Text analysis reveals word patterns of psychopaths
Researchers at Cornell University and the University of British Columbia have shown — for the first time — that a computerized text analysis can detect the distinct speech patterns of psychopaths. The analysis of 14 male murderers held in Canadian prisons reveals that psychopaths make identifiable word choices — beyond conscious control — when talking about their crimes.
The ability to identify these patterns could have broad implications -– from helping clinicians identify people in need of treatment, to aiding law enforcement officials tracking suspects across Twitter and Facebook.
The words of psychopathic murderers match their personalities, which reflect selfishness, detachment from their crimes and emotional flatness, says Jeff Hancock, of Cornell University, and colleagues Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter at the University of British Columbia.
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.
The researchers published their findings in the September 14, 2011, issue of Legal and Criminological Psychology.
Hancock and his colleagues analyzed stories told by the murderers and compared them with 38 convicted murderers who were not diagnosed as psychopathic. Each subject was asked to describe his crime in detail. Their stories were taped, transcribed and subjected to computer analysis.
Psychopaths used more conjunctions like because, since or so that, implying that the crime had to be done to obtain a particular goal. They used twice as many words relating to physical needs, such as food, sex or money, while non-psychopaths used more words about social needs, including family, religion and spirituality.
Unveiling their predatory nature in their own description, the psychopaths often included details of what they had to eat on the day of their crime.
Psychopaths were more likely to use the past tense, suggesting a detachment from their crimes, say the researchers. They tended to be less fluent in their speech, using more ums and uhs. The exact reason for this is not clear, but the researchers speculate that the psychopath is trying harder to make a positive impression, needing to use more mental effort to frame the story.
Bottom line: Researchers have shown that automated tools can detect the word choices of psychopaths. Jeff Hancock, of Cornell University, and colleagues Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter at the University of British Columbia used text analysis of psychopathic male murderers held in Canadian prisons and compared word patterns with those of non-psychopathic murderers. A report of their findings was published September 14, 2011, in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology.