Inmates higher in interpersonal and affective traits of psychopathy use the way that people walk to identify vulnerable individuals

Non-verbal cues tell us much about a person, and individuals who are predatory, with psychopathic traits, may be especially good at reading them. This means that they might have a natural ability to read cues that are indicative of one’s vulnerability to victimization, which would help them identify their potential victims. Research has found that victims display different body language than non-victims (Grayson & Stein, 1981), and this body language provides inadvertent cues signaling vulnerability (Montepare & Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1998). More specifically, research has shown that some offenders use an individual’s manner of walking, among other things, to judge how easily someone could be victimized. Movements that were found to differ between victims and non-victims include: Stride (victims dragged or lifted their feet unnaturally), Rate (victims walked slower), Posture (victims had a slumped posture and looked down), Fluidity (victims were more jerky in movements and wavered from side to side), and Smoothness (victims swung their arms like they were detached and lacked balance) (Grayson & Stein, 1981; Sakaguchi & Hasegawa, 2006).

Book and colleagues (2013) examined the relationship between psychopathy and perceived victim vulnerability. In this study, maximum-security inmates with at least one violent conviction watched videos of males and females walking. Some of the individuals had previously been victimized, and others had not, and the inmates rated their vulnerability to victimization (that is, their vulnerability to being assaulted with the intent to rob or steal).  Inmates were also asked to provide a reason for their vulnerability ratings. Inmates were assessed for psychopathy using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003).

Inmates with higher psychopathy scores were more accurate in perceiving victim vulnerability. In fact, it was inmates with higher levels of the interpersonal and affective traits of psychopathy (e.g., manipulativeness, superficial charm, and lack of empathy) who demonstrated the highest accuracy in this regard. Psychopathic inmates identified the way that people walked as a factor in their decision, whereas other inmates were more likely to list variables such as gender, build, and ability to retaliate.

This study provided further evidence that offenders with psychopathic traits have an enhanced ability to detect non-verbal cues of vulnerability. The results of this study demonstrate how important one’s manner of walking can be to those with psychopathic traits, when differentiating between those individuals who are especially vulnerable to violent victimization versus those who are less vulnerable.

Book, A., Costello, K., & Camilleri, J.A (2013). Psychopathy and victim selection: The use of gait as a cue to vulnerability. Interpersonal Violence, 28(11), 2368-2383. doi: 10.1177/0886260512475315

Also referenced:

Grayson, B., & Stein, M. I. (1981). Attracting assault: Victims’ nonverbal cues. Journal of Communication, 31, 68-75.

Montepare, J. M., & Zebrowitz-McArthur, L. A. (1998). Impressions of people created by age-related qualities of their gaits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 547-556. doi:547-5560022-3514/88/

Hare, R. D. (2003). Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised (2nd ed). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Sakaguchi, K., & Hasegawa, T. (2006). Person perception through gait information and target choice for sexual advances: Comparison of likely targets in experiments and real life. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 30, 63-85. doi:10.1007/ s10919-006-0006-2.


Written by Alexa Larouche Wilson and the Research Committee


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