Psychopaths are callous, remorseless, and exploitative individuals. Psychopaths have a characteristic way of communicating. Consider Ted Bundy, a serial killer who could likely meet the criteria for psychopathy: If you watch his 1977 prison interview, available in part on YouTube , you may find something peculiar about how Bundy talks, expresses emotions, and gestures. The question I would like to address in this post is whether we can identify psychopaths by examining how they communicate.
To answer this question, I will summarize the findings of a recent study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research , which reviews characteristics of psychopaths’ communication . 1
Psychopathy is sometimes confused with psychopathology (mental illness), psychosis (delusions and hallucinations), and other similar-sounding words, so before discussing the present study, let me very briefly describe what psychopathy means.
Who are psychopaths?
According to Robert Hare , whose checklist (PCL-R) is often used to assess psychopathy, psychopaths are charming, grandiose, impulsive, irresponsible, deceptive, and promiscuous individuals.
In addition, they lack empathy, do not feel guilt, have a limited and shallow emotional experience, and get bored easily. Psychopaths usually focus on satisfying their immediate desires and rarely work on achieving any long-term goals.
How psychopaths communicate
Communication involves give-and-take and shared meanings. People communicate for a variety of reasons (e.g., to share information, for entertainment, to feel a sense of belonging and identification).
The question is: Do psychopaths communicate for the same reasons and in the same way too?
To examine previous findings on psychopathy and communication, Gullhaugen and Sakshaug, the authors of the current study, searched the PsychInfo database and compiled a list which included 34 articles (which included studies on nearly 2,900 people).
Going over this research, the researchers concluded that for psychopaths communication is often characterized by emotional detachment and a desire to dominate and have power over their conversing partner.
Psychopaths are much less interested in relationships as relationships but as a way to take advantage of others. This is not surprising, given that psychopaths think of others mainly as tools and objects needed to satisfy their own desires.
Nevertheless, psychopaths are not always unemotional. Some recent research—including a small investigation which analyzed speech patterns of a few well-known psychopaths (e.g., Richard Kuklinski)—argues that when these individuals do not feel in control during communication, they may unintentionally give us a glimpse of their vulnerable side. For instance, a psychopath might show unexpected/inappropriate emotional reactions (e.g., laughter) when discussing, say, being homeless as a child.
Of course, psychopaths try to avoid situations and topics (e.g., childhood difficulties) that have the potential to trigger strong feelings of sadness, fear, or longing. They try to appear strong and invulnerable and emphasize how dangerous or fearless they are. They rarely talk about their needs; when they do, they talk of needs that are biological (e.g., food) or material (e.g., money), and not social/emotional.
Detailed characteristics of psychopaths’ communication
Based on the research the authors reviewed, some features of how psychopaths communicate, compared to the average person, include:
- Creating complex and often convincing lies
- Charming the listener
- Attempt to dominate the conversation
- Occasional stuttering when the topic touches on their vulnerabilities
- Sudden shifts in the subject of conversation when they do not feel in control
- Leaning in and frequent use of hand gestures
- Non-genuine emotional expressions
- Few emotion (especially fear) related words
- Expression of emotions unrelated to the context/topic
- Drawing conclusions based on limited information
- Hinting at factors the listener knows nothing about
- Black-and-white worldview
- Tendency to generalize
- Omitting essential details
- Greater use of past tense
- Greater usage of nouns and personal pronouns
- Low narrative coherence (but according to one study, only in Whites).2
Some research examined also suggests that psychopaths show decreased eye contact, though other investigations do not support this finding . 3
In a previous investigation, nearly 25 percent of the variance in scores of psychopathy could be explained by characteristics of psychopaths’ communication—specifically, by increased self-focus and language containing low emotional content . 4
We must remember that to identify psychopaths, their communication style and content need to be considered in context and in relation to other characteristics discussed above. 1
For instance, imagine hearing a person express anger when recalling not having been able to convince someone to give her money. This seems like a rational enough reaction. But note that what indicates potential psychopathy is not only what evokes but also what doesn’t evoke a reaction: At a later time, you hear the same psychopath speak in a calm manner regarding the murder of the person who refused to give her money (as though the murder was an act as necessary and yet as trivial as, say, closing a bank account).
What complicates identifying psychopaths is that some who are more emotionally intelligent can superficially express context-relevant and appropriate emotions; identifying these individuals would require a careful examination of their patterns of communication and behavior to identify brief moments when their real feelings (or lack of feelings) show.
Concluding thoughts on how psychopathy affects communication
Communication is affected by many factors, including personality traits and disorders such as psychopathy. The review summarized here found that psychopaths’ communication differs from that of other people in multiple ways (e.g., a tendency to dominate, non-genuine emotional expressions). But because psychopaths can charm their conversing partner, it may require extra effort for the listener to see past the complex lies and theatrics to discover the (sometimes frightening) truth about the emotional world of their partner and their motivations for the conversation.
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1. Gullhaugen, A. S., & Sakshaug, T. (2019). What can we learn about psychopathic offenders by studying their communication? A review of the literature. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 48, 199–219.
2. Brinkley, C. A., Bernstein, A., & Newman, J. P. (1999). Coherence in the narratives of psychopathic and nonpsychopathic criminal offenders. Personality and Individual Differences, 27, 519–530.
3. Rime, B., Bouvy, H., Leborgne, B., & Rouillon, F. (1978). Psychopathy and nonverbal behavior in an interpersonal setting. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 636–643.
4. Le, M. T., Woodworth, M., Gillman, L., Hutton, E., & Hare, R. D. (2017). The linguistic output of psychopathic offenders during a PCL-R interview. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 44, 551–565.