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Pronoun Use and Suicidal Poets
September 12, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 13 comments

There is more to “I” than meets the eye. You are leaving a trail of pronoun crumbs that reveal your deepest thoughts and attitudes with everything you write. And James Pennebaker, UT psychologist, can read those hidden psychological meanings in the way you use words.

Pennebaker got started with his word analysis when he and his students discovered that people who were asked to write about emotional upheavals showed improved physical health. Putting experience to the pen changed how people viewed events. After analyzing text, Pennebaker discovered that the way people used pronouns predicted health outcomes. Pronoun use showed how easily writers were able to change perspective.

“I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts—blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.”

Men used articles (a, an, the) more often than women, and women used first-person singular pronouns and cognitive words more often than men. Surprisingly (for all the men out there anyways), men and women used emotion words at similar rates, but women did use social words (he, she, friend, cousin) more frequently than men. The study results were consistent across channel and culture. This is because “men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently. Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things.”

Status drives pronoun use too. In hierarchical communications, such as those between professor and student, or employee and boss, those with higher status use the pronouns I, me and my much less than those with lower status.

And now the scary part. These same textual analysis techniques can also be used to predict behaviors. Pennebaker was able to pick out the most suicidal poets in literary history by the frequency of “I” word use. By looking at college admission essays, Pennebaker was able to predict grade point averages. Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were strong and consistent, irrespective of the students’ majors.  The team is getting good at spotting liars too. “In controlled studies, we can catch lying about 67% of the time where 50% is chance. Humans, reading the same transcripts, only catch lying 53% of the time. This is actually quite impressive unless you are a person in the judicial system.”

Now, if you are as paranoid as I am, a textual analysis will quickly reveal my level of paranoia. Man, how long before Google gets hold of this and starts selling the data to the NSA? It’s like mindreading. Which means they already know. Damn. I mean…Damnation! More nouns. More nouns!

Thanks again to Gareth Cook of Scientific American for once more doing all the legwork on a Translation Guy post.

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