It is not very often that I play in the world of academia. I find it headache inducing boring! People write about ‘string theory’, all I know is that if you put string in a drawer, and you leave it for any amount of time it gets knots in it! Black Holes are what happens to your bank account after your wife goes to Walmart, and the whole deal with   the Uncertainty Principal is do you dare open the letter from the bank that might talk about the black hole that your wife created in Walmart.

Of course I am joking, my wife tells me of the doom awaiting me in the mail.

The point that I probably did not make clear is that most of this research has little application in the real world. That is not to say that it is not without merit, merely that most people could not give a damn, If you are not affected directly, what a bunch of brainiacs has to bring to the table does not matter.

Every so often though a research paper is released that has significant real world applications., Hungry Like The Wolf is a great example. Authored by Jeffery T. Hancock of Cornell Univeristy , Michael T. Woodworth and Stephen Porter of the University Of British Columbia it explores the murky world of psychopaths through their use of language.

Statement analysis is a tricky art, to the casual observer it is more voodoo than science. My introduction to it came from some conversations Terry Turchie and Dr. Kathleen Pucket. Terry was the lead FBI agent in the hunt for the Unabomber and Kathleen his lead profiler. While a profiler looks at many aspects in building the picture of who they are hunting, the written word is a key component.

Hungry Like The Wolf takes the work of people like Dr. Pucket to the next level. It removes, at least to an extent, the ‘gut instinct’ and some might say subjective aspects of Statement Analysis. Instead instinct was replaced by scientific and quantifiable methods.

A group of 52 people convicted of homicide agreed to take part. 14 of the participants had been diagnosed as being psychopaths, the other 38 just good old fashioned murderers.

The research team used two computer tools to assist. Wmatix which examines parts of speech and the semantic content, and DAL (Dictionary of Affect and Language) that examines the emotional aspects of the text.

 The summary of the results was interesting:

Psychopaths (relative to their counterparts) included more rational cause and effect descriptors (e.g., ‘because’, ‘since’), focused on material needs (food, drink, money), and contained fewer references to social needs (family, religion/spirituality).

Psychopaths’ speech contained a higher frequency of disfluencies (‘uh’, ‘um’) indicating that describing such a powerful, ‘emotional’ event to another person was relatively difficult for them. Finally, psychopaths used more past tense and less present tense verbs in their narrative, indicating a greater psychological detachment from the incident, and their language was less emotionally intense and pleasant.

 OK, so what? I hear you say. The entire study group were convicted murderers and the researchers already knew which ones were psychopaths so what is the big deal? It is a good question, and one that deserves a good answer.

This research has far reaching implications for Law Enforcement investigators. Word analysis has taken a huge step forward. Hungry Like The Wolf looks at psychopaths, but applying the technique might yield great results in other types of crime.

Of course this type of analysis might be viewed as Orwellian, Big Brother is watching you! But they are doing that already 🙂

Hungry Like The Wolf is well worth reading, sure it has a few of those math symbols in it that us mere mortals have no clue about, but the narrative is riveting. It was first published in The Journal Of Legal and Criminological Psychology in September/2011. It is available online via Wiley. I think that it is unfortunate that this is a subscription service only, because the paper is so interesting and thought provoking. It needs a wider audience than academia.

Simon Barrett    


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