Psychopathic killers: Computerized text analysis uncovers the word patterns of a predator

October 14, 2011

As words can be the soul's window, scientists are learning to peer through it: Computerized text analysis shows that psychopathic killers make identifiable word choices – beyond conscious control – when talking about their crimes.

This research could lead to new tools for diagnosis and treatment, and have implications law enforcement and social media.

The words of psychopathic murderers match their personalities, which reflect selfishness, detachment from their crimes and emotional flatness, says Jeff Hancock, Cornell professor of computing and information science, and colleagues at the University of British Columbia in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology.

Hancock and his colleagues analyzed stories told by 14 psychopathic male murderers held in Canadian prisons 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.

Past as prologue: 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.

"Previous work has looked at how psychopaths use language," Hancock said. "Our paper is the first to show that you can use automated tools to detect the distinct speech patterns of psychopaths." This can be valuable to clinical psychologists, he said, because the approach to treatment of psychopaths can be very different.

Explore further: Project will study the neural basis of psychopathy

More information: "Hungry like the wolf: A word-pattern analysis of the language of psychopaths," Legal and Criminological Psychology (online Sept. 14, 2011).

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11 comments

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RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2011
...emotional flatness...


That puts my text-to-speech reader in the frame...
Skepticus
5 / 5 (4) Oct 15, 2011
Put the speeches of all the current crop of arguing politicians in America through the analyzing software and tell me what you'd find. I assure you all it won't be nice at all.
hush1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2011
lol RKS
Time for a new job, Jeff.
Not the word frequency of occurance/usage or tense, Jeff. The word, words or wording's origin.
There are jobs everywhere, Jeff.

lol Skepticus. Cute.
You don't have to like nasty.
You only have to make nasty nice again.
xznofile
5 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2011
Skepticus: it would probably be illegal because there's voice stress meters now that can indicate when a speaker is lying, and are illegal to use in conjunction w/ politicians.
hush1
1 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2011
Here is additional clarification preempting misunderstanding.

When the subject first heard and/or used the word, words, or wording is what is meant here with 'origin'.
Too much work, Jeff?

How many of those diagnosed received more than two opinions and monthly reviews? Prisons are big business. Cures are job killers.
hush1
1 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2011
lol exnofile.
And how does that work with sign language for people who are born or lose their voice?

Do what to you too?
lol. When was the first time you used those words?
There. You done.
hush1
1 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2011
"...who are born without or lose their voice?"
(Were you able to fill in, without this hint?)
hush1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2011
And "Cures" as we all know don't exist. Right, Jeff? lol
hush1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2011
There. I did something I never do. You all have five stars. Don't read into the stars. lol
Squirrel
5 / 5 (6) Oct 15, 2011
The most worrying statement in the paper (Hungry like the wolf: A word-pattern analysis of the language of psychopaths) is " psychopathic offenders are two and a half times more likely than their counterparts to be successful in their applications for parole, despite a substantially higher rate of re-offending ... Some may even use their penchant for conning others to become cult leaders, corrupt politicians, or successful corporate leaders"
hush1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2011
lol Squirrel.
How many of the 52 murderers are monolingual? It is too late to ask the authors.
"...psychopathic offenders....than their counterparts..."
Duality? As measure? In Psychiatry? Must be like those models beyond the standard model in physics. Advance stuff. Right,Jeff?

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