An Examination of the Communication Styles Associated with Psychopathy and Their Influence on Observer Impressions

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College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Psychology


Psychopathy, Communication styles, Observer impressions


Psychopathic individuals are characterized as “intra-species predators”—callous, impulsive, aggressive, and proficient at interpersonal manipulation. For example, despite their high risk for re-offending, psychopathic offenders often receive early release on parole. While reputed to be social chameleons, research suggests that even naive observers can accurately infer high levels of psychopathic traits in others with very brief exposures to behavior, but accuracy degrades with extended observation. We utilized a lens model approach to examine the communication styles (emotional facial expressions, body language, and verbal content) of offenders varying in levels of psychopathic traits using “thin slice” video clips of psychological assessment interviews and to reveal which cues observers use to inform their evaluations of psychopathy. Psychopathic traits were associated with more (a) Duchenne smiles, (b) negative (angry) emotional language, and (c) hand gestures (illustrators). Further, psychopathy was associated with a marked behavioral incongruence; when individuals scoring high in psychopathic traits engaged in Duchenne smiles they were also more likely to use angry language. Naïve observers relied on each of these valid behavioral signals to quickly and accurately detect psychopathic traits. These findings provide insight into psychopathic communication styles, opportunities for improving the detection of psychopathic personality traits, and may provide an avenue for understanding successful psychopathic manipulation.

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