Oct. 18, 2011 -- Is it likely that a potential psychopathic killer will telegraph his intentions in advance by the basic words he uses to describe his deeds? Possibly, according to new research involving 52 murderers now incarcerated in maximum security prisons in Canada.
In a ground-breaking study of 14 psychopaths and 38 other murderers who did not have major psychiatric disorders, researchers found telling clues that clearly distinguished the two groups -- simply the words they used in often-chilling interviews with clinical psychologist Michael Woodworth of the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Previous work had determined that some of the men were psychopaths and the others were not, thus providing a chance to search for language differences between the two groups.
Psychopaths generally are unable to feel empathy or remorse, are egocentric and often abusive of others. They often appear healthy because they can fake the emotions others expect them to feel.
As they recalled the violent actions that landed them in prison, the participants in the study (all volunteers) saw their deeds, and their needs, in very different ways. Psychopaths were far more likely to say they committed the crime because of personal needs, like food and money, and they described their deeds in the past tense, suggesting it happened a long time ago and there was little that the perpetrator could do to prevent it. They seemed emotionally detached from the murder, and as might be expected, they showed no remorse.
They were obsessed with details, even recalling what they had eaten on the morning of the crime.
"The money was excellent and the little girls wanting to hang with me was even better," one psychopath said.
"I just turned around and looked at him and I just stabbed him and I said, 'None of your f--- business,'" said another.
Those killers, whose specific murders cannot be described because privacy laws protect even psychopaths, were not hesitant to talk about their actions. That may be partly because they are "narcissistic enough that anytime people want to talk about them they are happy to do it," psychologist Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University, lead author of the study, said in a telephone interview. The study, "Hungry like the Wolf: A Word-Pattern Analysis of the Language of Psychopaths," was published in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology.
The non-psychopathic killers, by contrast, were far more likely to describe their past in terms that reflected social needs, like family, religion and spirituality.
"In the context of a committed murder, it is likely that the non-psychopaths were aware of and affected by the profound effects their crime would have had on their own families and the victim's family," the study says. No such concern was shown among the psychopaths.
The bottom line: "Psychopaths operate on a primitive but rational level," say the researchers.
Yet all the killers were willing to talk for nearly half an hour about crimes that destroyed other lives, in some cases showing an eagerness to deal with their own past, at least among non-psychopathic killers. The psychopathic convicts saw themselves as victims of circumstances that they could not control, and they unemotionally described the crimes in the past tense -- gone but not forgotten.
This is believed to be a new approach to analyzing the actions of psychopaths, although there has been much research into the psychopathic mind. Other studies have shown psychopaths have an inflated and immutable sense of self-worth, thinking the world is "theirs for the taking." They are nearly always men, and contrary to a common image, most are not stupid.
But why would language -- or the words used to describe a violent crime -- be very telling? Because many "are skilled conversationalists and use language to lie to, charm, and ultimately use others for material gain, drugs, sex, or power," the study says.
So the researchers ended up with words, more than 120,000 of them, from the interviews, which they pumped into their computers. The psychopaths used about "twice as many words related to basic physiological needs, including eating, drinking and monetary resources when describing their murder" than the 38 killers who were not considered psychopaths.
A decade ago, when Hancock and his colleague Michael Woodworth were both working on their doctorates, they thought of combining their interests -- Hancock was studying language and Woodworth was studying psychopaths -- to see if they could find insights into the mind of a psychopath by the language he used.
They think they have found that, in this "leading edge" study, as Hancock put it, because the words are not purely voluntary. They are "beyond conscious control," and thus revealing.
But can language really telegraph the intentions of a very sick mind? Maybe, but Hancock said this "is not going to be the kind of thing where people will run an algorithm and label this person a psychopath.
"It's going to be one tool that an investigator or clinician can use in an overall assessment," he said.
As many other studies have shown, even a twisted mind knows how to hide, as we have seen so tragically and so frequently in the human pageant.