Annals of Psychology: Research on Group Differences in the Crime Narratives of Psychopathic Murderers

Gary and Judith Ridgeway

Thanks to Delphyne for sending me a link to this article about a study of the crime narratives of psychopaths. Unfortunately, since the journal article was just published in September, I haven’t been able to read the whole thing yet. It’s a study of speech patterns and word usage in the crime narratives of 14 psychopathic killers, compared to 38 murderers who were not categorized as psychopaths, carried out by Jeffrey T. Hancock of Cornell University and Michael T. Woodworth and Stephen Porter of the University of British Columbia.

Please forgive a brief personal digression here. I have been interested in narrative analysis since I took an introductory course in research methods about 16 years ago. My professor in that course was one of the leaders in the study of children’s narratives and narrative development. I was amazed that someone could be a psychologist and study stories, and my imagination was immediately captured by the idea. As an undergraduate, under supervision from this professor, I analyzed the writings of novelist Jack Kerouac, and found a fascinating pattern in his work. In every book he wrote, Kerouac recreated a traumatic scene from his childhood in many different guises.

Kerouac’s 9-year-old brother Gerard, whom he adored, had died when Jack was only four. Shortly before Gerard died, Jack had knocked over a structure that Gerard was building with his erector set, and Gerard had gotten very angry and yelled at Jack to go away. That was the last interaction that Jack remembered with Gerard before he died. From a child’s point of view it seemed that these two events–knocking over the structure and getting yelled at and Gerard’s death were linked. Young Jack felt that his bad behavior had caused Gerard’s death. This was extremely traumatic for a young child, and the scene became a part of Kerouac’s vision of the world and his interpretation of interpersonal experiences. Such traumatic repetition is not unusual in creative works. It happens with writers, painters, and musicians. Freud called it sublimation.

In graduate school, I interviewed children for a study of narrative and personality. I later wrote my dissertation on children’s use of a specific aspect of narrative structure called “evaluation.” Evaluation refers to any parts of the narrative that are not necessary to straightforwardly convey “what happened.” When someone adds emotion or description to a story or uses words like “very,” “really,” or “a lot” to add emphasis, that is evaluation–the narrator adds personal reactions to the events in the story.

The narrative form is inherent to the way humans think. Narrative is the basis for autobiographical memories, and it very likely reflects aspects of personality. In my opinion, personality is likely to be correlated with individual differences in the use evaluation in stories.

The study by Hancock and colleagues that I mentioned above was based on computerized textual analysis of personal crime narratives–basically personal stories like the ones I have studied in both children and adults. Here is a summary of the results (emphasis added):

The words of psychopathic murderers match their personalities, which reflect selfishness, detachment from their crimes and emotional flatness, says Jeff Hancock, of Cornell University, and colleagues Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter at the University of British Columbia….

Hancock and his colleagues analyzed stories told by the murderers and compared them with 38 convicted murderers who were not diagnosed as psychopathic. Each subject was asked to describe his crime in detail. Their stories were taped, transcribed and subjected to computer analysis.

Psychopaths used more conjunctions like because, since or so that, implying that the crime had to be done to obtain a particular goal. They used twice as many words relating to physical needs, such as food, sex or money, while non-psychopaths used more words about social needs, including family, religion and spirituality.

Unveiling their predatory nature in their own description, the psychopaths often included details of what they had to eat on the day of their crime.

Psychopaths were more likely to use the past tense, suggesting a detachment from their crimes, say the researchers. They tended to be less fluent in their speech, using more ums and uhs. The exact reason for this is not clear, but the researchers speculate that the psychopath is trying harder to make a positive impression, needing to use more mental effort to frame the story.

The primary purpose of this study was to demonstrate that the language patters could be identified using automated software rather than human coders. According to Hancock, his findings provide support for previous studies of the language of psychopaths. I can’t wait to get my hands on the full article so I can look at his sources. I hope the paper includes an explanation of the coding system and examples of narratives.

Based on the brief descriptions of the study that I’ve seen so far, the differences that were found between the narratives of psychopathic and non-psychopathic murderers could mostly be classified as differences in the use of narrative evaluation, which I described above. Evaluation includes causal words and emotion words. I assume that the researchers programmed the software to count causal and emotional words and phrases as well as words and phrases that referred to social needs–also examples of evaluation.

