September 10, 2011

The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (review)

Social psychologist James Pennebaker has written a new book entitled The Secret Life of Pronouns. The book is about a new branch of research called computational linguistics which basically is about counting the  frequency of words we use and discovering how differences in these frequencies correspond to all kinds of social and psychological phenomena. This research has revealed some very surprising  facts. As it turns out the precise words we use to communicate our messages reveal more about us than we you can imagine. Often, some of the most revealing words that we use are the shortest and most forgettable.

The most revealing types of words are function words. Often, some of the most revealing words that we use are the shortest, least noticeable and most forgettable: Pronouns (such as I, you, we, and they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (e.g., to, for, over), and other stealth words reveal much about how we are, how we feel, how mentally healthy we are, and what are intentions are. For example, healthy writing involves positive emotion words, a moderate use of negative emotion words, increasing use of cognitive words (such as because, cause, effects, reason), and changes in pronoun use. You might wonder: do words reflect a psychological state or do they cause it? The current evidence clearly suggests that word use reflects psychological state rather than causes it. You can compare your words with a speedometer of a car. The speedometer reflects how fast you're going. Changing the speedometer won't affect the speed of the car.

But writing can actually be used to improve health and mental health. When people have suffered negative experiences writing about them may help. Three aspects of emotional writing are associated with improvements in people’s physical and mental health: 1) accentuating the positive parts of an upheaval, 2) acknowledging the negative parts, and 3) constructing a story over the days of writing. Also, the more people changed in their use of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) compared with other pronouns (e.g., we, you, she, they), the better their health became.

Pennebaker discusses a variety of contexts in which computational linguistics reveals many surprising things. He shows that men and women's language differ in certain aspects. (for example: men consistently use articles at higher rates than women, women say I more often). He also shows that status differences are reflected in people's choice of words, that lying usually rather clearly shows in people's words, and that Paul McCartney proved to be a more creative and stylistically variable writer than John Lennon. McCartney's lyrics proved to be far more flexible and varied both in terms of his writing style and in the content of the lyrics than John Lennon's.

Pennebaker's work is surprising and path breaking. In the past, the idea that psychologists could look right through you was largely based on myths. But now, these new techniques of language analysis, can actually reveal things about people they might want to hide or even might not know themselves.

Question: What do you think: will the benefits of these techniques be greater than its potential disadvantages?

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