Are there hidden messages in your emails? Yes, and in everything you write or say, according to James Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker has been a leader in the computer analysis of texts for their psychological content. And in his new book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” he argues that how we use words like “I,” “she,” and “who” reveal secrets of our psychology. He spoke recently with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
COOK: How did you become interested in pronouns?
PENNEBAKER: A complete and total accident. Until recently, I never thought about parts of speech. However, about ten years ago I stumbled on some findings that caught my attention. In the 1980s, my students and I discovered that if people were asked to write about emotional upheavals, their physical health improved. Apparently, putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. In an attempt to better understand the power of writing, we developed a computerized text analysis program to determine how language use might predict later health improvements. In other words, I wanted to find if there was a healthy way to write.
Much to my surprise, I soon discovered that the ways people used pronouns in their essays predicted whose health would improve the most. Specifically, those people who benefited the most from writing changed in their pronoun use from one essay to another. Pronouns were reflecting people’’s abilities to change perspective.
As I pondered these findings, 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.
COOK: What would make you think that the use of pronouns would be meaningful?
PENNEBAKER: Never in a million years would I have thought that pronouns would be a worthwhile research topic. I ran study after study and initially found large and unexpected differences between people in their pronoun use. In hindsight, I think I ignored the findings because they didn’’t make sense. One day, I lined up about 5 experiments that I had conducted and every one revealed the same effects. It was that day that I finally admitted to myself that pronouns must be meaningful.
COOK: What differences have you found between men and women?
PENNEBAKER: Almost everything you think you know is probably wrong. Take this little test. Who uses the following words more, women or men?
> 1st person singular (I, me, my)
> 1st person plural (we, us our)
> articles (a, an, the)
> emotion words (e.g., happy, sad, love, hate)
> cognitive words (e.g., because, reason, think, believe)
> social words (e.g., he, she, friend, cousin)
Most people assume that men use I-words and cognitive words more than women and that women use we-words, emotions, and social words more than men. Bad news. You were right if you guessed that women use social words more. However, women use I-words and cognitive words at far higher rates than men. There are no reliable differences between men and women for use of we-words or emotion words (OK, those were trick questions). And men use articles more than women, when you might guess there’d be no difference.