The differences in fluency could also be classified as differences in narrative structure. Differences in narrative structure, including evaluation,  have been found in comparisons of children from different cultures and comparisons of children with developmental disorders such as ADHD, autism, and Williams syndrome.

Of course there are many limitations to this study. The authors suggest that their findings could be used to identify psychopaths, but I’d think it could only be used to distinguish between groups–not to diagnose individuals.

Whenever a story on research results is published in the media, people start to generalize the results in all sorts of inappropriate ways. For example, just because someone uses a lot of “uhs,” and “ums” in their speech, doesn’t make him or her a psychopath. I’d be really concerned if police departments tried to use the automated language analysis software to evaluate criminals.

I found some quotes from Gary Ridgeway’s confessions on-line. Ridgeway (pictured at the top of this post) is also known as the Green River killer. He has so far confessed to murdering nearly 50 women.  I believe his confessions are even posted on You Tube. Here are some examples of his descriptions of his crimes. Keep in mind that a narrative is defined as two statements about the past that are temporally related.

Question: “How did you kill her?”
Ridgway: “I choked her, with my arm. One or two I choked with a towel.”

He doesn’t express any emotion toward the victims other than his own hatred and rage.

“All the women I killed them ’cause I wanted and it was hate, hated them,” he said….”They were just pieces of trash to me. They were garbage,” he said.

When he talked about his own motivations, he included information about his emotions.

“I had control when I killed the women. I got my rage out for the time,” he said. “I did cry, yes I did, and that was the good part of me. I cried, but I still killed them and didn’t care anything about them.”

So Ridgeway’s “emotional flatness” was expressed in relation to his victims, but he describes himself as experiencing strong emotions. His problem is not understanding that other people also experience the same kinds of emotions. His lack of empathy allowed him to treat his victims as objects rather than feeling human beings.

If I were doing a follow-up to Hancock’s study, I would try to find a larger sample of psychopaths, including both males and females. I would specifically at expressions of emotion and note whether the words referred to the narrator or to other people. Since psychopaths are deficient in empathy, I would expect to find that they express more emotion in their narratives when talking about their own feelings than in references to the feelings of other people.


29 Comments on “Annals of Psychology: Research on Group Differences in the Crime Narratives of Psychopathic Murderers”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Please let me know if there is something I haven’t explained clearly enough.

    • Fannie says:

      Empathy should be taught, not only in the homes, but in schools. I think there is a scattering of it with the youth today.

  2. Caro says:

    I’d like to extend this analysis to politics. Every candidate for office should be required to sit in a room, supervised to make sure the writing is original, and hand write a ten-page biography, including a recitation of why he or she wants the office.

    We should be given the opportunity to determine which of those running for office are psychopaths running a scam on us. I’m guessing it’s a high percentage.

    Carolyn Kay
    MakeThemAccountable.com

    • bostonboomer says:

      That would be great, wouldn’t it? But it would be better to just use stories they tell in inverviews. Part of the analysis is based on speech patterns. You would need orally produced language, which would actually be easier to get.

  3. northwestrain says:

    Just looking at Ridgeway — he doesn’t look evil.

    Being from Western Washington & female I watched the cops try to solve the case. As BB quoted Ridgeway — his feeling was that the women he killed were garbage. And really that was the attitude of many of the cops on the case. His victims were mostly prostitutes and these women often didn’t trust the police — and the cops targeted prostitutes to clean up the “crime ridden areas” — rather than the johns who used the prostitutes. A few of the lead detectives could related to the victims as humans.

    This is a great topic — I’m wondering how this research reviewed about relates to cross cultural — or bi-cultural individuals? I’d like to see researchers who are fluent in other languages (and cultures) try some parallel research.

    In other words are the results culture specific?

    • bostonboomer says:

      I’d imagine there would be cultural differences, since there are distinct cultural differences in children’s narratives. But you can’t be sure until you do the studies. This is a fairly new field of research. Psychologists have only been studying narratives for perhaps the last 35-40 years.

      Ridgeway should have been caught years before he was. One boyfriend of a victim even took the police to Ridgeway’s house–he had followed Ridgeway’s truck after he picked up the girlfriend. Police didn’t take it seriously. Ridgeway seemed too ordinary, and of course he was calm. Guys like him can pass a polygraph with no problem too. As you say, the victims were “throwaways.” If they had been white, middle-class women, there would have been more public outrage.

