Technology to discover the psychopath in your life

This is a guest post by Steven Hipwell, principal project manager at Birmingham City University.

Channel 4’s recent “Psychopath Night” gave some chilling insights into the inner workings of the psychopathic mentality. Put simply, a psychopathic personality is one whose levels of empathy, conscience and remorse are low or barely exist. Such people are able to operate unburdened by normal human compassion, often leaving a trail of broken relationships and hurt in their wake. Psychopathy is also thought to be untreatable.

It’s reckoned by experts that approximately one in 100 people is a psychopath, but they are notoriously hard to spot by other humans. That’s where technology comes in. Research on known psychopaths has revealed under-active brain responses while viewing visually traumatic images in an MRI scanner – the technology providing a strong indicator of a lack of empathy.

The US Department of Homeland Security has developed a technology called FAST or Future Attribute Screening Technology. Originally named Project Hostile Intent, the system screens for psychological and physiological factors. It might be useful in the right and proper context as an assessment tool for psychopathic behaviours, such as helping to categorise and segregate prisoners.

Software for psychometric testing has been available for a long time. Responses can also be assessed for psychopathic traits. Maybe human-resources departments will make more use of such technology. According to a 2011 story in The Independent there is anecdotal evidence that some sectors recruit social psychopaths on purpose. Remember the banking crisis?

So how can technology help you go psychopath spotting and avoiding? Research from Cornell University in a paper entitled Psychopathic Killers: Computerised text analysis uncovers the word patterns of a predator, says it all. The paper reveals many interesting findings, like that psychopaths use twice as many words relating to money, sex and food compared to non-psychopaths. Psychopaths also tend to use more filler-words in their speech, words and sounds like “um” and “err”; it’s surmised because they are struggling to make the right impression.

Another study conducted by Florida Atlantic University analysed Twitter feeds with an algorithm that searched for words associated with the “dark triad” of personality traits: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. The results confirmed a reasonably high degree of accuracy. Those having their tweets analysed were also asked supplementary questions, such as “payback should be quick and nasty (agree/disagree)” – you can bet on a psychopath’s response.

So at the moment there isn’t some portable device or app that’s going to realistically help you spot and avoid psychopaths. You have the technology already, an arsenal of detection-tools that no computer does – your human senses and feelings. Well, hopefully you do.

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