Online communication can reveal psychopathy
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.”