by Wynne Parry
LiveScience Senior Writer
20 October 2011
Psychopaths are estimated to
make up 1 percent of the population
and up to 25 percent of male
offenders in correctional settings.
CREDIT: Flynt | Dreamstime.com
Psychopaths are known to be wily and
manipulative, but even so, they unconsciously betray themselves, according
to scientists who have looked for patterns in convicted murderers' speech as
they described their crimes.
The researchers interviewed 52 convicted murderers, 14 of them ranked as
psychopaths according to the
Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, a 20-item
assessment, and asked them to describe their crimes in detail.
Using computer programs to analyze what the men
said, the researchers found that those with psychopathic scores showed a
lack of emotion, spoke in terms of cause-and-effect when describing their
crimes, and focused their attention on basic needs, such as food, drink and
Contested Death Penalty Cases]
While we all have conscious control over some words we use, particularly
nouns and verbs, this is not the case for the majority of the words we use,
including little, functional words like "to" and "the" or the tense we use
for our verbs, according to Jeffrey Hancock, the lead researcher and
an associate professor in communications at Cornell University, who
discussed the work on Monday (Oct. 17) in Midtown Manhattan at Cornell's ILR
"The beautiful thing about them is they are
unconsciously produced," Hancock said.
These unconscious actions can reveal the
psychological dynamics in a speaker's mind even though he or she is unaware
of it, Hancock said.
What it means to be a psychopath
Psychopaths make up about
1 percent of the general population and as
much as 25 percent of male offenders in federal correctional settings,
according to the researchers.
Psychopaths are typically profoundly selfish and
"In lay terms, psychopaths seem to have
little or no 'conscience,'" write the researchers in a study published
online in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology.
Psychopaths are also known for being cunning and
manipulative, and they make for perilous interview subjects, according to
Michael Woodworth, one of the authors and a psychologist who studies
psychopathy at the University of British Columbia, who joined the discussion
"It is unbelievable," Woodworth said. "You
can spend two or three hours and come out feeling like you are
Minds Are Different From Yours]
While there are reasons to suspect that
psychopaths' speech patterns might have distinctive characteristics, there
has been little study of it, the team writes.
How words give them
To examine the emotional content of the murderers' speech, Hancock and his
colleagues looked at a number of factors, including how frequently they
described their crimes using the past tense.
The use of the past tense can be an indicator of
psychological detachment, and the researchers found that the psychopaths
used it more than the present tense when compared with the nonpsychopaths.
They also found more disfluencies - the "uhs" and "ums" that interrupt
speech - among psychopaths.
Nearly universal in speech,
indicate that the speaker needs some time to think about what they are
With regard to psychopaths,
"We think the 'uhs' and 'ums' are about
the mask of sanity on," Hancock told LiveScience.
Psychopaths appear to view the world and others
instrumentally, as theirs for the taking, the team, which also included
Stephen Porter from the University of British Columbia, wrote.
As they expected, the psychopaths' language contained more words known as
These words, including "because" and "so that,"
are associated with cause-and-effect statements.
"This pattern suggested that psychopaths
were more likely to view the crime as the logical outcome of a plan
(something that 'had' to be done to achieve a goal)," the authors write.
And finally, while most of us
respond to higher-level needs, such as
family, religion or spirituality, and self-esteem, psychopaths remain
occupied with those needs associated with a more basic existence.
Their analysis revealed that psychopaths used about twice as many words
related to basic physiological needs and self-preservation, including
eating, drinking and monetary resources than the nonpsychopaths, they write.
By comparison, the nonpsychopathic murderers talked more about spirituality
and religion and family, reflecting what nonpsychopathic people would think
about when they just committed a murder, Hancock said.
The researchers are interested in analyzing what people
write on Facebook or
in other social media, since our unconscious mind also holds sway over what
we write. By analyzing stories written by students from Cornell and the
University of British Columbia, and looking at how the text people generate
using social media relates to scores on the
Self-Report Psychopathy scale.
Unlike the checklist, which is based on an
extensive review of the case file and an interview, the self report is
completed by the person in question.
This sort of tool could be very useful for law enforcement investigations,
such as in the case of the
Long Island serial killer, who is being
sought for the murders of at least four prostitutes and possibly others,
since this killer used the online classified site Craigslist to contact
victims, according to Hancock.
Text analysis software could be used to conduct a "first pass," focusing the
work for human investigators, he said.
"A lot of time analysts tell you they feel
they are drinking from a fire hose."
Knowing a suspect is a psychopath can affect how
law enforcement conducts investigations and interrogations, Hancock said.