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This article is from the In-Depth Report Osama bin Laden: The Science of His End
See Inside July/August 2009

What Your Choice of Words Says about Your Personality

A language analysis program reveals personality, mental health and intent by counting and categorizing words



pavlen / © ISTOCKPHOTO

NO ONE DOUBTS that the words we write or speak are an expression of our inner thoughts and personalities. But beyond the meaningful content of language, a wealth of unique insights into an author’s mind are hidden in the style of a text—in such elements as how often certain words and word categories are used, regardless of context.

It is how an author expresses his or her thoughts that reveals character, asserts social psychologist James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin. When people try to present themselves a certain way, they tend to select what they think are appropriate nouns and verbs, but they are unlikely to control their use of articles and pronouns. These small words create the style of a text, which is less subject to conscious manipulation.

Pennebaker’s statistical analyses have shown that these small words may hint at the healing progress of patients and give us insight into the personalities and changing ideals of public figures, from political candidates to terrorists. “Virtually no one in psychology has realized that low-level words can give clues to large-scale behaviors,” says Pennebaker, who, with colleagues, developed a computer program that analyzes text, called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC, pronounced “Luke”). The software has been used to examine other speech characteristics as well, tallying up nouns and verbs in hundreds of categories to expose buried patterns.

Character Count
Most recently, Pennebaker and his colleagues used LIWC to analyze the candidates’ speeches and interviews during last fall’s presidential election. The software counts how many times a speaker or author uses words in specific categories, such as emotion or perception, and words that indicate complex cognitive processes. It also tallies up so-called function words such as pronouns, articles, numerals and conjunctions. Within each of these major categories are subsets: Are there more mentions of sad or happy emotions? Does the speaker prefer “I” and “me” to “us” and “we”? LIWC answers these quantitative questions; psychologists must then figure out what the numbers mean. Before LIWC was developed in the mid-1990s, years of psychological research in which people counted words by hand established robust connections between word usage and psychological states or character traits

The political candidates, for example, showed clear differences in their speaking styles. John McCain tended to speak directly and personally to his constituency, using a vocabulary that was both emotionally loaded and impulsive. Barack Obama, in contrast, made frequent use of causal relationships, which indicated more complex thought processes. He also tended to be more vague than his Republican rival. Pennebaker’s team has posted a far more in-depth breakdown, including analyses of the vice presidential candidates, at www.wordwatchers.wordpress.com.

Skeptics of LIWC’s usefulness point out that many of these characteristics of McCain’s and Obama’s speeches could be gleaned without the use of a computer program. When the subjects of analysis are not accessible, however, LIWC may provide a unique insight. Such was the case with Pennebaker’s study of al Qaeda communications. In 2007 he and several co-workers, under contract with the FBI, analyzed 58 texts by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second in command.

The comparison showed how much pronouns are able to disclose. For example, between 2004 and 2006 the frequency with which al-Zawahiri used the word “I” tripled, whereas it remained constant in bin Laden’s writings. “Normally, higher rates of ‘I’ words correspond with feelings of insecurity, threat and defensiveness. Closer inspection of his ‘I’ use in context tends to confirm this,” Pennebaker says.

Other studies have shown that words that are used to express balance or nuance (“except,” “but,” and so on) are associated with higher cognitive complexity, better grades and even the truthfulness with which facts are reported. For bin Laden, analysis showed that the thought processes in his texts had reached a higher level over the years, whereas those of his lieutenant had stagnated.

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