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Psychopaths Can Detect Vulnerability From Body Language

Angel is currently a second year Psychology student with a keen interest in psychopathy.

Psychopathy is characterised by a series of traits including impulsivity, manipulativeness, and most markedly by a lack of empathy. It is common to come across such individuals amongst salesmen, lawyers, and CEOs as the superficially charming and persuasive nature of psychopathy is allured to such careers. A key feature of psychopathy is manipulation which may be used to exploit others; Hare (1999) claims psychopaths view the world as having “givers and takers” or “predators and prey”, they believe it would be “foolish not to exploit the weakness of others around them”.

Psychopathy can be rated using Hare’s PCL-R scale (Hare, 1991) which is divided into two factors. However, some have argued the model ought to have three factors (Cooke & Michie, 2001). With a total of 20 items which can be rated between 0 to 2, the cut-off point to determine a psychopath is considered 25 in England and 30 in America. Average people typically score around 5.

Items on the PCL-R categorised into factors (Hare 1991)

Items on the PCL-R categorised into factors (Hare 1991)

According to the literature, psychopaths appear to have an ingrained ‘victim detector’ which allows them to exploit those who appear more vulnerable. Research has found they are able to use social information to manipulate those around them and have accurate insight into other’s emotions and motivations (J. Blair et al., 1996; Richell et al., 2003). They are also able to accurately identify vulnerability and submissiveness using facial and body language cues. An example of this derives from an interview of the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, he claimed “that he could tell a victim by the way she walked down the street, the tilt of her head, the manner in which she carried herself” (Holmes & Holmes, 2009).

This article is going to outline some interesting studies looking at psychopaths and their ability to remember submissiveness, identify victims, and detect vulnerability.

Psychopaths and Remembering Vulnerability

A study conducted by Brooks et al (2020) investigated one’s ability to detect vulnerability and submissiveness in others. Their study was inspired by an experiment by Wilson et al (2008) who found a correlation between psychopathy score in participants and their accuracy in remembering pictures of unhappy and unsuccessful faces.

In the first trial phase, participants were presented with images of either happy or sad faces alongside a description of them. This detailed the character’s name, likes, dislikes, and either a successful occupation (doctor, lawyer etc) or an unsuccessful occupation (cleaner, shop assistant etc). So in total they had four variations of faces: happy and successful, unhappy and successful, happy and unsuccessful, and unhappy and unsuccessful.

Image showing examples: happy successful male and unhappy unsuccessful female (Wilson et al., 2008)

Image showing examples: happy successful male and unhappy unsuccessful female (Wilson et al., 2008)

After a break they completed the second phase where they were presented all the faces again (and new faces they had not seen before), this time without the character descriptions. They were asked if they had seen the face from the previous trial. Accuracy was measured by their ability to remember familiar faces.

They found that participants who scored higher for psychopathy remembered unsuccessful people better. There were also gender differences, whereby unsuccessful sad female faces were recalled higher than male. This may be due to stereotypical gender beliefs that women may be more vulnerable. The authors suggest it may be due to a general disregard for female success in comparison to male success.

These findings provide support for the notion that psychopaths have a better memory for those deemed more vulnerable. The implications of this study are vast; do psychopaths recall sad unsuccessful females better so they may manipulate them in the future? Is this a conscious or unconscious mechanism? Other research implies this apparent advantage for recall of vulnerable people may be an unconscious feature of psychopathy in the community yet more deliberate amongst criminal psychopaths (Wheeler et al., 2009).

Identifying Victims Based on Gait

An interesting series of studies investigated a psychopath’s ability to detect victims. The research implies psychopaths are more accurate than others in identifying who is a victim based solely on their gait.

In one study, Book et al. (2007) rated 59 inmates on their psychopathy score using Levenson’s Self Report Psychopathy Scale (LSRP, Levenson et al., 1995) and also the PCL-R. Participants were then asked to complete two tasks. The first was a facial expressions of emotion task which showed images of faces showing a variety of emotions. They were asked to identify which emotion the face was displaying and to rate the intensity of that emotion on a scale of 1 – 10. In the second task they watched videos of volunteers with a history of either high or low victimisation interacting with a confederate. Participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire which rated the assertiveness of the volunteer (based on the concept that victims are less assertive thus more vulnerable).

Psychopathy was not associated with the categorising of facial expressions, however, they did find a correlation between psychopathy score and increased accuracy when judging emotion intensity (in particular for fearful faces). Unfortunately, a huge limitation with the task is the limited number of stimuli used. With only four images for every emotion, it is hard to confirm with much certainty how accurate these findings are. It would certainly be worthwhile replicating this with a larger stimulus set to solidify these results.

In the victim assertiveness task, they found psychopathy was positively correlated with accurately judging victimisation in volunteers. What was interesting was only PCL-R scores were correlated to performance in both tasks. The LSPR score was only associated with vulnerability judgments. The authors propose this may be because the LSPR encompasses the traits in Factor 2 of the PCL-R. There are implications that Factor 1 traits are involved with accuracy in detecting victims which may explain these findings (more on this later).

