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Clues (blog)

Can you identify a psychopath by how he speaks? Probably.

Thanks to Gender Genie, we know we can copy and paste text into an online form and use an algorithm to detect if the text was likely written by a man or by a woman. Well, now one man is about to take it a step further – he’s going to tell us if it was written by a psychopath.

Lucky for us, when psychopathic criminals talk about their crimes, they tend to make identifiable word choices, Jeff Hancock, Cornell Professor of Communication, and colleagues at the University of British Columbia reported Sept. 11, 2011, in the online edition of the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology.

Apparently, the words used by psychopaths reflect their personalities, showing selfishness, detachment from their crimes and emotional flatness. It’s likely that this research could lead to new tools for diagnosis and treatment.

"Our paper is the first to show that you can use automated tools to detect the distinct speech patterns of psychopaths," Hancock told the Cornell Chronicle.

The study compared stories from 14 imprisoned male psychopathic murders against 38 male convicted murders (not diagnosed as psychopathic murders). Each felon was asked to detail his crime. The stories were taped, then transcribed, and ultimately entered into a computer analysis program.

So, how did the psychopaths sound?

Emotionally flat -- Psychopaths lacked empathy and were free or remorse. They acted as if the world was for their benefit. They were deceitful and used feigned emotions to manipulate others.

Loaded with conjunctions -- Psychopaths used more conjunctions, that is – words like "because," "since" or "so that." This implies that the crime "had to be done" to reach a certain goal.

Doubled on  physical needs -- Psychopaths used twice as many words relating to physical needs, like food, sex or money; whereas non-psychopaths; on the other hand, tended to use more words about social needs, such as: family, religion and spirituality.

Stuck in the past -- Psychopaths were more inclined to use the past tense, suggesting detachment from their crimes.

Less fluent – Psychopaths usied more "ums" and "uhs." Researchers aren’t sure why but they think it’s because the psychopath is trying harder to make a positive impression and needs to use more mental effort to frame the story.

Food for thought -- One very interesting tidbit is that predators and that their stories often include details of what they ate the day of their crimes. 

Study co-author Michael Woodworth, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, prefaced the title of the paper with "Hungry Like the Wolf." Woodworth believes that psychopaths are predators and that their stories often include details of what they ate the day of their crimes.

Despite the strong first-time findings, researchers warn not to jump the gun. Their analysis applies only to murderers relating the story of their own crimes. Further studies of speech patterns in more neutral situations are still needed.

"These findings on speech begin to open the window into the mind of the psychopath, allowing us to infer that the psychopath's world view is fundamentally different from the rest of the human species," the researchers said.