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Reading Between the 'I's

'The Secret Life of Pronouns' author James Pennebaker on what your tweets reveal about your state of mind

By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Dec. 30, 2011

James Pennebaker
James Pennebaker
Photo by John Anderson

There's a line I remember reading in a magazine profile of David Milch, the creator and head writer of Deadwood, who has apparently raised the act of writing to the level of a séance. "You can't think your way to write action," it went, "you can only act your way to write thinking."

This expression can be comforting to writers on cold winter evenings, I've found, when a lack of preparation, research, outlining, or foresight of any kind has left you with nothing but a blank screen and the hope that the muse will descend.

I was thinking about this line last week when I sat down with James Pennebaker, the chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, to talk about his latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, in which he argues that our use of small function words – like pronouns and articles and prepositions – is a reflection of our psychological states and an indicator of our social status, gender, age, and even our feelings for our fellow human beings. These stealth words, he writes, are "the keys to the soul," though he admits that might be an overstatement.

A depressed person, for example, tends to use "I" words at a high rate because, Pennebaker writes, "sadness generally causes people to focus inwardly. Pronouns tend to track people's focus of attention." Angry people, meanwhile, tend to focus on others, so they use a lot of "you," "she," and "they" words. Depression is also associated with words in the past and future tense because the present is too painful to deal with. Happy people, meanwhile, rely on concrete nouns and specific references while ignoring cognitive words that reflect causal thinking. Because to be happy is to be without self-reflection.

In the book, Pennebaker claims he can identify suicidal poets by their use of pronouns, that their damaged clinical states are apparent in the tiny words they choose, so long as we have the eyes to see them. So I wanted to know if the road goes both ways, if changing one's use of pronouns and function words can alter one's emotional state. That is, by changing "I" words to "we" words and past-tense verbs to the present, can depressive and suicidal poets train themselves to be happy? Can I, in fact, write my way to right thinking?

No, says Pennebaker, you can't. The use of function words is merely a reflection of a psychological state, not a cause. Pennebaker calls it a "fascinating, almost remote sensor – a way of exploring the relationship between word use and psychology, of evaluating what's going on in people's minds," but it's not a way to alter those minds.

"Function words," he says, "are a matter of style, like posture or moving your arms when you speak. And changing your posture is not a long-lasting road to an improved psychological condition."

For their research, Pennebaker and his students use a computer program he developed almost 20 years ago called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC, to analyze the writings of trauma victims. Pennebaker didn't realize at the time that he and his program were standing on the cusp of an age when people's writings, in all manner of styles and on all manner of topics, would be everywhere and available to anyone wanting to read them.

"The Internet was coming on in the Nineties," Pennebaker says. "Then the social media world exploded. Then these large blog sites started appearing – instant messaging, chat rooms, then tweets. These things are ideal for my world. We had the computer program first, but this other stuff fell in our laps."

Two hundred years ago, a social scientist like Pennebaker would have had to content himself with interviewing his subjects, with reading their letters and observing them from a distance, to decipher their emotional states and discern larger social patterns. Like the French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, Pennebaker supposes he would have "sat back and looked at the culture and come up with theories." It would have been an unimaginable slog – slow and tedious. Pennebaker readily admits that, unlike Montaigne, he is in the "right place at the right time" to be a social psychologist.

"In order to really understand things socially, you need to be able to analyze large groups of text," he says. "Not until we had digital texts could we do that. Now we can analyze gigantic text bases that include really personal writing, formal writing, et cetera. All of this was unimaginable 20 years ago."

Twitter, in particular, Pennebaker says, has been a gold mine – though he admits he didn't realize it at first. "Like most people, I dismissed Twitter, thinking, 'What kind of idiot would broadcast what they were eating or thinking all the time?' I didn't think anyone would do it, and I certainly didn't think anyone would read it. But I was wrong," he laughs.

"Now that I understand it, it's a really intriguing medium," Pennebaker continues. "It's a marker of the culture. And from a research perspective, it's one of the most important communication systems I've certainly ever seen."

These days, Pennebaker and his students can put innumerable tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates into LIWC and use them to help understand the use of pronouns and other function words and their relation to psychological states. And contrary to popular prejudice about Twitter and Facebook and other social media – that they encourage only the laziest, most narcissistic, crudest, most trivial, most cursory kind of writing – Pennebaker believes those mediums are merely the latest tools for broadcasting the most typical and predictable kind of human behavior and writing.

"My bias is: People are pretty much the same," he says. "We have these social needs. We're social creatures. We love being with people, talking with people, hearing about people. That's how humans are, and they've always been that way. In the cafeteria or on the bus, what you hear are essentially glorified tweets. You meet someone downtown, and they essentially give you 140 characters: 'Oh, my daughter is getting married. Great to see you. See you later.'

"Communication is always pretty much the same. The difference is, the community has changed. The groups used to be all in the same places; now they're spread out, virtually. But it's essentially the same kind of thing." The village, it seems, has expanded to the entire world.

So if Pennebaker is right, and if Twitter and Facebook and other social networking sites aren't wreaking havoc on our communication skills but rather expanding our communication worlds, and if our social universes are consequently becoming much more focused on written rather than verbal communication, and if our use of pronouns and other function words are truly indicators of our psychological and emotional states, then perhaps it would be best for all of us to become experts at reading the inner meaning of the words we, and others, choose. In other words, if we now have "friends" we only "speak" to through the written word, the best way we can connect with them and know them is to understand the hidden meaning behind their use of seemingly insignificant words, the same way we intuitively understand the hidden meaning behind the sad looks, slumped shoulders, and a monotone voice we can see and hear when we're actually with them.

How fascinating and humanizing would it be to receive texts from friends and blog updates from colleagues and even tweets from celebrities and be able to suss out the emotional state in which those messages were written? What a fantastic way to humanize what many see as a cold and distant, even dehumanizing, form of communication – to recognize the psychological clues embedded in the words we use ... or don't use.

For those interested in such things, Pennebaker and his team have created a website, www.analyzewords.com, where any Twitter feed can be put into the LIWC grinder and its author given a quick personality analysis based on his or her use of stealth words.

The site, like the book, holds surprises. For example, who would have guessed that rapper/producer/self-proclaimed pop music messiah Kanye West is more depressed than arrogant? That Newt Gingrich is nearly as spacey as he is analytic? That Rick Perry is analytic at all? Or that, on the local front, Lance Armstrong is neither depressed in emotional style nor sensory in thinking style? That country musician Kelly Willis is somehow both distant and personable? Or that tennis player Andy Roddick is very, very worried?

It's true. It's all right there in the words they didn't even realize they were using.

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