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.