  4. Outis says:

    This couldn’t be a more interesting post and I would love to read any followups you may have. I had not heard of studying narrative from a psychological perspective, though as a writer I am well aware of what one’s writing reveals; those “themes” that just keep popping up over and over. I was at the library searching for a few audiobooks, and from the meagre selection chose a Hemingway short story collection, thought I am not really a fan. Hearing his writing aloud, my first thought was, “My God, this man hates women.” And then with a sense of grief and shame, the second thought was “But damn, can he write.”

    As someone dealing with a couple of certified narcissists, your article sparked a question. Is it possible to ever learn empathy?

    The eery ability of a narcissist to give a performance of empathy–meaning he or she KNOWS the correct way to act–yet at the same time feels no empathy whatsoever and is only using this convincing performance for selfish ends. I’m always caught off-guard by it because it’s so hard to believe that 100% of someone’s thought could be selfish. And that they would be willing to use any emotion to manipulate others, feeling no sense of shame or remorse, only judging by what they can get out of it. Reading the Green River killer feeling it was his RIGHT to kill women just so he could let off some steam very much reminded me of that frame of mind.

    I have been reading theories that narcissism may be a developmental problem. That somehow, because of some traumatic event or because of a lack of parenting or positive adult influence, a narcissist somehow becomes stuck in their emotional maturity at the age of a child or preteen. They do not learn or mature into ideas of sharing and impulse control (which in a child makes them a “brat” but in an adult makes them a weapon of mass destruction). As they grow older, they realize they must somehow ‘fit’ into the world but somehow innately feel their brokenness, so they develop these what I call “empathy scripts” to trot out as necessary. And these scripts help them to get what they want, but in the end they never actually learn to care for others or to give in order to take.

    So this long question is in your study of narrative, have you ever seen development of empathy? Is there any way to help someone learn or discover it? Or are narcissists and psychopaths just unable to feel it at all?

    • Beata says:

      There is a type of historical research called “psychohistory” ( no, it is not the study of psychos ) which attempts to apply psychological theories to historical methodology. It tends to use a psychoanalytical approach. It was trendy for a while. It has a few supporters and a lot of opponents.

      • bostonboomer says:

        I love psychobiography, although, as you say, it has plenty of critics. I don’t think you can interpret someone’s entire life according to one psychological theory, but you can look at aspects of their lives, as I did in my study of Kerouac’s writings. Creative people do tend to reveal traumatic experiences symbolically in their art.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Hi Outis,

      Great comment! There are lots of theories of narcissism. Narcissism is one aspect of psychopathy; there are lots of theories about where that comes from too. You might want to look into Attachment Theory. It’s fascinating. It’s an evolutionary theory that explains how love develops beginning with the infant-caregiver attachment and into adult relationships. Adult relationships reflect the parent-child relationship.
      There are some brain differences in the brains of psychopaths vs. “normal” people, but it’s impossible to know if those are innate or developmental differences. Most criminal psychopaths were abused or otherwise traumatized as children. There is a great deal of evidence that personality disorders are thought to begin in childhood, when the personality is developing.

      For example, Gary Ridgeway’s mother was extremely controlling, but at the same time she stimulated him sexually in very sick ways. When he wet the bed as a child, she would bathe him. She also ridiculed him for the bedwetting in front of other people. She apparently was violent against Gary’s father, and he witness quite a bit of this violence as a child. He felt both hatred and sexual attraction toward her. In his confession, he said that he began fantasizing about killing her by the time he was in elementary school. When Gary was 16, he stabbed a younger boy and then just walked away.

      As far as whether someone can develop empathy, I think it’s unlikely–at least not in adulthood. A person could learn to change his behavior if he were strongly motivated to do so. What we really need to do is try to make sure that children are cared for properly and that they get unconditional love from someone. A good sources of information on the effects of childhood trauma would be Alice Miller’s books, For Your Own Good or just about any of her books.

      • Beata says:

        BB, can abuse destroy empathy in a child who has already developed it? Or do those children develop self-destructive behaviors rather than hurting others?

      • Branjor says:

        Or isn’t it possible to have both self destructive behaviors and hurting others?

      • Beata says:

        Yes, I am sure that is possible, Branjor. Not an either / or situation.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Either a secure or insecure attachment develops in a child by the end of the first year. Attachment styles can change, even in adults. I just don’t know if empathy can develop in an adult who doesn’t experience it. Empathy seems to be linked to certain types of brain cells called mirror neurons. These neurons allow us to share the emotional experiences of other people.

