Identifying Psychopaths…by their Words?

Psychopaths are people who lack empathy and remorse while displaying traits like egocentrism and deceptiveness. They’re extremely difficult to identify since they tend to be skilled at faking emotions. However, recent research may help solve that problem. Have scholars found a way to successfully identify psychopaths?


As a quick reminder, I released my first novel, Chaos, on Monday. It’s an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

Kindle * Nook * Kobo * iBooks * Smashwords * Paperback

Identifying Psychopaths?

Now, the trick to identifying psychopaths may not lie in trying to read emotions or looking for visual cues. Indeed, the secret to psychopathy may lie in something seemingly innocuous…word choices.

“Previous work has looked at how psychopaths use language. Our paper is the first to show that you can use automated tools to detect the distinct speech patterns of psychopaths.” ~ Professor Jeff Hancock, Computing & Information Science

Working with Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter from the University of British Columbia, Professor Hancock analyzed the words of 52 male murderers in Canadian prisons. Each murderer, 14 of which were diagnosed as psychopaths, was asked to describe his crime in detail. These words were then “subjected to computer analysis.”

The word choices of the psychopaths showed some interesting similarities. They were more likely to present a murder as something that “had to be done.” This was related via conjunctions like “because,” “since,” or “so that.” Also, they tended to emphasize physical needs such as sex or money as opposed to social needs. They made greater use of the past tense, which might “[suggest] a detachment from their crimes.” And finally, their speech included a greater number of “ums” and “uhs,” which could indicate that they were forced to work harder to “frame the story” in a way that makes them look good.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

All in all, psychopaths appear to choose words that reflect “selfishness, detachment from their crimes, and emotional flatness.” In other words, while they can fake emotions, they are far less successful at controlling their word choices. These implications could “lead to new tools for diagnosis and treatment.”

Of course, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves here. After all, this study only covered 52 murderers in the first place. Also, it’s based on the fairly questionable assumption that all 52 people were correctly identified as either psychopaths or non-psychopaths in the first place. And finally, it only covers word choices used to describe one’s crime.

It’s important to remember that there are tons of factors influencing one’s choice of speech, including upbringing, peers, and the stress of a particular situation. And although this study is interesting, it’s far from absolute. Overall, I’d caution researchers on drawing too many conclusions from these findings. The last we need to do is to start wrongfully accusing ordinary people of being psychopaths when in fact, they just speak a little differently than the rest of us.

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