Science

AI could detect signs of psychopathy based on head movements, study finds 

Scientists have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can detect signs of psychopathy based on head movements. 

Using head tracking algorithms, experts in New Mexico found evidence that male prison inmates with higher levels of psychopathy kept their head more stationary during police interviews.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterised by antisocial behaviour, remorselessness, deception, and interpersonal manipulation.   

Automated techniques that analyse non-verbal behaviours may be useful to evaluate the presence of these nefarious tendencies, the experts believe. 

Incarcerated men had their movements assessed by automated detection algorithms and were scored for psychopathy

Head movements that indicate psychopathy 

The study found that people with high levels of psychopathic traits:

1. Had more stationary head positions

2. Focused directly towards the camera/interviewer  

The results are interesting because excessive non-verbal cues like head movements, blinks and hand-gestures have been linked to deception. 

The study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, represents an ‘important first step’ in demonstrating the feasibility of using computer vision in conjunction with psychology, the authors claim. 

‘I’ve been interviewing individuals high on psychopathic traits for more than 20 years,’ study author Kent A. Kiehl, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, told PsyPost

‘During these interviews, it is clear that the presentation style of such individuals is different from others. 

‘We wanted to apply advanced methods to quantify components of the videotaped interviews to see if we could identify qualities that differ between those high and low on psychopathy. 

‘Such a result might help people in other situations (i.e., law enforcement) understand the personality of the person being interviewed.’ 

Professor Kiehl and colleagues used an image processing and machine learning based approach to automatically extract head movement from recorded interviews. 

Using head tracking algorithms, experts in New Mexico found evidence that male prison inmates with higher levels of psychopathy kept their head more stationary during police interviews

Using head tracking algorithms, experts in New Mexico found evidence that male prison inmates with higher levels of psychopathy kept their head more stationary during police interviews

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) 

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is used as a diagnostic tool to determine where someone lies on the psychopathy spectrum, as not all psychopaths display all the traits.

There are 20 items on the checklist, which score between zero and two points depending on whether someone matches a trait, to give a score out of 40.

In the UK, users are deemed psychopathic if they score above 25, but in the US it is 30. 

The algorithms measured the head movements of 507 inmates during recorded conversations, varying in length from one to two hours.   

To estimate the head pose, all the frames in the videos were extracted as individual images, allowing the algorithm to work with the face in each frame of the video stream.

To determine levels of psychopathy, the team used a common assessment called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R), originally developed in the 1970s by Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare.  

Using a 20-item checklist, PCL-R scores a person from one to 40. Anyone who scores 25 or over in the UK is deemed a psychopath. 

The PCL-R is reliable across male offenders, male forensic psychiatric patients and female offenders, the team claim.  

‘As predicted, dwell times indicate that those with higher levels of psychopathic traits are characterised by more stationary head positions, focused directly towards the camera/interviewer, than were individuals low in psychopathic traits,’ the experts say in their paper.

Inmates with ‘severe and life-course persistent antisocial behaviour’ had more rigid and focused orienting of their head during the session, they found.       

The results are interesting because excessive non-verbal cues like head movements, blinks and hand-gestures have been linked to deception. 

As far back as 900 BC, it was observed that deceitful people demonstrated excessive fidgeting, according to the study. 

So it’s possible that a more stationary stance is a deliberate tactic employed by psychopaths to counter these potential clues from appearing.  

Professor Kiehl is the author of ‘The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience’. 

The book tries to answer the question of why psychopaths behave the way they do – either due to genetic, nurtural or environmental factors. 

‘A lot of information is present in the body language and interpersonal dynamics that occur during clinical interviews,’ he said. 

‘Decoding these interviews may provide useful details about the individual differences of the people being observed.’  

HOW TO SPOT A PSYCHOPATH 

Psychopaths display different traits depending on their disorder.

Common signs include superficial charm, a grandiose notion of self-worth, the need for stimulation and impulsiveness, pathological lying, the ability to manipulate others and a lack of remorse and empathy.

But despite the popular association, not all psychopaths become killers.

Experts claim people usually find psychopaths intriguing, but can’t put their finger on why. 

This is down to incongruous behaviour because psychopaths tend to do a lot of acting to deceive, or mimic normal reactions, sometimes changing their views and reactions quickly.

For example, Self-professed psychopath Jacob Wells said that upon meeting someone, he tries to become ‘the most interesting person they know’ and presumably adopts suitable interests and responses to do this.

His response also gives away another common trait – a grandiose notion of self-worth – in that he can be the most interesting person in the room.

Psychopaths occasionally tend to exhibit unconvincing emotional responses, with slip-ups including tone of voice or body language.

This may be because they are unable to understand emotions such as fear and love, but can mimic them.

Psychopaths display different traits depending on their disorder, but common signs include superficial charm and the ability to manipulate others. Despite the popular association, not all psychopaths become killers (stock image)

Psychopaths display different traits depending on their disorder, but common signs include superficial charm and the ability to manipulate others. Despite the popular association, not all psychopaths become killers (stock image)

Generally psychopaths’ ’emotions’ are shallow and short-lived and there is a manipulative ulterior motive to showing them.

For example, Mr Wells said he offers to do favours and tells false secrets to people to gain their complete trust.

He also displays insincere charm – another trait associated with psychopaths.

He says: ‘I keep secrets, and tell them fake secrets to further gain their trust, and once they trust me enough, I ask for favours, reminding them of the favours I did them. I can get literally anything from them, which is incredibly useful.’

Psychopaths typically display an incredible ability to manipulate others and sometimes take pleasure in doing so. 

Psychopaths often have an air of superiority about them, perhaps shown by Mr Wells’ belief he can spot other psychopaths

Even expert Dr Hare, who came up with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) used as a diagnostic tool to determine where someone lies on the psychopathy spectrum, warns that anyone can be duped during a short interaction with a psychopath.


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