Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Early maternal and paternal bonding, childhood physical abuse and adult psychopathic personality

Y. Gaoa1 c1, A. Rainea1, F. Chana2, P. H. Venablesa3 and S. A. Mednicka4

a1 Departments of Criminology, Psychiatry, and Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA

a2 Department of Communication, Journalism, and Marketing, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand

a3 Department of Psychology, University of York, York, UK

a4 Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA


Background A significant gap in the literature on risk factors for psychopathy is the relative lack of research on parental bonding.

Method This study examines the cross-sectional relationship between maternal and paternal bonding, childhood physical abuse and psychopathic personality at age 28 years in a community sample of 333 males and females. It also assesses prospectively whether children separated from their parents in the first 3 years of life are more likely to have a psychopathic-like personality 25 years later.

Results Hierarchical regression analyses indicated that: (1) poor parental bonding (lack of maternal care and low paternal overprotection) and childhood physical abuse were both associated with a psychopathic personality; (2) parental bonding was significantly associated with psychopathic personality after taking into account sex, social adversity, ethnicity and abuse; (3) those separated from parents in the first 3 years of life were particularly characterized by low parental bonding and a psychopathic personality in adulthood; and (4) the deviant behavior factor of psychopathy was more related to lack of maternal care whereas the emotional detachment factor was related to both lack of maternal care and paternal overprotection.

Conclusions Findings draw attention to the importance of different components of early bonding in relation to adult psychopathy, and may have potential implications for early intervention and prevention of psychopathy.

(Received April 24 2009)

(Revised July 15 2009)

(Accepted August 06 2009)

(Online publication September 15 2009)


c1 Address for correspondence: Y. Gao, Department of Criminology, McNeil Building, Suite 483, University of Pennsylvania, 3718 Locust Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6286, USA. (Email: