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Friday, 26 August 2011

PBS’s website is displaying an interview from Scientific American with James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas:
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.
Of course, correlation doesn’t indicate causation—Pennebaker’s analysis suggests that changing how one uses pronouns wouldn’t lead to better health because what matters is an underlying ability. But who knows?

That first unexpected finding about pronouns and health outcomes led Pennebaker and his research team to investigate further using the same language-analysis tools. Further conclusions:

  • “men use articles more than women, when you might guess there'd be no difference. . . . Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things. To talk about human relationships requires social and cognitive words. To talk about concrete objects, you need concrete nouns which typically demand the use of articles.”

  • “We've compared the pronoun use of suicidal versus non-suicidal poets. Basically, poets who eventually commit suicide use I-words more than non-suicidal poets.”

  • “One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status. The effects were quite robust and, naturally, I wanted to test this on myself. . . . When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached — hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free.”

  • “Several labs, including ours, have now conducted studies to evaluate the prospect of building a linguistic lie detector. The preliminary findings are promising. In controlled studies, we can catch lying about 67 percent of the time where 50 percent is chance. Humans, reading the same transcripts, only catch lying 53 percent of the time. This is actually quite impressive unless you are a person in the judicial system.”

  • “we can predict people's college performance reasonably well by simply analyzing their college admissions essays. Across four years, we analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students’ major.”

This being an interview, it doesn’t come with statistics showing how close the correlations are, or sample size and limits. Still, it gives one pause to think.


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