The Genetics of Psychopathy and Why it Matters in Child Custody

“The last scan in the pile was strikingly odd. In fact it looked exactly like the most abnormal of the scans I had just been writing about, suggesting that the poor individual it belonged to was a psychopath—or at least shared an uncomfortable amount of traits with one….When I found out who the scan belonged to, I had to believe there was a mistake….But there had been no mistake. The scan was mine.”



Brain scans of Dr Fallon and family

You are a world leading expert on brain imaging for violent criminals and psychopaths and you find that your own brain image is that of a psychopath. YOU are a psychopath. That has to be hard.


That is what a normal person would think; we have empathy, we have emotions. The psychopath doesn’t, (s)he will look how to turn this into a personal gain. And so did Dr Fallon; without empathy for what this public knowledge would do to his immediate family, he turned his discovery into a book about entering the dark side of the brain of a psychopath, included his family history of violent murderers and psychopaths. To top it off he then sought publicity with a huge media campaign. Book sales = money.

And I’m hopping on the band wagon, because his story is of extreme importance for child custody and there are 4 reasons why;

  1. Psychopathy has a genetic link; it passes on from parent to child. A child of a psychopath is at risk.
  2. Psychopathy is in the brain, it is not curable. Forced joint custody, parenting coordinators, therapy, etc will not improve the situation.
  3. Hitler vs Dr Fallon; Society’s misconception about the violent vs socially ‘adapted’ psychopath.
  4. Make or break the child; Influences in the early years.

1. The genetics of psychopathy

Yes, psychopathy passes on from parent to child through genetics. Dr Fallon in his book talks about several violent (and infamous) murderers that are related to him. He has a very interesting family tree to say the least.

Research has shown that Antisocial Personality Disorder (psychopathy) has an about 56% genetic component to it. Just to compare, breast cancer also has a genetic component. Women who have the mutated genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 have a chance of getting breast cancer in about 55-65% or 45% respectively. Angelina Jolie in 2013 went public with her double mastectomy because she has the gene mutations.

That is a different perspective, isn’t it? They are in the same range.

Just because you have the breast cancer gene, doesn’t mean you get breast cancer. If you have the gene for psychopathy, doesn’t mean you actually become a psychopath. But your chances of becoming a psychopath or getting breast cancer are the same when you have the gene for it.

Kids get some genes from Mom, some genes from Dad, it is a mix. This means children of psychopaths are at risk. It doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to have the gene, but there is a considerable possibility they do.

And when the kids do have the gene, it takes outside factors for psychopathy to become present, just like it takes outside factors for a woman to develop breast cancer.

2. Psychopathy is in the brain

Well-meaning people will say: ‘O, it will get better, it just takes time’, ‘Why doesn’t he go into therapy, that will help’, ‘If he just realizes what is going on, he will change’. I’ve heard my attorney say it, I’ve heard friends and family say it and I have to admit, I was of the same mindset during the marriage as well. I believe in human goodness and thought it would get better. I now know better.

Looking at the brain scan of Dr Fallon is sobering. It is clear that certain parts of his brain are functioning differently than his family members do. Sure, I read the research that psychopathy is not curable, I talked to experts, I preached and told it. Yet deep down inside I hoped it would be different; for the children’s sake. When I saw the scan, reality hit.

A psychopath is not going to change, no therapy will cure him/her. Nothing can change their brain.

3. Hitler vs Dr. Fallon

When we think about psychopaths, we think about Hitler, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and perhaps even Jodi Arias, Ariel Castro or the Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza. We think of creeps, we think of violent criminals.

Certainly not of a well-respected neuroscientist, husband and father like dr Fallon.

And that’s where society and the judicial system go wrong. The world’s leading expert in psychopathy, Dr Babiak and dr Hare, wrote the book ‘Snakes in Suits‘ and as you probably guessed, it is not about violent criminals. The percentage of psychopaths in high-powered positions in society is similar to the percentage in prison.

However, not only is our view of psychopaths skewed, our perception of their ‘damage’ is also clouded. Violence and murder are tangible concepts. We see the horror. Psychological trauma is so much more difficult to grasp, especially when you are not the victim.

Caregiver behaviors …… negatively affect the child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and/or physical development. Psychological maltreatment has been linked with disorders of attachment, developmental and educational problems, socialization problems, disruptive behavior, and later psychopathology. American Academy of Pediatrics

Despite the fact that the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have policies in place that recognize the frequency and long-term injury of psychological abuse, family court dismisses or even fails to recognize its existence. Yet the psychological damage of being raised by a personality disordered parent is well researched in the field of psychology, this is an unmistakable and devastating disconnect for the child.

