- Some studies suggest that psychopathic traits begin in early age and they are partly heritable and evident in childhood.
- Recent genetic research suggests modest to high heritability of psychopathic traits.
- Psychopathy is a lifelong problem, with many symptoms displayed in youth.
While I lay in the hospital bed after giving birth to my firstborn son, the thought that turned over in my mind was, will my baby be normal? Or would he be like my mother and sister? I grappled with what was wrong with them, and wondered if it had a name. Was it heritable? I could only pray that my child would be spared the personality disorder that I would later come to know as psychopathy.
Early manifestations of psychopathic traits
I remember over the years, my father, who generally had little to say, would faintly murmur, “Your sister is the bad seed.” My only sibling was six years older than I. From my early childhood years, I knew she was a problem, and that my mother and sister were different from other people I knew. The two of them manipulated, calculated, twisted and broke laws and rules, and exuded charm that was alluring. Both had personalities that were similar and both displayed psychopathic traits. Could this be the result of a gene in the family tree?
Professor Robert Hare’s assessment of The Bad Seed
Pioneering psychopathy researcher Professor Robert D. Hare has said that William March’s bestselling novel, The Bad Seed,1 is a “remarkably true to life” portrayal of psychopathy in a child.2 Eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark came from loving parents who were devoted to her. But as the story unfolds, others who knew her thought her “strange.” School personnel noticed “a cold, self-sufficent, difficult child who lived by rules of her own, and not by the rules of others. She was a fluent and most convincing liar.”3 Rhoda became a murderer and was indifferent to her crimes. Though she never knew her maternal grandmother, a serial killer, she was already showing traits that were just like hers.
My sister, like Rhoda Penmark, was cunning and bold from as young as I could remember and managed to get the boys in her grade school to steal and give her their sisters’ jewelry. She had no qualms that what she had been given had been stolen. Her only desire was to continue to get what she wanted. My mother, captivated by her success, applauded her.
Recent research into heritability of psychopathic traits
Some studies suggest that psychopathic traits begin in early age and they are partly heritable and are evident in childhood.”4 Studies with twins have shown that callous-unemotional traits, such as no sense of guilt or remorse, fearlessness, lack of affection, or unresponsiveness to punishment, appear to be moderately to strongly heritable.5,6 Recent genetic research suggests modest to high heritability of psychopathic traits.7 Some research has concluded that psychopathy is innate.8
Psychologists do not label a child a psychopath, believing the label is too "fixed" to apply to children.9 More typically, they prefer to characterize only specific traits, although The Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry has proposed that the terms “tension-discharge disorder,” or “impulse-ridden personality” be used in diagnosing.10
Nurture alone is insufficient to account for psychopathy
In Without Conscience, Hare describes “Tess,” a six-and-a-half-year-old whose therapy sessions with a clinical psychologist were featured in an HBO story. When asked why she stole knives, Tess responded that she wanted to kill her adopted mother and brother. While she looked like an angel, at her age she was ready to kill. Her adoptive parents grew alarmed when they learned she was punching her baby brother in the stomach at night while he slept. As for small animals, she liked sticking them with pins. Her adopted parents were frightened by Tess’ behavior and researched her case, finding she had been subjected to violence herself, including sexual abuse. Her adopted parents were caring. Unfortunately, Tess was more like her biological family than her loving adoptive family. 11
Research has found that “rejection, deprivation, neglect, abuse can cause terrible effects” … [but still not result in] … “the full gamut of symptoms that make up psychopathy.”12
The sad truth is that psychopathy is a lifelong problem, with many symptoms displayed in youth, suggestive of the impact of heritable influences. While efforts may be made to mitigate these influences, the disorder persists with much emotional, psychological and physical suffering to those whom the psychopath impacts.
1. March, William. (2015). The Bad Seed. New York: Viking. (Original work published 1954).
2. Hare, Robert D. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: The Guilford Press. 155-56. (Original work published 1993).
3. The Bad Seed. 34.
4. Viding, E., & McCrory, E.J. (2018). Understanding the development of psychopathy: Progress and challenges. Psychological Medicine, 48(4), 566–577.
5. Flom, M., & Saudino, K.J. (2017). Callous–unemotional behaviors in early childhood: Genetic and environmental contributions to stability and change. Development and Psychopathology, 29(4), 1227–1234.
6. Viding, E., & McCrory, E.J. (2015). Developmental risk for psychopathy. In Thapar, A., Pine, D.S., Leckman, J.F., Scott, S., Snowling, M.J., & Taylor, E. (Eds.), Rutter’s child and adolescent psychiatry (6th ed., pp. 966–980). John Wiley & Sons.
7. Dhanani, S., Kumari, V., Puri, B.K., Tresaden, I., Houng, S., & Sen, P. (2018). A systematic review of the heritability of specific psychopathic traits using Hare’s two-factor model of psychopathy. CNS Spectrums, 23(1), 29–38.
8. Freedman, L.F., & Verdun-Jones, S.N. (2010). Blaming the parts instead of the person: Understanding and applying neurobiological factors associated with psychopathy. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 52(1), 29–53.
9. Hare, Robert D. (1970). Psychopathy: Theory and Research. New York: Wiley. 5.
10. Psychopathy Theory and Research. 5.
11. Without Conscience. 171-173.
12. Without Conscience. 172.
Much appreciation to J. Reid Meloy for graciously providing Chapter 2, "The Emergence and development of psychopathy," from a corrected proof of a soon to be released text, Psychopathy and Criminal Behavior. 2022.