Understanding the development of psychopathy: progress and challenges

Psychol Med. 2018 Mar;48(4):566-577. doi: 10.1017/S0033291717002847. Epub 2017 Oct 16.


Psychopathy is an adult condition that incurs substantial societal and individual costs. Here we review neurocognitive and genetically informative studies that shed light on how and why this condition emerges. Children cannot present with psychopathy. However, the presence of callous-unemotional (CU) traits can distinguish a group of children who are at elevated risk of psychopathy in adulthood. These children display diminished empathy and guilt and show attenuated brain activation to distress cues in others. Genetically informative studies indicate that individual differences in CU traits show moderate-to-strong heritability, but that protective environmental factors can counter heritable risk. On the basis of the extant research findings, we speculate on what might represent the priorities for research over the next decade. We also consider the clinical implications of these research findings. In particular, we consider the importance of delineating what precisely works for children with CU traits (and their parents) and the ways in which intervention and prevention programs may be optimized to improve engagement as well as clinical outcomes.

Keywords: Antisocial; brain; callous-unemotional; development; empathy; genetic; psychopathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / prevention & control
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Child
  • Conduct Disorder / prevention & control
  • Conduct Disorder / psychology*
  • Emotions*
  • Empathy
  • Guilt
  • Humans
  • Parents / psychology*