Psychopaths prone to using the past tense, making cause and effect statements and using ‘uh’ and ‘um.’
Psychopaths are known to be wily and manipulative, but even so, they unconsciously betray themselves, according to scientists who have looked for patterns in convicted murderers’ speech as they described their crimes. The researchers interviewed 52 convicted murderers, 14 of them ranked as psychopaths according to the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, a 20-item assessment, and asked them to describe their crimes in detail. Using computer programs to analyze what the men said, the researchers found that those with psychopathic scores showed a lack of emotion, spoke in terms of cause-and-effect when describing their crimes, and focused their attention on basic needs, such as food, drink and money. While we all have conscious control over some words we use, particularly nouns and verbs, this is not the case for the majority of the words we use, including little, functional words like “to” and “the” or the tense we use for our verbs, according to Jeffrey Hancock, the lead researcher and an associate professor in communications at Cornell University, who discussed the work on Oct. 17 in Midtown Manhattan at Cornell’s ILR Conference Center. “The beautiful thing about them is they are unconsciously produced,” Hancock said. These unconscious actions can reveal the psychological dynamics in a speaker’s mind even though he or she is unaware of it, Hancock said. Psychopaths make up about 1 percent of the general population and as much as 25 percent of male offenders in federal correctional settings, according to the researchers. Psychopaths are typically profoundly selfish and lack emotion. “In lay terms, psychopaths seem to have little or no ‘conscience,'” write the researchers in a study published online in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology. Psychopaths are also known for being cunning and manipulative, and they make for perilous interview subjects, according to Michael Woodworth, one of the authors and a psychologist who studies psychopathy at the University of British Columbia, who joined the discussion by phone. Criminal Minds Are Different From Yours, “It is unbelievable,” Woodworth said. “You can spend two or three hours and come out feeling like you are hypnotized.” While there are reasons to suspect that psychopaths’ speech patterns might have distinctive characteristics, there has been little study of it, the team writes. To examine the emotional content of the murderers’ speech, Hancock and his colleagues looked at a number of factors, including how frequently they described their crimes using the past tense. The use of the past tense can be an indicator of psychological detachment, and the researchers found that the psychopaths used it more than the present tense when compared with the nonpsychopaths. They also found more dysfluencies — the “uhs” and “ums” that interrupt speech — among psychopaths. Nearly universal in speech, dysfluencies indicate that the speaker needs some time to think about what they are saying. With regard to psychopaths, “We think the ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ are about putting the mask of sanity on,” Hancock told LiveScience.