November 13, 2010

Language style matching in writing: synchrony in essays, correspondence, and poetry

Ireland ME, Pennebaker JW.

Each relationship has its own personality. Almost immediately after a social interaction begins, verbal and nonverbal behaviors become synchronized. Even in asocial contexts, individuals tend to produce utterances that match the grammatical structure of sentences they have recently heard or read. Three projects explore language style matching (LSM) in everyday writing tasks and professional writing. LSM is the relative use of 9 function word categories (e.g., articles, personal pronouns) between any 2 texts. In the first project, 2 samples totaling 1,744 college students answered 4 essay questions written in very different styles. Students automatically matched the language style of the target questions. Overall, the LSM metric was internally consistent and reliable across writing tasks. Women, participants of higher socioeconomic status, and students who earned higher test grades matched with targets more than others did. In the second project, 74 participants completed cliffhanger excerpts from popular fiction. Judges' ratings of excerpt-response similarity were related to content matching but not function word matching, as indexed by LSM. Further, participants were not able to intentionally increase style or content matching. In the final project, an archival study tracked the professional writing and personal correspondence of 3 pairs of famous writers across their relationships. Language matching in poetry and letters reflected fluctuations in the relationships of 3 couples: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Implications for using LSM as an implicit marker of social engagement and influence are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2010 APA, all rights reserved). Full article >>

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