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Intergenerational transmission of psychopathy and mediation via psychosocial risk factors

  • Katherine M. Auty (a1), David P. Farrington (a1) and Jeremy W. Coid (a2)



Intergenerational continuities in criminal behaviour have been well documented, but the familial nature of psychopathic personality is less well understood.


To establish if there is an association between the psychopathic traits of a community sample of men and their offspring and whether psychosocial risk factors mediate this.


Participants of the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (n = 478 dyads) were assessed for psychopathy using the PCL: SV. Multilevel regression models were used to investigate intergenerational continuity and mediation models examined indirect effects.


The fathers' psychopathy was transmitted to both sons and daughters. The transmission of Factor 1 scores was mediated via the fathers' employment problems. For male offspring, the Factor 2 scores were mediated via the fathers' drug use, accommodation and employment problems. For female offspring, Factor 2 scores were mediated via the fathers' employment problems.


Understanding of the specific role of certain psychosocial risk factors may be useful in developing preventive measures for the development of psychopathy.

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Corresponding author

Katherine Auty, Institute of Criminology, Cambridge University, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA, UK. Email:


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This research was made possible by grants from the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department of Education, the Raine Foundation, the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

Declaration of interest




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Intergenerational transmission of psychopathy and mediation via psychosocial risk factors

  • Katherine M. Auty (a1), David P. Farrington (a1) and Jeremy W. Coid (a2)


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Intergenerational transmission of psychopathy and mediation via psychosocial risk factors

  • Katherine M. Auty (a1), David P. Farrington (a1) and Jeremy W. Coid (a2)
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Regarding Auty et al(2014)

Vishal G Bhavsar, Epidemiologist
09 January 2015

Dear Sir,

The conclusions drawn by Auty et al(2014), that the development and persistence of psychopathic personality characteristics is most likely down to both genetic and environmental factors, are well-judged, modest, and consistent with their results. Their report highlights a large and potentially important dataset, and the topic of inter-generational transmission of personality characteristics is under-researched.

Unfortunately, although not mentioned in the limitations, I am concerned that the results of the analysis remain open to confounding by genetic factors. For example, the mediation model involving disrupted employment as a inter-generational mediator of psychopathic trait from onegeneration to the next(male and female) was statistically significant. But, in finding that unemployment was a cause of psychopathic traits in the offspring, given that some genetic influence to psychopathy exists, and that correlation between genetic risk for psychopathy and unemploymentis likely, the conclusions appear vulnerable to the alternative explanation that it is shared genetic material, not psychosocial risk factors, which are being measured in the models. This is could be an important threat to inference- for example, in the study of intergenerational transmission of conduct problems by D'Onofrio et al (2007), the investigators identified evidence for complete confounding of environmental risk factors by shared genetic liability. Readers should be cautious therefore; bringing about changes in personality structure in theoffspring of psychopathic individuals by intervening in parental psychosocial environment may be injudicious.

Kind Regards,

Dr Vishal Bhavsar MSc MRCPsych


D'Onofrio, B. M., Slutske, W. S., Turkheimer, E., Emery, R. E., Harden, K. P., Heath, A. C., Martin, N. G. (2007). Intergenerational transmission of childhood conduct problems: a Children of Twins Study. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 64(7), 820-829. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.64.7.820

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Conflict of interest: None declared

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