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.

Predicting “Future Crime?”

In the popular television show, Person of Interest, a mysterious billionaire named Mr. Finch uses a secret computer program to identify people connected to “future crimes.” While Mr. Finch uses the program to save lives, it’s easy to imagine such a thing being used for evil (see: Minority Report). Fortunately, this frightening technology doesn’t exist in real life…does it?

FAST: Future Attribute Screening Technology…or Future Crime Technology?

In 2008, news began to leak out that the Department of Homeland Security was working on a program named Project Hostile Intent (now called FAST, or Future Attribute Screening Technology). Its purpose was to detect “‘mal-intent’ by screening people for ‘psychological and physiological indicators’ in a ‘Mobile Screening Laboratory.'”

Recently, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) obtained an internal document from the Department of Homeland Security. It revealed that FAST is not just a piece of hypothetical technology. Future crime technology is real. And its being tested on real people, albeit voluntarily.

The concept behind FAST is fairly simple. Government agents will use “video images, audio recordings, cardiovascular signals, pheromones, electrodermal activity, and respiratory measurements” to examine individuals from afar. Advanced algorithms will then analyze this information. This will supposedly allow agents to “predict” future criminal behavior and give them a “head start to stop a crime or violent act in progress.”

Future Crime versus Criminal Profiling?

Technologies to predict the future seem to be all the rage in government agencies these days. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is developing a program to detect traitorous insiders who plan to turn on their colleagues. Meanwhile, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) is working on technology to predict future global events and the “consequences of U.S. intelligence actions.”

Still, the government’s desire to predict the future isn’t new. After all, FAST is, in certain respects, just a more advanced version of the common yet controversial practice of “criminal profiling.” But while profiling usually focuses on just one or two factors, such as ethnicity or gender, FAST goes to a whole other level. It examines ethnicity, gender, age, occupation, breathing patterns, body movements, eye movements, changes in pitch, changes in speech, changes in body heat, and changes in heart rate among other things.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, it would appear that the government is laying the groundwork for a system to predict crime. Fortunately, it’s only confined to employees of the Department of Homeland Security at the moment. Right?

Wrong. It turns out that FAST “has already been tested in at least one undisclosed location in the northeast.” While the nature of this location remains unknown, the DHS claims it wasn’t an airport.

EPIC is concerned about the privacy implications and believes that FAST needs to be reviewed. And it’s hard to argue with them. The privacy concerns are mind-boggling to say the least, especially since the government plans to “retain information” that it collects. In addition, the idea of being spied upon, profiled, singled out, and questioned by government agents for a crime not yet committed is disturbing to say the least. The potential for abuse is alarming and real…Very, very real.