The Secret Life of Pronouns by James Pennebaker:What do "I" and "we" reveal about us?

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 24 2011 10:36 AM

Are There Hidden Messages in Pronouns?

James Pennebaker says computers reveal secret patterns.

James Pennebaker. Click image to expand.
James Pennebaker

Some 110 years after the publication of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which Sigmund Freud analyzed seemingly trivial slips of the tongue, it's become common knowledge that we disclose more about ourselves in conversation—about our true feelings, or our unconscious feelings—than we strictly intend. Freud focused on errors, but correct sentences can betray us, too. We all have our signature tics. We may describe boring people as "nice" or those we dislike as "weird." We may use archaisms if we're trying to seem smart, or slang if we'd prefer to seem cool. Every time we open our mouths we send out coded, supplementary messages about our frame of mind.

Although much of this information is easy to decode ("nice" for "boring" won't fool anyone), linguistic psychologist James Pennebaker suggests in The Secret Life of Pronounsthat lots of data remain hidden from even the most astute human observers. "Nice" and "weird" are both content words; he's concerned with function words such as pronouns (I, you, they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, for, of), and auxiliary verbs (is, am, have). We hardly notice these bolts of speech because we encounter them so frequently. With the help of computer programs to count and scrutinize them, however, patterns emerge.

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Sounds enticing; sounds, in fact, rather like a publisher's fantasy pitch, combining the strangely long-lasting craze for language books laced with pop psychology, and the added hook, the modern touch, of a computer that observes and catalogs beyond measly human capacity: a Watson for the psychiatric establishment. To Pennebaker's credit, his claims are fairly modest, especially when compared with those of Deborah Tannen and other practitioners of the word-sleuth genre. (He doesn't promise that if we change our pronoun usage we'll see tangible improvements in our social lives.) The problem is that much of what he turns up is even more modest than he seems to notice. Counting function words as they're used in ordinary life often yields the opposite of what Freud detected in confessions from the couch: confirmation of the obvious.

The most ingenious application Pennebaker proposes for function-word analysis is lie-detection, something of a dark art. Several years ago, Pennebaker and a couple of colleagues recruited 200 students and asked them to write two essays about abortion, one espousing a true belief, the other a falsehood. They asked another group to state their true and false takes in front of a video camera. When judges were called in to figure out which was which, they were accurate 52 percent of the time. (50 percent is chance.) A computer, programmed to look for specific "markers of honesty" gleaned from previous studies, performed much better, with a 67 percent accuracy rate. Truth-tellers, Pennebaker explains, tend to use more words, bigger words, more complex sentences, more exclusive words (except, but, without, as in the sentence "I think this but not that"), and more I-words (I, me, my, etc.). Liars, apparently, trade in simple, straightforward statements lacking in specificity because—Pennebaker posits—it's actually pretty difficult to make stuff up. They avoid self-reference because they don't feel ownership of their expressed views.

The Secret Life of Pronouns.

When Pennebaker dips into the more general field of "emotion detection" (he calls it that), his word-counting feels a bit Rube Goldberg-ish. After Sept. 11, 2001, Pennebaker and a colleague saved the LiveJournal.com postings of over a thousand amateur bloggers. They found that "bloggers immediately dropped in their use of I-words" following the attacks, and that their use of we-words almost doubled. Pennebaker takes these fluctuations to mean that "shared traumas bring people together," "shared traumas deflect attention away from the self," and that "shared traumas, in many ways, are positive experiences" (because people feel more socially connected). The brute fact that Sept. 11 influenced pronoun usage may interest readers, but Pennebaker's analysis merely reiterates long-held psychological dogma. (Try Googling "shared traumas bring people together.") I can't help but wonder if Pennebaker—albeit unconsciously—interpreted his results to match the conventional wisdom.

Perhaps that's harsh: Certainly there's nothing wrong with devising yet another way to elucidate common human responses, and Pennebaker's experiments are always imaginative. Yet it's often the case that his conclusions, especially the ones he draws from I-word usage, are heavily dependent on context and prior knowledge.

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