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Is that a psychopath trying to kill you? Are you listening?

Monday, October 31, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

It would be nice to know how to identify a psychopath. For instance, if they all wore Hannibal Lecter face masks, it’d be much easier. Mostly, they aren’t so cooperative until it’s a bit too late. But there is hope.

New research compares how psychopathic murderers and “regular murderers” talk.  [Okay– show of hands, please– how many of you knew that some murderers were psychopaths and others weren’t?] If you want to know if your potential murderer is psychopathic or not–set aside your fears and get him (yes, men are more commonly psychopaths) to talk to you.

As it happens, psychopaths have a tendency to use more conjunctions (i.e., because, since, so that) which imply that the crime “had to be done” to achieve a certain goal.

They use twice as many words relating to physical needs such as food, money and sex. Conversely, non-psychopaths talked more about social needs (i.e., family, religion and spirituality).  But keep in mind, both of these sparkling conversationalists are murderers.

And when psychopaths describe the day of their crime–they more often include details of what they had to eat on the day of their crime.

They also tend to speak in the past tense and are less fluent in their speech, using a lot of “ums” and “uhs”.

And just how can you use this for litigation advocacy, pray tell? It is probably better to not count conjunctions while crossing witnesses. And it’s usually unproductive to play ‘armchair diagnostician’. But how about when you are meeting clients, and making decisions about whether to take the case, or setting your expectations about their cooperation? Does anything seem cold under the superficial charm in this client? Count conjunctions and resulting rationalizations. Does the client describe his lunch of liver, fava beans and a nice Chianti as he recounts the events of the day in question? Smile. Nod. And back away.

It’s easy to make light of the psychopath when we are safe (we prefer to think) in our homes and offices. But the violence and amorality of the psychopath are really no laughing matter. You will certainly run across the psychopath in a criminal practice. But you will also likely see the psychopath in a white collar defense practice, a civil plaintiff practice, and even corporate defense. They walk among us.

Your best defense is to simply remain aware of what you value and what you believe. If someone presents in a way that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, or you simply feel somehow unsafe–be aware of it sooner rather than later.

Hancock, JT, Woodworth, MT, & Porter, S. (2011). Hungry like the wolf: A word-pattern analysis of the language of psychopaths. Legal and Criminological Psychology.

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