The psychopathic stare? An algorithm may be able to detect signs of psychopathy based on an inmate’s head movements

Psychopathic inmates tend to exhibit reduced head movement during forensic interviews, according to new research that utilized a machine learning approach to quantify changes in head position. The study provides evidence of a “robust” relationship between the antisocial elements of psychopathy and stationary head positions, such as staring.

The new findings appear in the Journal of Research in Personality.

“I’ve been interviewing individuals high on psychopathic traits for more than 20 years. During these interviews, it is clear that the presentation style of such individuals is different from others,” explained University of New Mexico psychology professor Kent A. Kiehl, who is the author of “The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience.”

“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.”

The researchers used automated tracking algorithms to measure the head movement of 507 incarcerated adult men during videotaped conversations, which varied in length from one to four hours.

The videos were recorded at the prison as the inmates completed a semi-structured life history interview. The interview was used to score a diagnostic questionnaire known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised, which detects interpersonal, emotional, lifestyle and developmental/antisocial traits related to psychopathy. A digital camera was focused solely on the inmate, who was sitting down and facing the camera.

Kiehl and his team found that inmates with more psychopathic personality traits tended to exhibit more stationary head positions during their conversation.

“A facet-level analysis indicated that these relationships were primarily driven by associations with the antisocial/developmental features of psychopathy. Specifically, individuals with more diverse, severe and persistent antisocial behavior across the lifespan presented with more rigid and focused orienting of their head during interviews,” the researchers explained.

“A lot of information is present in the body language and interpersonal dynamics that occur during clinical interviews. Decoding these interviews may provide useful details about the individual differences of the people being observed,” Kiehl told PsyPost.

But the researchers caution that future research is needed to examine additional populations (such as women and adolescents) and to test other variables (such as eye movements.) “This was a first proof-of-concept study,” Kiehl said. “More studies need to replicate and extend this work with additional samples.”

The study, “Quantifying the psychopathic stare: Automated assessment of head motion is related to antisocial traits in forensic interviews“, was authored by Aparna R. Gullapalli, Nathaniel E. Anderson, Rohit Yerramsetty, Carla L. Harenski, and Kent A. Kiehl.

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