general but then to consistently have such findings it speaks of how this “boys are more prone to being” has now become somewhat of a default!

    but I feel if parents lay down the exact same rules and discipliotto both the son and daughter similarly,this difference is bound to reduce.it ain’t happening in a day but it will happen.

  • donna


    September 13th, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    Henry C Demarks:Optimistic thinking I would say. But yes, there is a lot that we can all do as parents to make things better for our children and to give them the right kind of an environment to grow in and thrive.

  • June


    September 13th, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    There are many factors that come into play in this kind of determination. Will there ever be any kind of objective way to determine which holds the most sway? I would personally think that this is very individualized, that what is more important for one person could be less so with another.

  • snow white

    snow white

    October 25th, 2012 at 12:34 PM

    *I reckon maybe if a psychopath child was put in the right environment they would be more likely to just be more successful rather than kill anyone. So if all parents were educated in this somehow then there would probably be much less murderers and crime altogether.

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