4. Make or break the child

So how is it possible that Dr Fallon turned out ‘reasonably well’ and others have gone off the deep end? It is the early years. It is the environment the child grows up in.


Picture by Steve Corey (Flickr)


Dr Fallon explains he was loved as a child. He was the first-born after several miscarriages. He was wanted. He was important to his parents, or at least by 1 emotionally and psychologically healthy parent. A parent who was able to form secure parent-child attachments. So there was at least a 1-way of love.

As I’ve written about before, psychopaths cannot form secure attachments, but the love of Dr Fallon’s parent(s) provided him with a cushion to soften the impact of his genetics.

Just like smoking can cause lung cancer, red food coloring can aggravate ADHD, so is lack of love a trigger for becoming a psychopath. A psychopathic parent per definition can not express love; they are incapable of having empathy and without empathy there is no love. And a parent without empathy can not teach a child empathy.

Love is a deep concern for the other. Love is caring for the other. Children of psychopaths often endure neglect at best, or worse, physical abuse. This environment encourages the next generation to be psychopaths when they are at risk.

Dr Fallon emphasizes over and over again that the timing of the emotional/psychological injury determines the effect on the brain and what type of psychopath you become. For the gene to be expressed, the child needs to be exposed to trauma before puberty. Having the gene and being exposed to violence, or child neglect, is the recipe for disaster. The more severe the exposure, the more violent the psychopath becomes later on.

Family Courts Responsibility

‘Best Interest of the Child’ is the legal standard, not what is fair to each parent, or what a parent would like. Yet the courts do not follow-up on this, they would rather cater to Parental Rights organizations and work on a compromise between the 2 parties as if the children are property that needs to be divided equally. The legal standard is blatantly ignored to favor what can be agreed upon, not what is in the best interest of the child.

First of all courts need to put aside their misconception that psychopaths are violent criminals and realize that ‘upstanding’ members of society can be psychopaths as well. All persons involved in child custody decisions need to put the child first, and not the glorified theory of coming to an agreement and divide the property equally. This is the wellbeing of the next generation decisions are being made about.

When a child is at risk because 1 parent is a psychopath it is particularly important one limits the environmental influence of said parent. This could be a tipping point for the child to develop a personality disorder. It is extremely important that the child be around the parent that can express love, values, care and empathy. That does not mean the psychological disordered parent should be eliminated out of the life of the child, but the influence needs to be managed appropriately.

I can not repeat this enough; conflict is the single most predictable factor for the worst outcome for children of divorce. Forcing joint custody is perpetuating conflict for children. It is making the situation for children who are already at risk even worse. The acrimonious behavior of the psychopath is not going to change. They can’t change, their brain is set.

It is the courts responsibility to protect and safeguard the child, failure to do so has long-term consequences for the child and society. It is time courts recognize and take appropriate actions when there is a parent with a personality disorder and not stick their heads in the sand to cater to parental rights organizations. Our children are not 2nd rate citizens, they are our future. 

18 thoughts on “The Genetics of Psychopathy and Why it Matters in Child Custody

  1. If there were a reliable, objective test for psychopathy then it could be used to justify limiting one parent’s involvement in child rearing. But there is no objective test. Anyone can hire an expert who, for the right amount of money, will opine that Mother Theresa has psychopathic tendencies. And so it boils down to a circus of conflicting opinion akin to a witch hunt. This pseudoscientific fuzzy labeling can have equally devastating effects on the children.


    • Science per definition is not objective, but an execution of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, we can not measure the velocity and weight of a particle at the same time.

      Or welcome to the world of statistics!

      That is why the legal standard is ‘Reasonable degree of scientific certainty’.

      In human/social sciences the same principles are adhered to and the tests used are about as objective as in quantum physics. We ascertain and look at patterns of behavior. Personality disordered individuals can’t help themselves, they will repeat the pattern over and over again, which is why their behavior negatively influences children.

      You can not, put 2 genetically same children in 2 different homes, where for instance 1 will be subject to parental alienation, and the other not. That is purposefully putting children at harm. In Nazi Germany they did not have those qualms, and experimented on humans. Josef Mengele wanted to have more objectivity in human research. Thankfully now we have Medical Ethical Committees which prevent such experiments. However that means all social study now ‘look back’, and not forward.

      And don’t confuse science, with corruption. The underlining science is correct.

