On remorse and psychopaths

I’ve gotten an email the other day:

I am doing a project on the broad focus of language and identity. There were 4 sub categories, one of which was ‘self-representation’ which is what I went for.

The aim of my investigation is to analyse Ian Huntley’s language in this confession to see whether he is truly remorseful for murdering Holly and Jessica, therefore will be focusing on the issue of remorseful idiolect.

My research question is ‘Using relevant data, analyse and evaluate to what extent the language used by Ian Huntley in his prison cell confession creates the identity of a remorseful man’.

My general question to you would be what devices do criminals (or people in general) use to show remorse? And how can people identify when the remorse is false ?

I wanted to reply over email, however, the senders mail provider keeps blocking my reply. The reason given is fairly vague (they either block it for “inappropriate language” or “questionable content” or they are blocking the domain for an unexplained reason. I have reworded my answer twice now and I don’t want to do it again, because, possibly the domain is now blocked. I could send through a different mail account, I suppose. Or I can answer here, and simply provide the link.


Thanks for explaining. As promised, here is a bit longer reply.

1) There is no reliable way to tell whether people are lying based on their statements and behaviour. The TV shows like ‘Lie to me’ are based on quack science propagated mostly by Paul Ekman. Ekman came up with all these wild claims on how to detect dishonesty through verbal and non-verbal behaviour, however to date he has never shared his data (citing national security concerns) and no one, as far as I know, has been able to replicate his findings. The general consensus in academia is that the guy is full of it. Serious researchers will tell you that success rates in detecting deception are between 47 and 52 percent. 52 percenters are people who are highly trained in interviewing. Which means that generally speaking, you might as well flip a coin –  you’ll have about 50% chance of success, and won’t need to invest time or energy at all. Look up the concept of “Pinocchio’s nose” in forensic interviewing.

2) That said, there are many techniques designed to get a person to reveal that they are deceitful. These techniques are mostly based on cognitive load – that is, lying is demanding and tiring, and if you load people’s brains with other stuff, they have a lower ability to fabricate stuff. These approaches are used by interviewers, and they won’t be particularly helpful as long as you are not the one who is using them in an actual interview. I would not recommend doing the interviews with mr. Huntley, even if you somehow managed to get permission to. To simplify a bit, psychopaths have long memories and they do not like it when people see them in situations outside of their control (which would be cooped in a prison cell for murder, for example 🙂 ). They are also usually quite charming and you do not want to involve yourself in these things, if you can help it, especially without much (or any) support from people who are on the ball, and able to help you if you wade in too deeply.

3) I don’t know what data you have, and I’ve never seen any of the shows dealing with mr. Huntley. Be aware that short of seeing unedited, unabridged footage of actual interviews, you are on a very thin ground. If you look at commercial footage, you are analysing the story that the media is pushing, not the actual interview. Reading the transcripts is even worse in some ways: You lose 4 out of 5 channels of communication there, so your analysis would be tenuous at best.

4) Remorse is a complex concept. First of all, you need to settle on a definition. There are judicial, normative, and social definitions available, amongst others. I, as a trained psychotherapist (amongst other things), tend to use the definition from cognitive behavioural therapy, i.e. a person feels remorse or guilt because they believe their actions hurt someone. Remorse resolves itself, once a person has amended their actions, made reparations and accepted that they feel guilty because they did something they felt was wrong. And if you go with that, you run into several issues. (a) If mr. Huntley is a psychopath (as it is reasonably likely to assume and there are probably diagnostic data available to prove it), then he does not feel remorse, because the concept is completely foreign to him. There is plenty of research on psychopathy confirming this in all psychopaths. He does not believe he has done anything wrong, so why feel bad about it? (b) The motivation for showing remorse is unclear, or rather, probably only too clear. If someone demonstrates remorse, then they are likely to be treated better in the judicial system – they may be released earlier, they might receive a more lenient punishment etc. So, for mr. Huntley, it makes all the sense in the world to claim to be remorseful, regardless of whether they actually are. It’s a no brainer, really. Therefore testing for actual remorse would need to include removal of any kind of external incentives, before one could even start looking at its veracity. By external incentives, I also mean public opinion. Even if we remove the possibility of earlier release through fooling the penal system and judicial review, we still have (a) the media bias – stories where a person is redeemed are selling better than the gloomy reality, therefore no self-respecting producer would construct a show where an asshat  remains an asshat until the final episode with the moral that evil never changes (although, funnily enough, there is plenty of evidence that psychopaths are not capable of change even if severely penalised for their behaviour. They’d literally rather take an electric shock, than change). So, the media will skew the story in order to sell it. (b) the public opinion is a strong force that should not be discounted. Therefore, for mr. Huntley it works very well to be perceived as a contrite boy, who did something wrong but is “very sorry about it”. It works for him if there are demonstrations outside the prison, to release the poor boy. It works very well for him if he gets hundreds of letter from people all over who are telling him how they are on his side against the crooked system, because that feeds into his systems of control.

Therefore, what you are attempting to do, most likely, is to analyse how good an actor mr. Huntley is, not whether he actually feels remorse. It is exceedingly unlikely that a psychopath would confide in you or anyone else, especially in a public setting (as that is not a proven survival technique), and you probably would not want that anyway, as that would mean that they have shown weakness to you and generally speaking people like that do not live for very long.

So, if I was you, I would actually do the same research question, but interpret it correctly, that is, not focus on deception at all, because to me it is a given that the guy would lie, but rather look into how remorse is expressed in general – which words, statements, acts of contrition are usually employed effectively in various contexts, and then analyse mr. Huntley to see how many of these mechanisms he mimcs and how well. So just assume, he is fabricating like crazy and measure how good he is at that.

Hope that helps.

Kind Regards,

          —  David

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