Early-onset antisocial behaviour in children with psychopathic tendencies is largely inherited

New research on the origins of antisocial behaviour, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, suggests that early-onset antisocial behaviour in children with psychopathic tendencies is largely inherited.

The findings are the result of extensive research funded by the Medical Research Council, the Department of Health and the Home Office, and carried out by Dr. Essi Viding of the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, within the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London.

Past research has shown that children with early-onset antisocial behaviour show problem behaviours for a variety of different reasons. One warning sign of vulnerability for antisocial behaviour is psychopathic tendencies, i.e. lack of empathy and remorse. Dr Viding's research looked into the factors that contribute to antisocial behaviour in children with and without psychopathic tendencies. By studying sets of 7-year-old twins, Dr. Viding and her colleagues were able to pinpoint to what extent antisocial behaviour in these two groups was caused by genetic and/or environmental risk factors.

A sample of 3687 twin pairs formed the starting point for this research. Teacher ratings for antisocial behaviour and psychopathic tendencies (i.e. lack of empathy and remorse) were used to classify the twins. Those who were in the top 10% of the sample for antisocial behaviour were separated into two groups - those with and without psychopathic tendencies.

Following analysis, the results showed that, in children with psychopathic tendencies, antisocial behaviour was strongly inherited. In contrast, the antisocial behaviour of children who did not have psychopathic tendencies was mainly influenced by environmental factors. These findings are in line with previous research showing that children with psychopathic tendencies are at risk to continue their antisocial behaviour and are often resistant to traditional forms of intervention.

Dr Essi Viding says: "Our research has important implications. The discovery that psychopathic tendencies are strongly heritable suggests that we need to get help for these youngsters early on. Any behaviour is influenced by multiple genes and an unlucky combination of genes may increase vulnerability to a disorder.

"However, strong heritability does not mean that nothing can be done. Children are open to protective environmental influences early in life and these influences can buffer the effect of genetic vulnerability. By combining cognitive neuroscience and molecular genetic research, we are hoping to uncover how genetic vulnerability might influence early brain development. This can in turn help us to develop methods of prevention and intervention to suit each particular child. It means that we might be able to treat antisocial behaviour with psychopathic tendencies as successfully as other emotional disorders."


  1. Louie Brandon what Louie Brandon what New Zealand says:

    I have a child in my class who appears to have no empathy with others.  He seems to enjoy hurting and I've tried everything from "love bombing' for 2 months - , maybe I should carry on with this to removing him from the other children to protect them - neither seem to have any effect on him.  

  2. Jody Nellingsworth Jody Nellingsworth Australia says:

    Can someone please help me out with this. My nieces and nephews have come from a very bad situation in their family, whereby they aren't in and havent been in contact with their father for 18 months. My nephew who is 5 seems to be taking this the hardest. There was/is signs of sexual abuse and all of the children have been seeing counssellors for the past 12 months. This is where I need help. My nephew who is 5 has started kindergarten this year and just in the past month I have noticed certain behaviours in him that I am concerned about.
    He will ask over and over to do something that he has been asked not to do (eg go outside when it is raining) when eventually he gets the message to not go outside, he coaxes his younger siblings to do what he wanted to do, then he does it with them to in a sense "get his own way". When they all get in trouble for doing what they are doing, the 5 year old then blames the younger ones for doing it and says he was trying to stop them or that they are why cant he do it. His younger sister (she is 4) has also made reference that he always wants to lay naughty games with her. I tell her not to do what her brother tells her to do. And I have try to tell him not to tell his younger sibing what to do but when they do I get a eery smile and a "hmpf" from him.
    My sister has also been referring to him as the "man of the house" cause he got upset that she had a new boyfriend. He now takes on that persona so much so that he tells his 13 year old sister that he is older and stronger then her and challenges her physically. She being 13 is finding it extremely frustrating as when she tells her mother of what has been happening, her mother chastises her for being so hard on her brother. Hence she came to me regarding this as well as my own observations.
    His mother (my sister) takes them to sandbox counselling once a week, but the way I see it, if my sister isnt honest with the counsellors about what is actually going on at home and lets my nephew just have his counselling (which he is good at her habit of telling people what they want to hear to get what they want!).
    What advice can I give my sister and my mother who is a constant presence in the day to day running of these children?

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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