      The problem is that really good psychologists go into other fields, because when they make the correct decision in criminal court, they are listened to, whereas in family court they are often not. So the good ones go where their knowledge is valued, whereas the ones that are in it for the money, stay in family court, where the pay is so much better. 😉


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  5. I know my husband is a psychopath. I knew that staying with him was the safest way to protect our children, but over the last couple of years his treatment of them had escalated to the point that it is unbearable. Since they are now sixteen, I feel that they will have a say in custody. The problem is that nothing matters more to my husband more than control, and now that we have left, I am in fear for our safety.

    I filed for a restraining order and lost. First, he had a lawyer and I didn’t. It was exceedingly stupid of me to think I could go in to court armed only with the truth and win.

    He did such a song and dance on the stand, he told so many lies, and he told them so convincingly! He made himself into the valiant embattled hero, the children into the malicious villains, and myself into a dithering puppet of the children.

    At one point while my son was on the stand, his lawyer justified a beating by saying, “and did you ever do that again?”

    So, what can I possibly do to keep my children safe from this psychopath when he’s so much better at telling a lie than we are at telling the truth?


    • I’m so sorry you have to go through this!

      It is important to document, document, document and document some more. You have to proof that they are lies. Otherwise it is just he-said, she-said and the courts will side with whom they find more believable, which isn’t necessarily the truth. You have to proof it. Over and over again, you have to proof a pattern.

      Stay strong my friend, it is a long road! But you will prevail, no matter how fast the lie, the truth will overtake it!


      • In Divorce Poisen you will read that ‘the truth’ often, predictably, will not prevail and it is naive to say so. Children, teenagers are easily manipulated with money, power and spoiling. The importance of the truth is a very high level , moral position. My teenage children turned on me after the divorce and I had been their emotional rock. But I was poorer and my ex ‘s family was large and close by. They also maligned me. The kids didn’t know who was telling the truth so they chose financial stability and their cousins. After 15 years things are more balanced, but not a storybook, very unhealthy. Psychopaths don’t care about emotionally abusing ther children, just control, not looking like “they lost”. I don’t have answers. Do your best, but I’m here to say, they are just children, easy targets , no matter how you have tried to prepare them for the end of the marriage.


  6. Your argument is so strong! This idea of the Courts not doing their do diligence in placing the child full-time with the “stable” parent can have catastrophic outcomes for the child. “Doing what is best for the child” should be the standard held up by all Courts. For example, my child’s mother, who I believe to be a sociopath, has three nights a week with my daughter; where as I get four nights a week. I am the “Majority Parent”, but only by a margin. As a father, this was a tremendous victory. However, the mother is under investigation for 10 years of theft and fraud pertaining to the disabled, her former employer and the State of Florida. She also had given her other three children away to her ex-husband (out-of-state) who could not even take care of himself–and was having an affair with her best friend’s husband at the time of the decision made by the Court. She finally brought my daughter’s half siblings back and is now currently “married” to the ex-best friend’s husband. My daughter is exposed to all of this dysfunction for a considerable amount of time because of the Court attempting to do what was acceptable to both parents–not what was in the best interest of my 5 year old daughter. This was a disservice to my little girl. Now, we have to wait for the criminal investigation to play out in hopes that it will bring about the “freedom” myself and my daughter desire so greatly. Thank you for writing this article and informing others of this “injustice”.


  7. I need your help! There is a lot of history here so I am going to give you the overview. I have lost 7 pregnancies -1 baby died in my arms. At 40, after years of continuous trying, I became pregnant only to discover at 25 weeks that my husband of 19 years was using a hook-up site for years and who knows what else – he had 30 condoms and an HIV test soooooo. When it happened he completely went mad and called me all kinds of names, told me to adopt the baby out, he thought she would die like all the rest, she was just a bill, he didn’t give a rat’s ass if she lived or died so I got to drive myself to the hospital when I went into preterm labor at 26 weeks. And, I have him recorded saying he didn’t want her. He abandoned us all. He only went to 2 doctor appointments in the early part of the pregnancy and said he wasn’t interested then just disappeared. Six weeks later he filed for divorce because he was tired of wasting money on me and THAT baby. Anyway, when baby was born, he demanded her. I now have to share her 14 hours a week with him which is wayyyyy more than this man needs with her. He discarded her and was so hateful for the WHOLE pregnancy. My therapist feels he is probably a psychopath, but he can’t completely diagnose since he isn’t seeing him. The mediator (former female judge) was downright hateful towards me when I kept saying he shouldn’t have her because he was messed up, but he played his normal cool self. I need help! I don’t even understand why courts want this for us. It is constant abuse by him & then he plays I am the best ex and dad ever. Things need to change in the court system. They are hurting children and I see it every single day as a teacher!!!


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