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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

Healing Words
This power of statistical analysis to quantify a person’s changing language use over time is a key advantage to programs such as LIWC. In 2003 Pennebaker and statistician R. Sherlock Campbell, now at Yale University, used a statistical tool called latent semantic analysis (LSA) to study the diary entries of trauma patients from three earlier studies, looking for text characteristics that had changed in patients who were convalescing and met rarely with their physician. Again, the researchers showed that content was unimportant. The factor that was most clearly associated with recovery was the use of pronouns. Patients whose writings changed perspective from day to day were less likely to seek medical treatment during the follow-up period.

It may be that patients who describe their situation both from their own viewpoint and from the perspective of others recover more quickly from traumatic experiences—a variation on the already well-established idea that writing about negative experiences is therapeutic. Or perhaps the LSA simply detected the patients’ recovery as reflected by their writing but not brought about by it—in that case, programs such as LIWC could aid doctors in diagnosing illness and gauging treatment progression. Researchers are currently investigating many other patient groups, including those with cancer, mental illness and suicidal tendencies, using LIWC to uncover clues about their emotional well-being and their mental state.

Although the statistical study of language is relatively young, it is clear that analyzing patterns of word use and writing style can lead to insights that would otherwise remain hidden. Because these tools offer predictions based on probability, however, such insights will never be definitive. “In the final analysis, our situation is much like that of economists,” Pennebaker says. “It’s too early to come up with a standardized analysis. But at the end of the day, we all are making educated guesses, the same way economists can understand, explain and predict economic ups and downs.”

He Said, She Said
The way we write and speak can reveal volumes about our identity and character. Here is a sampling of the many variables that can be detected in our use of style-related words such as pronouns and articles:

  • Gender: 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 typically refer to themselves less, use more positive-emotion words and fewer negative-emotion words, and use more future-tense verbs and fewer past-tense verbs.
  • Honesty: When telling the truth, people are more likely to use first-person singular pronouns such as “I.” They also use exclusive words such as “except” and “but.” These words may indicate that a person is making a distinction between what they did do and what they did not do—liars often do not deal well with such complex constructions.
  • Depression and suicide risk: Public figures and published poets use more first-person singular pronouns when they are depressed or suicidal, possibly indicating excessive self-absorption and social isolation.
  • Reaction to trauma: In the days and weeks after a cultural upheaval, people use “I” less and “we” more, suggesting a social bonding effect.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "You Are What You Say."

This article was originally published with the title "Perspectives: You Are What You Say."

(Further Reading)
  • The Secret Life of Pronouns: Flexibility in Writing Style and Physical Health. R. Sherlock Campbell and James W. Pennebaker in Psychological Science, Vol. 14, No. 1, pages 60–65; January 2003.
  • Computerized Text Analysis of Al-Qaeda Transcripts. James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung in The Content Analysis Reader. Edited by Klaus Krippendorff and Mary Angela Bock. Sage Publications, 2007.
  • A detailed description of LIWC’s development and uses, as well as the software itself (available for sale), can be found at www.liwc.net/liwcdescription.php
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