        Anything is possible though. Who knows? We now know that even elderly people can form new neurons. At one time it was thought that new neurons couldn’t form at all–just new connections. But that wasn’t true.

        Branjor, it’s definely possible for someone to be self-destructive and also hurt others. Just look at depression. People who are depressed tend to push other people away–which is both self-destructive and hurtful to the people who love you.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Beata,

        Alice Miller argued that if an abused child had just one person in his or her life who cared for them unconditionally, it would make a huge difference. She said that you should always say something if you see a child being abused in public. Even if the child suffers for it later, it’s important for her to know that the abuse is not her fault, and that she really deserves to be loved.

      • Outis says:

        Hi BB,

        Thanks so much for your answer. I have been reading extensively on Attachment Theory lately to see if there is any way to deal with these relationships–one of whom is my mother–as I would love to just walk away and not deal with extreme narcissism, but sometimes you just can’t.

        I’ve bought the book, Hold Onto Your Kids, on attachment theory for myself and my friend who just had a baby. She comes from a great family and innately understands attachment and I gave it to her really just to reinforce what a great job she’s doing with her son. Trying to make sure we don’t raise any more narcissists (who might someday grow up to be president) pass it on!

        Also, your comment on standing up for abused children in public, I have struggled with that on many occasions and have confronted more than a few parents in public. It’s such a hard call and usually seems to do no good, and I worry for the ramifications to the child, such as “see what you made me do?” but at the same time hope there is at least the smallest feeling of shame that will make the abuser think twice. It’s great to know that the smallest little bit helps. I’ll pass that on as well.

        But this post and all the comments have given me so much food for thought. I absolutely LOVE your psychology posts and it looks like others do too. Thanks so much for sharing all your knowledge. I didn’t study psychology in school, had my nose in literature and philosophy, so I really appreciate the chance to enrich my studies.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Hi Outis,

      I’m so glad you’re reading about attachment theory. It’s just about my favorite psychological theory. It explains so much!

      The reason to speak up when you see children being abused isn’t to shame the parents. It’s to let that child know that an adult considers them valuable and cares what happens to them. Kids grow up being abused have no basis for comparison. Once they know that all adults aren’t cruel and abusive, hope can start to grow.

      Dealing with your mom is about you, not her. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You have to learn how to detach and keep reminding yourself that you’re not crazy and keep your own equilibrium. That’s the only way to deal with crazy people. Believe me, I know it’s hard. I took care of a woman with severe emotional problems for 18 years. I have my own struggles with my mom too, even though she has grown and changed a lot over the years.

  5. Beata says:

    Fascinating, BB. I think you should do more posts based on your knowledge and research as a psychologist!

    Why not require political candidates to be interviewed for oral histories of their lives? It would be similar to Carolyn’s suggestion but would also allow the analysis of speech patterns that you describe. What life experience causes candidates to express strong emotion and what brings out a “flat affect” in their voices? I think it would be extremely insightful.

    Years ago, I did oral histories for research purposes, mostly with Holocaust survivors. Sometimes the emotions and memories that arose during these interviews were surprising, even to the people who are telling their own stories. I did the interviews from an historical, not a psychological perspective, so I didn’t examine speech patterns. I do remember, however, that sometimes accents would become more pronounced as the interviews progressed, and although the people I interviewed spoke English very well, they would often struggle to find an English word to describe very intense experiences and would use a word in their native language. The connection of emotion and memory to language appears to be a strong one.

  6. joanelle says:

    Geate post, BB – thanks – I sent a copy of it to my older son who is working on his Psych masters. Very interesting stuff.

  7. Minkoff Minx says:

    Wow…fascinating.

    I would love to see a study of narrative on mafia hit men…or mercenary soldiers…professional assassins. And see how evaluation, empathy and narcissism play into their narratives.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Probably most of those kinds of people are psychopaths. I doubt if they would volunteer to be studied unless they were in prison though.

      • Minkoff Minx says:

        Or in a witness relocation program…

        BB, that narrative of Perry with the guns, is that a story that can be used for clues or insight into Perry? Just wondering…

  8. joanelle says:

    BB, I too would love to see you do more posts using your skills in psychological analysis of some of the behaviors we are currently observing in government, etc.

  9. pdgrey says:

    Thanks, bostonboomer, what an fascinating post.