How do you know if you're talking to a psychopath? For a definitive answer, you'd need to evaluate a suspected psychopath on a long list of scientifically validated traits, such as egocentricity and lack of empathy and remorse. But that's going to be pretty hard to do if you're just trying to get a handle on how evil your new boss or co-worker is on the fly.
Helpfully, science has also found a long list of less definitive but still intriguing tells that an individual might have psychopathic tendencies, from their profession and college major, to their speech patterns and usual bedtime (sorry, night owls).
Recent research out of Cornell has added to this already extensive list, suggesting that psychopaths are much more likely to discuss certain topics than normal people, and less likely to talk about others.
What you learn talking to violent convicts.
The research was conducted in an environment far from the corridors and boardrooms where you're most likely to run into high functioning but still destructive psychopaths. For the study, researchers led by Cornell's Jeff Hancock interviewed 52 convicted murderers in detail about their crimes. Fourteen were diagnosed psychopaths, 38 were not. The team then used computer analysis to detect if the speech of the psychopaths differed in any way from those without such a diagnosis.
Unsurprisingly, the results showed psychopaths made more of an effort to justify their crimes, but the analysis also uncovered some less expected patterns. The truly psychopathic were twice as likely as non-psychopaths to discuss three topics in particular:
Strangely, psychopaths' "stories often included details of what they had to eat on the day of their crime," reports the Cornell Chronicle write-up of the study. While psychopaths couldn't stop talking about dinner, they were much less likely to discuss other more social subjects, such as:
Should you beware the office foodie then?
The short answer to the above question is: of course not. If he or she is a considerate and apparently normal human who just happens to talk about food all the time, this study is obviously not cause to suspect secret psychopathic tendencies.
In fact, the study's authors "caution that their analysis applies only to murderers relating the story of their own crimes," and stress that their aim for the research was to uncover insights that might be of use to law enforcement.
Still, while it would be silly to suggest everyone who can't stop talking about food, money, or sex is a psychopath, the results do offer another intriguing clue for those trying to sleuth out the possible pathology of their resident office jerk. If your suspected psychopath is verbally obsessed with the pleasures of the body or the balance of his bank account, this study gives you cause to count that as another strike against him--and another reason to steer clear or handle this person with extreme caution.