Apr 30 / Simcha

It’s Not What You Say; It’s How You Say It (or: Counting Words)

Be careful every time you open you mouth; the way you speak (and not just the content of what you say) discloses more about your true feelings and unconscious feelings than you are aware, or even may intend.  This notion drew my attention this morning, as I listened to an interview with (Univ. of Texas) linguistic psychologist James Pennebaker, speaking about his new book The Secret Life of Pronouns.

The Secret Life of Pronouns is based on a large-scale research project that used computerized text analyses of hundreds of thousands of letters, poems, books, blogs, Tweets, conversations, and other texts. The system counts, scrutinizes and reveals patterns in the use of function words — pronouns (I, you, they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, for, of), and auxiliary verbs (is, am, have). Pennbaker suggests that paying closer attention to these seemingly innocuous function words can help us understand identity, detect emotions, realize intention, and provide important clues about social and cultural connection.

Helped by a graduate student sleuth named Sherlock Campbell, Pennebaker discovered that a change in the use of function words, particularly pronouns, was the best indicator of shifting mental health or altered interpersonal connection.

In an FBI-initiated study, for example, Pennebaker tallied the number of pronouns, articles and adjectives in Al Qaeda communications — videotapes, interviews, letters.  He found that Osama bin Laden’s use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my, mine) remained fairly constant over several years. By contrast, his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, used such words more and more often. “This dramatic increase suggests greater insecurity, feelings of threat, and perhaps a shift in his relationship with bin Laden,” Dr. Pennebaker wrote in his report  (The Content Analysis Reader, Sage Publications, July 2008).

Health improvements were seen among people whose use of causal words — because, cause, effect — increased; these subjects “were changing the way they were thinking about things.”  Among people recovering from trauma, Pennebaker  discovered a shift in pronoun use, a kind of “perspective switching” — reflecting on problems from different points of view.

Pennebaker discovered strong correlations according to such factors as gender, age and class:  Women, younger people and people from lower social classes more frequently use pronouns and auxiliary verbs — words that supposedly signal both lower status and greater social orientation. Men tend to use more articles (a, the) and women tend to use more pronouns (he, she, they), a difference that, Pennebaker hypothesizes, may suggest that men are more prone to concrete thinking and women are more likely to see things from other perspectives.

He also noted that people seeking to connect with others tend to more readily accommodate to one another’s manner of speaking through “language style matching,” getting their function words in sync (as, for example, in dropping the “I” in favor of the more inclusive “we”).

While Pennebaker is currently turning his word-counting machine toward the presidential campaign, his technique is also drawing attention in the study of social dynamics. Joseph Psotka, a research psychologist at the Army Research Institute that has given him a grant to study how leaders use language, said that over time, this kind of study “could be very helpful for training and leadership development, but precisely how we don’t know yet.”