Finding Psychopaths on Twitter

twitter psychopath copywriting

via Flickr, by Pong

Research conducted by computer scientists at the Online Privacy Foundation at Florida Atlantic University and Kaggl suggests that it is possible to detect psychopathic character traits in Twitter users based on the number, frequency and wording of tweets, among other factors.

A combined study by the three institutions examined the accounts of 2,927 regular Twitter users from 80 countries, with researchers analyzing three million tweets; paying special attention to word usage, number of tweets sent, replies, re-tweets and profile information. In addition to this statistical textual analysis, a personality test was administered to participants. As a result, it was found that 40 of the participating Twitter users were certifiable psychopaths ranking high on measures of “the dark triad”, consisting of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism–with Machiavellianism being the use of manipulation and trickery for personal gain. These users tended to agree with such statements as: “Payback needs to be quick and nasty”; “I have been compared to famous people”; and “You should wait for the right time to get back at people.”

The springboard for this research was a 2011 paper, written by Jeffrey T. Hancock, Michael T. Woodworth and Stephen Porter, on psychopathic language patterns. The paper demonstrates that psychopaths tend to focus more on material needs (like food and money) over social ones (like family and spirituality), speak in the past tense more often than the present, and use conjunctions like “since,” “because” and “so that” more often than non-psychopathic individuals. Similar textual patterns were noted in the tweets of the 40 Twitter users with psychopathic inclinations.

With the help of this research, it may be possible to identify psychopathic personalities on the social network based on their tweets. Experts caution, however, that the detection of psychopaths using textual analysis is not an infallible process; false positives may occur, while purportedly psychopathic discourse on Twitter often does not fit in with the stereotypes of criminality so frequently ascribed to these individuals. According to Florida Atlantic University’s Randall Wald, “The results highlight that in certain contexts, personality prediction through social media can perform with a reasonably high degree of accuracy.” So while the prediction process is not fail-proof, it is still pretty accurate.

In accordance with these findings, we can safely say that psychopaths are in the minority on Twitter. If we take the above-studied Twitter accounts as a representative sample, a mere 1.3% of people on the microblogging platform can be said to rate high in psychopathy. However few in number they may be, though, these unusual individuals should give average Twitter users pause. Analytical tools can be used to identify potential troublemakers without necessarily targeting certifiable psychopaths, who are, when all is said and done, suffering from a personality disorder and should inspire pity rather than fear.

Word Count: 460;

August 9, 2012:

editor writer


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