Wednesday, November 2, 2011

You Can Tell A Psychopath By How He Talks

According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Cornell and the University of British Columbia, you may be able to identify a psychopath by how he talks. When I first heard this, it sure made sense. Aren't psychopaths supposed to be these silver-tongued characters, like con men - or politicians? In that case, the better a person spoke, the more suspect he became. But, no - that's not it.

Here are the five top tip-offs (along with my annotations):

1) They use words to suggest that their actions "had a logical cause and effect" that justified their goals. Words like "because" and "so that". Authority figures talk like that, especially politicians and business leaders, and it always sounds like they are excusing their actions simply by aggrandizing their own intellectual acumen. But then again narcissism is a trait of psychopaths, too.

2) They enjoy talking about the simple pleasures of life - the tangible things, especially food, as in what they had for dinner last night. I never thought a psychopath might talk like a foodie, but there you have it. The articles suggest that the discussion of food reflects their predatory nature. They talk about drinking and money, too - and also, presumably, sex. Folks like that could come across like any down-to-earth and unpretentious regular guy - or even just your garden variety suburban materialist. I bet they also like to talk about cars, iPhone apps, and mutual funds.

3) They tend to hem and haw, apparently in their attempts to disguise the truth about themselves. This one sounds like a sure give-away for a liar all right, but aren't psychopaths supposed to be smoother than that? Identifying people notorious for their powers of verbal manipulation by their inarticulateness seems counterintuitive. Convicted murderers may talk like that more because of their lack of education than for any other reason. Higher end psychopaths might hem and haw a little less, or a little better.

4) They don't like to talk about touchy-feely stuff like religion and family and moral values - anything that might trigger shame or guilt. I can see that. But isn't one of the rules of polite conversation that one should never talk about "religion or politics"? If so, how could one tell the difference between a psychopath and that suave fellow at the dinner party you attended last week who talked charmingly (if only) about horses, Jaguars and fine wine? And isn't the expulsion of anything resembling empathy from one's conversation the hallmark of a hard-headed pragmatist? Again we swing back to the businessman, the rationalist, the unsentimental alpha male.

5) They talk in the past tense a lot, explaining what they did (or what they want you to think they did) in a fait accompli kind of way. Certain former bosses of mine used to talk like that - emphasizing what was done, rather than was being done or what could be done, as though they wanted to assure you that you couldn't change any of it - and that you couldn't make them change it either. The article said this effect suggested "detachment", but I'd like to think it represents the desire of the speaker to strip control from the person they're talking to.

How to Spot a Psychopath: Look For Speech Patterns, Scientists Say (Fox News)
Speech patterns: 5 ways to spot a psychopath (The Week Magazine)

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