analyzing the language of antisocial personality disorder

Inside The Minds Of Psychopaths

What Psychopathic Murderers Can Teach Us

In the article, Psychopathic killers: Computerized text analysis uncovers the word patterns of a predator, Professor Jeff Hancock, from Cornell University reveals some interesting data about psychopaths and how they may use language.

Here, we’ll talk about how that data may shed light on how non-psychopathic folks frame their own problems in non-resourceful ways and what we can do to motivate ourselves (and clients) and help solve problems.

How Does Knowing The Language Of Psychopaths Help Us?

The study used computer analysis to analyze the language of psychopathic killers when writing about their crimes. Why is that important to us? A couple of reasons.

  1. These psychopaths were motivated to do horrible things. But they were motivated. Maybe we can use their motivation strategies to motivate ourselves to do healthier things.
  2. These people are screwed up. Maybe their screwed-upness is reflected in their language and we can analyze the language to detect the kind of thinking that leads to problems. When we have that information, maybe we can help folks change their thinking and language to solve more everyday problems.

Important Ideas From The Article

Let’s take a look at the most important ideas from the article in terms of what we can use to help folks.

  • Psychopaths used more cause and effect words or phrases such as “because,” “since” or “so that,” when talking about their crimes.
  • Diagnosed psychopaths used language related to physical needs, such as food, sex or money more than language related to to social needs such as family or spirituality.
  • Psychopaths used the past tense more often when talking about their crimes and described them with “emotionally flat” words.

Psychopaths Are Motivated

If you’ve studied Milton Erickson’s Milton Model, you know that cause and effect language is just one pattern Erickson used to link ideas together. Apparently psychopaths use this pattern to convince themselves to do terrible things. If it can do that, this pattern should be extremely powerful in helping motivate the rest of us to do helpful things.

Also, the language structure psychopaths use to describe their problems is similar to the way we all use to describe our problems. Especially those problems where we are “stuck.” When we have a belief that ascribes the cause of a problem to something outside ourselves, then it’s going to be difficult to change it.


Study cause and effect and complex equivalence hypnotic language patterns and use them to attach pieces of the clients experience to achieving their goals.

Since you’re here, you’re already on the road to dropping those excess pounds.”
“You’ve now experienced hypnosis and that means your unconscious mind is now aligned to help you feel perfectly comfortable when you are in a social situation.”

Look for a client’s use of these language patterns when describing their problems. “The way she looked at me made me mad.” “Everyone on my family is overweight and that means I will always gain weight back after I lose it.” Use Sleight of Mouth Patterns and/or The Meta Model to interfere with those limiting beliefs.

Food, Money, Sex?

Would using language that relates to food, sex or money be more motivational than using language related to family or spirituality? I’m not convinced, but it would be an interesting experiment. For one, there might be a male/female difference there (the psychopaths in the study were all male). For another, that might be a difference between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. Psychopaths might be more concerned about their own needs as opposed to fitting in to the social structure. That makes sense, right?


So how do we use this knowledge? My idea is simple. Figure out what motivates that particular person and include that in your language toward them. If, when they speak about getting their goals, they speak mainly in terms of concrete gains such as food or money, use those terms back when you’re doing hypnotic suggestion or an NLP technique. If they refer to more social needs or abstract concepts (such as spirituality), use those.

Past Tense & Emotionally Flat

Psychopaths referred to their crimes in emotionally flat terms and in the past tense more often that their non-psychopathic counterparts. Well, let me tell you, it’s not just psychopaths that do so. When generals talk about war, they don’t tell you that a specific person got blown all over the battlefield that day. They don’t tell you that he or she was the parent of two young children and left a large group of grieving people. What they do is refer to “casualties” due to “enemy action.” Those terms are more emotionally flat.

And what happens to some of those that come back from these wars? They may suffer from PTSD. In those cases, they react as if events in the past are happening in the present. In other words, as if they’re still in wartime.


Well, maybe we can use this knowledge for good. When a client has experienced trauma, we can use our language in such a way as to move it in to the past. And we can use emotionally flat language to describe it. When we want to help a client to experience a better state, we can use language that is full of emotion and brings a positive emotion in to the present.

It’s often best to start by matching the client’s language and gradually moving them to a new way of thinking and speaking.

Example: (To a client experiencing fear)
“You’re experiencing fear right now and that may be because of the abuse you received as a child. It may even feel as if it’s happening now. What we’re going to do now is help your mind make a distinction between what happened in the past and what’s happening in the present.”

Later on in the session, after an intervention…

“When you think back about that old problem, how is it different?”

So, it goes from pacing the client’s experience of the trauma happening in the current moment to subtly moving it to the past to putting it squarely in the past and using emotionally flat language to describe it.

Hope you got some helpful ideas!


About The Author:

Keith Livingston is the main instructor for Hypnosis 101. Keith has been studying hypnosis since he was a boy and doing hypnosis & NLP training since 1997.

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  1. It is interesting that you are writing about how to turn something so negative, like the behavior of a psychopath, into something that can bring about positive change. Since some time has passed, I’m curious to know if you tried any of these suggestions in your own work, and if so, how effective were they?

    1. Hi Dan,
      I’m constantly looking at people’s cause and effect language and the beliefs systems they reflect and asking if those belief systems will help them reach their goals. It’s an integral part of what I do–maybe the most important part. I’ve been doing it since long before I wrote this article about it. I keep doing it because I believe it’s effective.

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