The inheritance of callous and non-emotional traits

Like grandfather, like mother, like daughter.

As I got older, I noticed that my mother and sisters’ personalities were very similar. They were indifferent and indifferent to each other’s feelings. They were bold, always insisting they were right, and never caring about what they were doing wrong. My father, a man of few words, confided to me, Your mother and your sister are the same. In the later years of her life, she told me that when my sister was little, she never looked at him and she never showed any feelings or emotions for him.

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Affective facet traits from the PCL-R

According to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), the gold standard for determining the likely existence of psychopathy, these types of behaviors constitute callous nonemotional traits, which comprise the “affect facet” in the four-factor model of psychopathic traits of checklist. The affective aspect includes the following traits: lack of remorse or guilt, superficial affection, insensitivity/lack of empathy, and inability to accept responsibility for one’s actions.1

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Genetic research on the inheritance of affective traits

Research in recent years suggests that these types of behaviors may be heritable and may be linked in many cases to psychopathic personality disorder. Researchers view such behaviors as callous, emotionless traits (“CU traits”), which are core symptoms of psychopathy.2 They are said to be a precursor to the development of psychopathy.3

In a recent review of several studies, the authors noted that genetic research suggests a modest to high heritability of psychopathic traits.4 The disruptive behavior of children demonstrating high levels of CU traits appears to be strongly heritable.5 Another study found that children with high levels of CU traits did not make eye contact with their caregiver.6 A 2019 review of heritability studies found that some research findings concluded that the impact of heritability could be as high as 80%.7

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The possibility of intergenerational transmission of psychopathic traits

If heritability is important, then it could be possible that intergenerational transmission is related to genetic factors. Such research remains to be done, but current evidence has shown that parents with psychopathic tendencies are more likely to raise children with psychopathic propensities.8 The current state of research regarding the relative contributions of genetic, environmental and nutritional components is evolving.

How could the intergenerational transmission be

I have personally witnessed a possible intergenerational influence of CU traits in my family. My maternal grandfather, an egocentric man, exhibited all of the previously mentioned CU traits. He passed in front of his family without uttering a word or a greeting. He paid no attention to anyone in his immediate area. He was indifferent and remained a stranger to those closest to him. He came and went as he pleased, living his life as he pleased. Other people’s feelings didn’t interest him. A little incident repeated every year reveals volumes about his character. He showed no kindness or regard for his wife, my grandmother, on her birthday, walking past her as she always did, without even saying hello. Every year he cried with no explanation as to why her husband was like this. When he died, he fell asleep when he woke. When asked how he was doing, he was reportedly saying he missed his cats. After his wife died, their cats ran away never to return home. Perhaps they sensed his lack of concern for their well-being.

No family member would characterize my grandfather as having CU traits. Instead, they could only shake their heads and wonder what was wrong with this self-absorbed man who was very particular. No one could understand it.

In light of what we suspect about intergenerational transmission, it is certainly possible that my maternal grandfather carried traits that influenced my mother’s and sisters’ personality disorders. This, however, cannot be conclusively stated due to the interplay of so many other factors, impacts of education and other social forces. Only deeper and more creative research might be able to extract the genetics from these other factors.


1. Hare, Robert D. (2003). Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R): 2nd Edition. Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems, Inc. 83.

2. Frick PJ and Morris AS (2004). Temperament and developmental paths to lead problems. J Clin Child Adolescent Psychol. 2004; 33(1):5468 . [PubMed: 15028541].

3. Frick, PJ and White, San Francisco (2008). Research review: The importance of callous and unemotional traits in predicting the severity and stability of conduct problems and delinquency. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4), 359-375. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01862.x.

4. Alho, L., Paulino, M, Marques, Paolo, & Meloy, J. Reid. (2021). The emergence and development of psychopathy. Psychopathy and criminal behavior.

5. Viding, E., Jones, AP, Paul, JF, Moffitt, TE & Plomin, R. (2005). Evidence of substantial genetic risk for psychopathy in 7-year-old children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(6), 592-597. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00393.x.

6. Dad, MR, Allen, JL, et al. (2012). Eye contact and the evolutionary origins of empathy versus psychopathy. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 200 3 2012 191 196 10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085720.

7. Moore, AA, Rappaport, RJ, et al. (2019). Genetic basis of callous traits and emotion recognition in children, adolescents, and emerging adults. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 60 6 2019 638 645 10.1111/jcpp.13018.

8. Alho, L., Paulino, M, Marques, Paolo, & Meloy, J. Reid. (2021). The emergence and development of psychopathy. Psychopathy and criminal behavior.

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