Suicidal poets use “I” more. Presidential candidates who say “we” come across as arrogant and aloof toward their audience. In the week after September 11, 2001, bloggers’ use of “I” spiked to exponential highs. Curious? So was James Pennebaker.
Dr. Pennebaker, psychology department chair at the University of Texas at Austin, has made his mark on social psychology in the last 30 years. His latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, is a treasure map to his most recent research.
Though first interested in content words (which have inherent meaning, such as “old” or “woman”), Pennebaker and his team soon realized that function words (which connect and organize content words) were far more prevalent, accounting for 55 percent of our words. Pronouns — I, she, it — are the most obvious function words. Other word categories important for their function, rather than meaning, include articles, negations, and quantifiers.
Without statistics and a computer, picking up the subtle nuances of language is difficult. Luckily, the team has both. Each chapter discusses different studies conducted to analyze function words in different contexts, which revealed the relationships between pronouns and poets, presidents, and the public.
As Pennebaker puts it:
Our emotions influence our thinking, which is reflected in the ways we use function words. By extension, function words can give us a sense of how other people are thinking and feeling. They also serve as public announcements alerting others to our own emotional states, our thinking patterns, and where we are paying attention (p. 130).
The chapter on personality and pronouns was especially interesting. The researchers used the idea of a projective test, in which people are thought to project aspects of their unconscious onto a picture they are describing. (Think of the infamous Rorschach inkblots.) Though helpful for understanding people in therapy, most psychologists dismiss these tests beyond that, because they are impossible to score objectively.
In Pennebaker’s experiment, subjects were asked to describe a photograph of a water bottle. The twist came when Pennebaker ran these descriptions through his word analysis program. Distinct personality traits emerged that correlated to the way people described the bottle. For example, among college students who described the bottle, those who focused on light and shadow made higher grades, attended more art shows, played computer games, and enjoyed vacuuming.
Pennebaker’s book is accessible to casual readers and stimulating for highly educated readers. Psychologists will be a bit bogged down by descriptions of basic concepts such as the Rorschach test and Freudian slips, but will enjoy the flow of the chapters, which together form a much more comprehensive picture than a single study. Pennebaker ties together strings of years of research and seemingly unrelated findings under headings such as The Words of Age, Sex, and Power and Lying Words.
Regardless of background in psychology, the book is fun to read for the new awareness of words it creates. Pennebaker equips the audience with practical ways to understand the language swirling around them. He instructs readers to put the book down and visit his website, to try a mini-version of an experiment he’s done. He discusses how he felt when he analyzed his own emails and discovered inherent status hierarchies embedded in his writing, and points readers to the same word analysis program. Never too lofty or caught up in abstractions, Pennebaker constantly gives concrete applications. The end of the book includes “A Handy Guide for Spotting and Interpreting Function Words in the Wild.”
I felt like a language ninja after I finished reading: aware of pronouns, word usage and speech patterns that no one else could detect. Everyone from statisticians to beauticians will enjoy becoming “word sleuths.” This is real research that’s as fun as pop psychology.
If you’re interested in Shakespeare, Carroll, the tweets of Paris Hilton, the Federalist Papers, clues to deception, campaign speeches, psycholinguistics, or anything in between, this book is for you. Find it at an online bookseller for $20, and begin your foray into the secret life of pronouns.