Science Book a Day Interviews James W Pennebaker


Special thanks to James W Pennebaker for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us

Jamie Pennebaker is an internationally recognized social psychologist who’s endlessly curious about human nature. His earlier work found that keeping secrets can make people sick. This work led to his discovery that people could improve their physical and mental health by writing about their deepest secrets, which is now widely known as expressive writing. Most recently, he’s become intrigued by how people reveal themselves in their everyday spoken and written language. – From James’ Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus behind The Secret Life of Pronouns?

I had done a great deal of research on the power of expressive writing. Basically, my students and I found that if people wrote about emotional upheavals for as little as 15 minutes a day for 3 or 4 days, their physical and mental health improved. I tried for a couple of years to figure out what best explained this finding. And then it occurred to me to analyze people’s essays for clues. Reading the essays was too complicated which is why I developed a computer program to analyze words. Once the computer program (called LIWC — Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) was written, I realized that it was possible to analyze essays and books and poems, speeches, annual reports, basically anything.

As I analyzed more and more text samples, the more it became clear that everyday language was related to psychological state. Most surprising were the most common words which, I learned, are called function words.

#2 – What are ‘function’ words and why are they important?

I thought you would never ask. There are two types of words — content and function words. Content words are the important words we use that convey the content of speech — nouns, regular verbs, adjectives. The other words, the ones we generally ignore, are the smallest filler words — pronouns (e.g., I, they, it), articles (a, the), prepositions (to, for, above), auxiliary verbs (am, have). These function words account for at least 55% of the words we use and are highly diagnostic of people’s psychology states. Pronouns, for example, tell us where people are paying attention. Use if I-words (I, me, my) reveal self-reflection or self-attention. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, people who use “I” a lot are NOT arrogant and overconfident. Instead, they tend to be anxious, depression-prone, self-reflective, younger, lower in status, and more honest than people who don’t use many I-words. Use of social pronouns (he, you, they) is a powerful marker of people’s interest in others and reveal how socially integrated people are. Other function words tell us how people think, how they are connecting with others, and their emotional states.

#3 – Your studies appear to be wide ranging, from Presidential speeches to tweets. What was the most interesting area of study you encountered?

Every study I seem to do reveals things I would never have predicted would occur. Right now, for example, we are helping English scholars determine if a lost play was by Shakespeare — and we think it is. We are working with various groups to see if the analysis of function words can reveal honesty or deception in job applicants. We are now using function words in different countries to begin to get a sense of country’s basic values at the time.

#4 – Can people change their function words? If so, how?

It is really really hard to change your function words. Our minds are not programmed to pay attention to them. From everything we have learned, function words reflect psychological state. You can’t change your function words to influence your psychological state. For example, we know that leaders tend to use I-words at low levels. If you go into a small group with the instructions to not use I-words, even if you lowered your I-words, you are not more likely to become a leader. But, if you naturally go into a group and become the leader, your I-words will naturally drop.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I’m always working on something. Right now, my colleague Sam Gosling and I are developing a very large online introductory psychology class that is broadcast live to thousands of people. During each class, we break the students into groups of 5 or 6 and have them discuss various topics. We have now developed a system where each group’s online discussion is constantly monitored by our text analysis system. It is now possible to evaluate how each group is working together and then give each group feedback about how it is doing. In other words, we are harnessing the power of computerized text analysis on a large scale and helping people work together by just looking at their function words.

Will miracles never cease?

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