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How to tell who's a psychopath

How to tell who's a psychopath

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A study suggests that computers may be able to identify psychopaths by analyzing their speech patterns.

Whether it's Ted Bundy or a fictional character such as Hannibal Lecter, psychopaths elicit within us a sense of morbid fascination.

How did they come to be? Are they born out of society's failures or simply born evil? Recent evidence has shown that their brains appear to be wired differently than most people. Yet what makes them even more mysterious is that on the outside, they appear as inconspicuous as the next person.

However, a study now suggests that there may be a way to identify psychopaths and it involves simply recognizing certain patterns and words in their speech. The finding may make it possible to screen suspects and even enable law enforcement to develop better strategies to track down or interrogate suspects. Additionally, clinical psychologists can use such insights to formulate improved treatment programs.

To investigate whether there are actually "psychopathic tendencies" in the way a person talks, researchers at Cornell University compared stories told by 14 imprisoned psychopathic male murderers with those of 38 convicted murderers who were not diagnosed as psychopathic. Each subject was asked to describe his crime in detail; the stories were taped, transcribed and subjected to computer analysis.

The analysis showed that psychopaths are more likely than other criminals to use words that reveal a great degree of selfishness, detachment from their crimes and emotional flatness, the study found. These include conjunctions like "because," "since" or "so that," to imply that the crime "had to be done" to obtain a particular goal. Here are a few other notable differences:

  • Psychopaths 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.
  • They were also more likely to use the past tense, suggesting a detachment from their crimes.
  • 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 and needs to use more mental effort to frame the story.

However, the researchers caution that their analysis applies only to murderers relating the story of their own crimes, and called for further studies of speech patterns in more neutral situations, such as telling a neutral story from the subjects' past or describing an incident shown to them on video.

"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 concluded.

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure