What Can the Analysis of Words Tell Us About People?

NPR did a radio interview with James W. Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas. His new book is “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” (Bloomsbury Press, 2011).

Here are some notes from his website of what we can learn about people from the use of their words. Anybody reading this new book?

Source: http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/faculty/pennebaker/Home2000/Words.html

For starters, style-related words can signal basic social and demographic categories, such as:

  • Sex. In general, women tend to use more pronouns and references to other people; men are more likely to use articles, prepositions, and big words.
  • Age. As people get older, they tend to refer to themselves less, use more positive emotion and fewer negative emotion words. Older people also use more future tense and fewer past tense verbs.
  • Social class. The higher the social class, the less likely one uses 1st person singular pronouns and the less one uses emotion words.

Style-related words can also reveal basic social and personality processes, including:

  • Lying vs telling the truth. When people tell the truth, they are more like to use 1st person singular pronouns. They also use more exclusive words like except, but, without, excluding. Words such as this indicate that a person is making a distinction between what they did do and what they didn’t do. Liars have a problem with such complex ideas.
  • Dominance in a conversation. Analyze the relative use of the word “I” between two speakers in an interaction. Usually, the higher status speaker will use fewer “I” words.
  • Social bonding after a trauma. In the days and weeks after a cultural upheaval, people become more self-less (less use of “I”) and more oriented towards others (increased use of “we”).
  • Depression and suicide-proneness. Public figures speaking in press conferences and published poets in their poetry use more 1st person singular when they are depressed or prone to suicide.
  • Testosterone levels. In two case studies, it was found that when people’s testosterone levels increased rapidly, they dropped in their use of references to other people.
  • Basic self-reported personality dimensions. Multiple studies are now showing that style-related words do much better than chance at distinguishing people who are high or low in the Big Five dimensions of personality: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
  • Consumer patterns. By knowing people’s linguistic styles, we are able to predict (at reasonable rates), their music and radio station preference, liking for various consumer goods, car preferences, etc.
  • And much, much more.

“In this entertaining and sharply illuminating book, James Pennebaker shows that the words you use in everyday talk reveal surprising insights into personality, social relationships, status, leadership, sex, and human nature. I suspect that Pennebaker could decode the pronouns and the functions words I write now to describe him in such a way as to reveal deep secrets about me! But I will write them anyway, and here they are: He is one of the smartest, funniest, and most creative psychologists you will ever meet.” –Dan McAdams, N.W. University

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