Is Psychopathy Genetic?

Interest in the most severe form of character disturbance (psychopathy) has grown rapidly in the past several years, thanks mainly to the research conducted by Dr. Robert Hare of Canada and others. And one of the more interesting findings to come out of clinical studies on brain functioning is evidence of a possible biological basis for the psychopath’s diminished capacity for empathy. So does that mean that the most seriously disordered characters among us – or for that matter, all disturbed characters – are simply born the way they are?

It’s been established for some time that genes play a significant role in the makeup of those individuals eventually diagnosed with such conditions as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD, sometimes also now termed Dissocial Personality Disorder or DPD). And while the concepts of psychopathy and sociopathy have been around for a long time, neither has been recognized as an official disorder (although it’s likely that the upcoming revision of the official diagnostic manual will include the key aspects of psychopathy as a variant form of APD). Historically, the evidence for a genetic predisposition to APD has come from studies of monozygotic (identical) twins reared apart. The fact that the twin of an individual with an antisocial behavior history is more likely to show the same kind of behaviors despite being raised in a different environment argues for a genetic predisposition to the disorder.

And it’s of particular interest that twin studies have shown that the key component of psychopathy (i.e. lack of guilt or remorse and callous use and abuse of others rooted in empathy deficits) also appears to be influenced by biological factors. The “concordance” rate between twins reared apart for the various traits associated with APD, DPD, psychopathy and sociopathy is not strong enough to confirm a strictly genetic basis, but there can be no doubting a strong biologically-based predisposition. And one fairly recent study on monozygotic twins reared apart demonstrated that the biological predisposition toward empathy deficiency shows up even in children as young as 7 years old

Psychopaths and Genes