This study implies psychopaths are better at reading emotion intensity in facial expressions and assertiveness/victimisation from body language. However, this advantage may not be an innate feature of psychopathy. Blair and Coles (2000) found no such performance amongst psychopathic children; this could indicate that although psychopaths do not innately have advanced victim detecting abilities, fine tuned body reading skills have developed over time in order to compensate for a lack of empathy or to enhance their manipulative nature.

As fascinating as this study is, one significant setback is the sampling choice. Their psychopathic inmates had an average PCL-R score of 17.58. Although this is high it does not reach the 25 score cut off point for psychopathy. This means that the majority of their psychopaths did not actually qualify as one. Perhaps their results have nothing to do with psychopathy and instead reflect a criminal’s ability to detect victims. That being said, research on undergraduates who have not been institutionalised have also found similar patterns of victim detection accuracy (Wheeler et al., 2009).

In another study, Book et al. (2013) wanted to investigate the differences between Factors one and two which were touched on previously. 47 inmates viewed videos of people walking. In order to make their behaviour as natural as possible these people were unaware that they were being filmed at the time. They found that inmates with higher psychopathic scores overall were better at distinguishing victims from non-victims. This association was correlated with Factor one traits but not factor two. This makes sense as the traits in this factor relate more directly to manipulation and exploitation. Not only does this provide support that psychopaths are “social predators” but it also implies that Factor one traits are the core behaviours of psychopathy.

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Conclusion

Psychopaths are known for being manipulative and cunning, and such characteristics can be enhanced by accurate reading of body language and facial expressions. Their ability to detect vulnerability in others is a terrifying skill which could cause much harm to those around them. Research into this area has many applications. For instance, knowledge of a psychopath’s ‘vulnerability detector’ may prevent inaccurate judgements of inmates applying for parole. Overall, further research into how this ability develops across adolescence and structural brain differences that arise as a consequence of this would be incredibly fascinating to investigate and may help us understand the psychopathic brain a little bit more.

References

Blair, J., Sellars, C., Strickland, I., Clark, F., Williams, A., Smith, M., & Jones, L. (1996). Theory of Mind in the psychopath. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 7(1), 15–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585189608409914

Blair, R. J. R., & Coles, M. (2000). Expression recognition and behavioural problems in early adolescence. Cognitive Development, 15(4), 421–434. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0885-2014(01)00039-9

Book, A., Costello, K., & Camilleri, J. A. (2013). Psychopathy and Victim Selection: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(11), 2368–2383. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260512475315

Book, A. S., Quinsey, V. L., & Langford, D. (2007). Psychopathy and the perception of affect and vulnerability. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(4), 531–544. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854806293554

Brooks, N., Fritzon, K., & Watt, B. (2020). ‘You can tell a victim by the tilt of her head as she walks’: psychopathic personality and social–emotional processing. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 0(0), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/13218719.2020.1734979

Cooke, D. J., & Michie, C. (2001). Refining the Construct of Psychopathy. Psychological Assessment, 13(June), 171–188. http://www.sakkyndig.com/psykologi/artvit/cooke2001.pdf

Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare psychopathy checklist-revised . Toronto, Ontario: Multi-Health Systems. Inc.

Hare, R. D. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. Guilford Press.

Holmes, R. M., & Holmes, S. T. (2009). Serial murder. Sage.

Levenson, M. R., Kiehl, K. A., & Fitzpatrick, C. M. (1995). Assessing psychopathic attributes in a noninstitutionalized population. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(1), 151–158. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.68.1.151

Richell, R. A., Mitchell, D. G. V., Newman, C., Leonard, A., Baron-Cohen, S., & Blair, R. J. R. (2003). Theory of mind and psychopathy: Can psychopathic individuals read the “language of the eyes”? Neuropsychologia, 41(5), 523–526. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0028-3932(02)00175-6

Wheeler, S., Book, A., & Costello, K. (2009). Psychopathic traits and perceptions of victim vulnerability. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(6), 635–648. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854809333958

Wilson, K., Demetrioff, S., & Porter, S. (2008). A pawn by any other name? Social information processing as a function of psychopathic traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(6), 1651–1656. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2008.07.006

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Angel Harper

Comments

Kyler J Falk from California on February 21, 2021:

An extremely interesting article here, and it reminded me of an experiment we did in college with our psych professor.

We were all made to go outside, and the professor had chosen ten individuals from outside the class to cover up their distinctive features and walk toward us from 100 yards away. Without being able to see skin color or facial features, and the individuals were given grey featureless sweats to cover themselves, we were to guess the race and likelihood of victim-status of the individuals.

Though I score very low for psychopathy, I was able to accurately guess the race of all ten individuals and nine out of ten for victim-status. Apparently I have a great eye for bone structure, and the one I got wrong was purposefully manipulating their body language to show biases in observation.

I didn't pay very much attention in that class, but the experiments were always really fun! It's nice to read this at an older age and actually be able to absorb it. Thanks for writing it all down!

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