On­line com­mu­ni­ca­tion can re­veal psy­chopa­thy

The Georgia Straight - - News -

Pby Char­lie Smith

sy­chol­ogy re­searchers have known for years that peo­ple who regis­ter high on tests of psy­chopa­thy use lan­guage dif­fer­ently and demon­strate greater de­grees of nar­cis­sis­tic and cal­lous be­hav­iour than nonpsy­chopaths.

Now at­tributes of psy­chopa­thy are cor­re­lated with on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tions, ac­cord­ing to a pa­per writ­ten by Stan­ford Univer­sity and UBC re­searchers in the peer-re­viewed, open-ac­cess jour­nal Me­dia and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“Con­sis­tent with pre­vi­ous stud­ies and the emo­tional and in­ter­per­sonal deficits cen­tral to psy­chopa­thy, par­tic­i­pants higher in psy­chopa­thy showed more ev­i­dence of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tanc­ing, wrote less com­pre­hen­si­ble dis­course, and pro­duced more in­ter­per­son­ally hos­tile lan­guage,” the re­searchers con­cluded. “The re­sults re­veal that lin­guis­tic traces of psy­chopa­thy can be de­tected in on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and that those with higher traits of psy­chopa­thy fail to mod­ify their lan­guage use across me­dia types.”

One of the re­searchers, Michael Wood­worth, is in the depart­ment of psy­chol­ogy at UBC’S Okana­gan cam­pus. The other two, Jeff Han­cock and Rachel Boochever, are in the depart­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the law school, re­spec­tively, at Stan­ford.

They re­lied on a sam­ple of 110 un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents be­tween the ages of 18 and 24 at a large U.S. re­search univer­sity. The sub­jects were mea­sured for psy­cho­pathic ten­den­cies us­ing the SRP-III tool, which con­sists of 64 ques­tions. These correlate with the four facets of psy­chopa­thy: cal­lous af­fect, er­ratic life­styles, in­ter­per­sonal ma­nip­u­la­tion, and crim­i­nal ten­den­cies.

“We ex­pected that par­tic­i­pants higher in psy­chopa­thy would ex­hibit nar­cis­sis­tic ten­den­cies in the pat­tern of their pro­noun use, with in­creased fo­cus on self and de­creased fo­cus on oth­ers,” the re­searchers noted. “This hy­poth­e­sis was par­tially sup­ported.”

Those scor­ing high for psy­chopa­thy did in­deed re­fer to oth­ers less fre­quently in on­line con­ver­sa­tions, but they did not fo­cus more at­ten­tion on them­selves. High psy­chopa­thy scores were also as­so­ci­ated with more fre­quent use of swear words and in­ter­per­sonal ma­nip­u­la­tion in emails and SMS mes­sages and on Face­book.

“Lan­guage col­lected from archived emails, SMS text mes­sages, and Face­book mes­sages re­vealed that lan­guage pro­duced in on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tion was sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent than lan­guage elicited for the pur­pose of a study in terms of pro­noun use, verb tense, and emo­tion terms,” Han­cock, Wood­worth, and Boochever wrote. “In ad­di­tion, more cor­re­la­tions be­tween var­i­ous com­po­nents of psy­chopa­thy were found with lan­guage pro­duced nat­u­rally in on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tion than in the elicited nar­ra­tives, sug­gest­ing on­line dis­course is a rich source of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that can re­veal key as­pects of the self.”

In 2012, Wood­worth and Han­cock were coau­thors of a pa­per ti­tled “The Lan­guage of Psy­chopaths”, which was pub­lished in the FBI Law En­force­ment Bul­letin. Draw­ing upon an in­ter­view with se­rial killer Robert Pick­ton, they noted that psy­cho­pathic mur­der­ers can ap­pear em­pa­thetic and re­morse­ful even though they’re largely de­void of emo­tion. They added that com­put­er­ized lan­guage­anal­y­sis tools can pull away the mask.

“Psy­chopaths’ lan­guage is less emo­tion­ally in­tense,” the FBI pa­per stated. “They use more past-tense verbs in their nar­ra­tive, sug­gest­ing a greater psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional de­tach­ment from the in­ci­dent.”

It em­pha­sized that law-en­force­ment agen­cies need to be aware of the “de­cep­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion styles” 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.”

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