Other Disorders

The Language of Psychopaths

Considering some of the unique aspects of psychopathic language, it might be possible to detect the psychopath in online environments where information is exclusively text based.

The Language of Psychopaths
New Findings and Implications for Law Enforcement

By Michael Woodworth, Ph.D.; Jeffrey Hancock, Ph.D.; Stephen Porter, Ph.D.; Robert Hare, Ph.D.; Matt Logan, Ph.D.; Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D.; and Sharon Smith, Ph.D.

For psychopaths, not only a lack of affect but also inappropriate emotion may reveal the extent of their callousness. Recent research suggested that much can be learned about these individuals by close examination of their language. Their highly persuasive nonverbal behavior often distracts the listener from identifying their psychopathic nature. For example, on a publically available police interview with murderer and rapist Paul Bernardo, his powerful use of communication via his hand gesturing is easily observable and often distracts from his spoken lies. The authors offer their insights into the unique considerations pertaining to psychopaths’ communication.

Robert Pickton, convicted of the second-degree murder of six women in December 2007, initially was on trial for 26 counts of first-degree murder. He once bragged to a cellmate that he intended to kill 50 women. Details provided in court revealed brutal and heinous murders that often included torture, degradation, and dismemberment of the victims. The authors opine that Mr. Pickton probably would meet the criteria for psychopathy, a destructive personality disorder that combines a profound lack of conscience with several problematic interpersonal, emotional, and behavioral characteristics.

Consistent with psychopathy, Robert Pickton’s self-report and presentation during his interrogation showed a man devoid of emotion. His demeanor during this lengthy questioning reflected detachment and boredom. During most of his trial, Mr. Pickton was described as emotionless. Individuals present in court expressed dismay over his lack of emotion during the reading of horrifying impact statements.

With the nonchalant and emotionless demeanor of a psychopath, Robert Pickton would make an interesting case study. Reviewing his videotaped self-report with the sound muted, it appeared that he was reporting some mundane incident, rather than detailed accounts of the heinous murders he committed.

A psychopath recently interviewed by one of the authors recounted a vicious murder he had committed. “We got, uh, we got high, and had a few beers. I like whiskey, so I bought some whiskey, we had some of that, and then we, uh, went for a swim, and then we made love in my car, then we left to go get some more, some more booze and some more drugs.” A recent study explained how this narrative might reveal important information regarding the mindset of a psychopath.


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