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How Their Words May Reveal a Psychopath

Semantic aphasia and verbal disconnect.

Key points

  • “Semantic aphasia” is when the language and emotional components of thought are not properly integrated.
  • The verbal disconnect may result from the psychopath’s inability to provide emotional meaning to the words.
  • Some research suggests that psychopaths do not respond to emotional words the way others do.
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If you watch and listen to some psychopaths long enough, you may see an animated person with a flamboyant style. You might even notice theatrical facial expressions and enthralling hand gestures. It could seem a compelling display and command attention by suggesting power or intense conviction. Conversely, the psychopath may use a “poor me” approach to seek sympathy and to manipulate. In either case, if you listen closely to what they say, you might notice gaps in reasoning and semantics that belie the gestures, words, and style. This can be a clue you are dealing with a psychopath.

Semantic aphasia and psychopathy

This disconnect between actions and words is often witnessed in encounters with psychopaths. It is what psychopathy researcher Paul Babiak describes as “semantic aphasia,” a profound underlying disorder in which the language and emotional components of thought are not properly integrated.1 Hervey Cleckley, the trailblazing mid-20th century psychiatrist who extensively analyzed psychopathic behavior, was the first to describe this “discordance between language and emotion.” Calling it “semantic dementia,” he characterized it as an attempt to mimic emotion and manipulate meaning through language.2

Examples of semantic aphasia

In his seminal work, Without Conscience, preeminent psychopathy expert Robert Hare describes a number of instances that demonstrate the disconnect in the words psychopaths use. In one case, he mentions: “When asked if he had ever committed a violent offense, a man serving time for theft answered, ‘No, but I once had to kill someone.’”3 In another situation, he recounts the words of a convicted thief who embezzled all his mother’s money: “Well, yeah, I love my mother but she’s pretty old and if I don’t look out for myself, who will?”4

Having lived with a mother who displayed high levels of psychopathic characteristics, I personally witnessed this on several occasions. One stands out in particular detail. My uncle was on his deathbed at a nursing home and was being visited by a priest who had befriended him there. When I told my mother the priest had come to her brother as a friend, she began to weep, saying, “I’m going to miss my brother when he dies.” In the next breath, she precipitously changed tone and said, “But I don’t care if he burns in hell.”5

The basis for this “verbal disconnect”

According to Hare, the verbal disconnect shown in these examples may be a product of the psychopath’s inability to provide emotional meaning to the words being used. The core underpinning of all psychopaths is the unemotional, callous, cold, and unfeeling abuse and manipulation of others. Hare believes that the psychopath’s “truth line” is fragmented and, accordingly, their speech is “full of inconsistent or contradictory statements.”6

Some research suggests that psychopaths do not respond to emotional words the way others do.7 Studying a sample of criminal psychopaths and nonpsychopaths, this research indicated that the psychopaths processed affective verbal material abnormally. Psychopaths extracted less information from affective words than nonpsychopaths. This may help explain the jarring impact of some of the psychopath’s contradictory statements. They simply are unable to measure the meaning associated with many of the words they use. As a result, nonpsychopaths may sometimes be left confused or bewildered when they hear them speak.

Monitoring speech for clues of the psychopathic “verbal disconnect”

One cannot use verbal clues alone to spot a psychopath, but careful and discerning attention to speech details may provide some protection. Hare has noted that a psychopath’s speech may be “subtly odd” with a “tendency to go off-track,”8 but most might not ever notice this. A psychologist asked a psychopathic mother sitting in front of him: “Is it true that you put your daughter’s photograph behind a piece of plywood on a cold, dark basement floor?" This elicited the response: “But I love my baby.”9 The disturbed mind of a psychopath is often revealed by what they say. One just has to stop and listen. If one hears a “verbal disconnect” that is emotionally fraught, be on guard.

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1. Babiak, Paul. (2006). Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York, NY: Collins Business. 22.

2. Cleckley, Hervey. (1941). The Mask of Sanity. St. Louis, MO: C.V. Mosby Company. 268–269.

3. Hare, Robert D. (1993). Without Conscience. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. 125.

4. Hare. 138.

5. Rule, Winifred. (2013). Born to Destroy. Moscow: Ministry of Health, Russian Federation. 201.

6. Hare. 136.

7. Williamson, S., Harpur, T.J., and Hare, R.D. (1991). "Abnormal processing of affective words by psychopaths." Psychophysiology 28. 260–273.

8. Hare. 138.

9. Rule. 89.

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