Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths

Have you ever wondered about the speech differences between psychopaths and other people? Hancock et al. (2011) wondered just that and conducted a study analysing the differences in language use between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. Hancock et al. (2011) was the first study to use advanced statistical text analysis tools to examine different features in the language of psychopaths. Let us take a look at this study.

Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths Harley Quinn StudySmarterHarley Quinn, Flixr

Before we begin, here is the definition of a psychopath:

A psychopath is an outdated term used to describe a person with an antisocial personality disorder. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology¹, an antisocial personality disorder is the ‘presence of a chronic and pervasive disposition to disregard and violate the rights of others.’

Hancock et al. (2011) analysis of the language of psychopaths

Let’s first outline the Hancock et al. (2011) study.

Aim

This study aimed to investigate whether the linguistic features of psychopaths reveal their different worldview (less empathic, predatory) based on three factors:

  1. Instrumental nature (whether psychopaths feel other people and the world belong to them and they can take what they want).
    1. Whether the instrumental nature of psychopaths is reflected in language use that is more explanatory and describes cause and effect (e.g., ‘because’, ‘since’).
  2. Unique material and socioemotional needs
    1. Psychopaths seem to focus on the basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are physiological needs such as food, shelter, and sex. Researchers were interested in whether psychopaths’ use of language referred more to physiological and material needs than to higher-level needs such as love, family, and spirituality.
  3. Emotional deficit
    1. Psychopaths have problems experiencing and recognising emotions. Researchers were interested in whether psychopaths:
      • Use fewer and less intense emotional words.
      • Use more infelicities (words like ‘uh’ and ‘um’; disfluencies increase when the speaker is faced with many cognitive decisions or demands).
      • Use language to psychologically distance themselves from their crime, showing they do not take responsibility for their crime. Increased use of the past tense over the present tense of verbs, a higher number of articles (e.g., a, the), and concrete nouns (nouns that are material rather than abstract, e.g., dog, building) indicate this.

Design

This was a quasi-experiment (the natural independent variable was psychopathy).

Participants

The sample included fifty-two male murderers incarcerated in Canadian correctional facilities. All participants had admitted to their crimes. Researchers measured psychopathy using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised; researchers classified 14 as psychopaths and 38 as non-psychopaths.

Procedure

Participants knew of the purpose of the study. They then had to describe their homicides in as much detail as possible using an interview procedure called the Step-Wise Interview.

The Step-Wise Interview is a forensic interviewing technique aiming to obtain as much and as high-quality information as possible while minimising the distortion of information.

The interviews were tape-recorded and lasted approximately 25 minutes each. The interviewers were two psychology graduate students and one research assistant. They were not told the psychopathy scores of the participants.They transcribed and analysed the interviews using two text analysis tools.

Results

The interviews produced a total of 127,376 words. The interviews of the 14 psychopaths totalled 29,562 words and averaged 2,201.5 for each participant. The interviews of the 38 non-psychopaths totalled 97,814 words and averaged 2,554.3 words per participant.

  • Psychopaths used more subordinating conjunctions (words such as ‘because’, ‘since’). This finding suggests that psychopaths are more likely to describe their murders in a cause and effect manner. They view their murders as logical and goal-oriented.
  • In describing their murders, psychopaths used about twice as many words describing basic and material needs as non-psychopaths when describing higher-level needs, such as family and religion. This finding indicates psychopaths focus more on physiological needs than those higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy (e.g., they would use food-related words that refer to their physiological needs).
  • Psychopaths used more verbs in the past to describe their murder, indicating a psychological distance from the crime. This was the case even though there was no difference in time since the murder between the two groups, this was the case. The psychopaths’ use of language was much more disfluent (they used words like ‘uh’, ‘um’ more often), indicating that they had difficulty describing such an intense, emotional event to another person. The higher the score on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised affective deficits measure, the less positive and emotionally intense their language was.

Conclusion

Psychopaths’ use of language shows that they see the world differently than others. Psychopaths act in a primitive, rational manner.

Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths Murder Hancock et al. 2011 StudySmarterMurder scene, Flaticon

Hancock et al. (2011) evaluation

Let’s consider the strengths and weaknesses of the Hancock et al. (2011) study.

Strengths

  • Internal validity was good because interviewers did not know participants’ psychopathy scores, so there was no interviewer bias.

  • This was a quasi-experiment, i.e., this study examined natural, not manipulated, behaviour.

  • The interview technique used was open-ended and did not prompt participants to respond in a particular way.

  • The study used statistical analysis to interpret the interviews, so the interpretations can be considered objective and reliable.

Weaknesses

  • Some participants may have been less than accurate in their responses if they wanted to appear remorseful.

  • The study involved all male Canadian prisoners and is therefore not generalisable.

  • The cutoff for psychopathy in the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised is 30 points. In this study, a score of 25 was used as the cutoff point, which is considered the cutoff point for psychopathy in research. Thus, some participants could have been inaccurately classified as psychopaths.

Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths - Key takeaways

  • Hancock et al. (2011) conducted a study to examine the linguistic characteristics of psychopaths in terms of their instrumental nature, unique material and socioemotional needs, and emotional deficit.
  • The researchers wanted to find out the following:
    • If psychopaths’ language use is more explanatory and describes cause and effect.
    • If they refer more to basic needs such as physiological and material needs.
    • If they use fewer and less intense emotional words and more disfluencies such as ‘uh’ and ‘um’, and language that psychologically distances themselves from their crime and shows a lack of responsibility for their actions (past tense verbs, articles, concrete nouns).
  • In describing their murders, psychopaths used about twice as many words describing basic and material needs than non-psychopaths.

  • Psychopaths use more past-tense verbs to describe their murders, indicating a psychological distance from the crime. Their language use was much more disfluent (they used words like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ more often), which shows it is difficult for them to describe such an intense, emotional event to another person. The higher the score for affective deficits on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, the less positive and emotional their language was.

  • The researchers concluded psychopaths’ use of language shows they see the world differently than others. Psychopaths act in a primitive, rational way.


¹APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2022

Frequently Asked Questions about Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths

A psychopath is an outdated term used to describe a person with an antisocial personality disorder. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology¹, an antisocial personality disorder is the ‘presence of a chronic and pervasive disposition to disregard and violate the rights of others.’

Psychopaths (specifically those interviewed in Hancock’s study), used more subordinating conjunctions  (e.g., ‘because’, ‘since’). They view their crimes as logical and goal-orientated. When describing their murders, psychopaths used about two times more words describing basic and material needs compared to non-psychopaths who described higher-level needs, such as family and religion. Psychopaths used more past-tense verbs to describe their murder, showing a psychological distance from the crime. 

Hancock et al. (2011) conducted a study to examine the language characteristics of psychopaths. They interviewed 14 psychopaths and 38 non-psychopaths on their murders. They found the language use of psychopaths describes their murders in a cause and effect manner. They view their murders as logical and goal-orientated. They used about two times more words describing basic and material needs than non-psychopaths. Their language showed a psychological distance from the crime and was more disfluent. The higher their affective deficits, the less positive and emotionally intense was their language.    

Final Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths Quiz

Question

What was the aim of Hancock et al. (2011) study?

Show answer

Answer

The study aimed to examine the language characteristics of psychopaths on three factors: instrumental nature, unique material and socioemotional needs, and emotional deficit.

Show question

Question

What were the researchers interested in finding out in language use regarding instrumental nature?

Show answer

Answer

Whether the instrumental nature of psychopaths is reflected in language use that is more explanatory and describes cause and effect (e.g., ‘because’, ‘since’).

Show question

Question

What were the researchers interested in finding out in language use regarding unique material and socioemotional needs?


Show answer

Answer

Whether psychopaths referred more to physiological and material needs than higher-up needs such as love, family, and spirituality.

Show question

Question

What were the researchers interested in finding out in language use regarding emotional deficit?

Show answer

Answer

The researchers were interested in whether psychopaths use fewer and less intense emotional words, more disfluencies, language that psychologically distances them from their crime and shows a lack of responsibility.

Show question

Question

What was the design of the experiment in the Hancock et al. (2011) study?

Show answer

Answer

A quasi-experiment.

Show question

Question

How many participants participated in the Hancock et al. (2011) study?

Show answer

Answer

52.

Show question

Question

How many participants did the researchers classify as psychopaths, and how many non-psychopaths in the Hancock et al. (2011) study?

Show answer

Answer

Researchers classified 14 as psychopaths and 38 as non-psychopaths.

Show question

Question

What did the Hancock et al. (2011) study find regarding language use and instrumental nature?

Show answer

Answer

Psychopaths used more subordinating conjunctions (e.g., ‘because’, ‘since’). This finding suggests psychopaths are more likely to describe their murders in a cause and effect manner. They view their murders as logical and goal-oriented.

Show question

Question

What did the Hancock et al. (2011) study find regarding language use, unique material, and socioemotional needs?

Show answer

Answer

When describing their murders, psychopaths used about two times more words describing basic and material needs than non-psychopaths. 

Show question

Question

What did the Hancock et al. (2011) study find regarding language use and emotional deficit?

Show answer

Answer

Psychopaths use more past-tense verbs to describe their murders, indicating a psychological distance from the crime. Their language use was much more disfluent (they used words like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ more often), which shows it is difficult for them to describe such an intense, emotional event to another person. The higher the score for affective deficits on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, the less positive and emotional their language was.

Show question

Question

What was the conclusion of the Hancock et al. (2011) study?

Show answer

Answer

The language use of psychopaths shows that their view of the world is different from others’. Psychopaths operate in a primitive, rational way.   

Show question

Question

How was psychopathy measured?

Show answer

Answer

Psychopathy was measured using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised.

Show question

More about Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths
60%

of the users don't pass the Contemporary Research - Language of Psychopaths quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Just Signed up?

Yes
No, I'll do it now

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.