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Last reviewed dd mmm yyyy. Last edited dd mmm yyyy

Authoring team

Little is known for sure about the aetiology of psychopathic disorders, although the subject has been extensively studied.

  • heredity - no evidence to suggest direct genetic endowment of offspring with psychopathic traits by their parents, but it is possible that traits are transmitted causing children to react in this way to later adverse environmental factors
  • parental factors - associated with having parents who are cruel, hostile, neglectful or passive. Psychiatric illness in parents, or parental separation, or absence of the father, are all more frequent in the childhood history of psychopaths than the rest of the population.
  • social factors - social and cultural factors eg in school or neighbourhood, may play a part, but it is difficult to disentangle these from parental factors
  • learning theory - attempts have been made to explain the aetiology of psychopathy in terms of learning theory (delayed social learning, and mis-learning in the field of personality development)

NICE note that (1):

  • people with antisocial personality disorder have often grown up in fractured families in which parental conflict is typical and parenting is harsh and inconsistent
    • as a result of parental inadequacies and/or the child's difficult behaviour, the child's care is often interrupted and transferred to agencies outside the family
      • in turn often leads to truancy, having delinquent associates and substance misuse, which frequently result in increased rates of unemployment, poor and unstable housing situations, and inconsistency in relationships in adulthood


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