Psychopathic speech?

Posted on December 23, 2011


Dateline: 20 October 2011 // Posted by: Laura O’Connor
SourceDaily Mail, also reported on Science Daily

Story: “Want to find a psychopath? Listen carefully…”

Summary: According to the article, psychopathy can be identified by analysing a person’s speech patterns. Research has shown that people who use words such as “um” and “ah”,  display a lack of emotion, focus on food or money, speak about crimes in the past tense and use more subordinating clauses (like “because”) in their speech are “tell-tale signs somebody could be the next Hannibal Lecter”. The study was carried out on 52 participants, all convicted murderers, 14 of whom were classified as psychopaths. They were interviewed and their responses analysed for patterns by a computer programme.

According to the article, the preoccupation with basic needs shows the typical view of a psychopath –- that everything is theirs for the taking. Likewise, the use of subordinating clauses shows an interest in cause and effect.  Speaking about crimes in the past tense suggests a sense that a crime is something which must be done to complete a task, a logical conclusion of some kind.

Why is this PseudoNews? To begin with, the article never definitively states what a psychopath is. Due to the nature of psychiatric evaluation and diagnosis, many different classifications exist, not to mention the wide array of misconceptions which surround the term. The closest the article comes to describing a typical psychopath is referring to Hannibal Lecter, the character in The Silence of the Lambs, who is hardly representative of the majority of psychopaths.  In general, the article give the impression that all psychopaths are violent and dangerous, and must be discovered, judging by phrases such as “beware”, “tics which should be of concern” and “psychopaths… may ‘give themselves away’ by their unusual language use”.

Furthermore, the study that the article is based on was carried out on a population of convicted murderers, a small proportion of which were classified as psychopaths. Therefore, the psychopaths in the study had all committed and been incarcerated for a crime, making them a minority within an already small group.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? This whole article displays very clearly the use of a particular media frame. Psychopathy tends to be misrepresented by the media, and this article is no different, presenting it as something which must be identified, and implies that people should be on the look-out for these “tell-tale signs”.  The media tends to exaggerate the condition, and focus on the most dramatic cases.  The repeated references to Hannibal Lecter in the article and the underlying implication that people need to be wary clearly supports the usual media frame, especially when contrasted with the actual study, whose conclusions were merely that the findings in regard to language supported the notion that psychopaths see the world differently, and does not present the findings as a means of identification.

Another feature of pseudoscience on show throughout the article is that it relies heavily on confirmation bias. People expect that psychopaths will be inherently different to themselves, and therefore will not be surprised to learn that there are “tell-tale signs” to separate psychopaths and non-psychopaths. In effect, the article is confirming people’s preconceptions about what a psychopath must be, ironically preconceptions that more than likely owe something to the types of media frame outlined above.

Also on show is an attitude towards unproven status which is often a major indicator of pseudoscience. The article is based on one isolated study of speech patterns in psychopaths, and holds this up as fact. This goes against scientific principles, particularly the principle of falsifiability, which says that a theory is not true simply because it has not been proven false. The findings of this one study may well be generalisable as the article suggests, but they may also have been a fluke finding. Either way, it is pseudoscientific to say that speech patterns can identify psychopathy based on just one study.

The moral of the story: As comforting as it would be to believe that there is an easily recognised indicator of psychopathy, especially if you are of the opinion that all psychopaths pose a threat to others, it is unlikely given the nature of disorder that such an indicator could be identified. It is likely however that the media will continue to play on the misconceptions and fears surrounding mental disorders, at least while such misunderstanding dominates in their audience.