Dr. James W. Pennebaker is the departmental chair of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin where he received his PhD in 1977. In his research, he has explored the link between expressive writing and wellbeing. By writing about the personal, often traumatic experiences that people encounter, his studies have shown an improvement in many areas of life, including work, school, and physical and mental health. Dr. Pennebaker also explores how the usage of particular words, pronouns especially, can reveal much about one’s personality.
Early Career and Expressive Writing
In the beginning, Dr. Pennebaker was unsure of what he would end up studying in school. "I was the kind of person who majored in something different every semester; I never even took a psychology course until the second semester of my junior year. There, I read about social psychology and thought ‘Wow, this is me! This involves everything I’m interested in and gives me the freedom to play,’” remembers Dr. Pennebaker.
led me to study language. Many years before, I had been studying psychosomatic issues and I discovered an odd thing about traumas: if a person had experienced a major trauma and kept it a secret, it increased the odds that they would get sick. Keeping secrets is associated with increased risk for almost all health problems. This led me to conduct an experiment where participants were asked to reveal their secrets in order to see if it would improve their health, and it did,” says Dr. Pennebaker. "I asked people to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings for three to four days for 15 minutes a day. What we found was that people who write about emotional upheavals show improvements in physical health: they go to the doctor less, there is an enhancement in immune function. After people write, they sleep better, they do not obsess as much, they’re more socially engaged, they have better working memory. Writing brings about all of these changes that ultimately enhance people’s health. Writing is socially safe, it forces you to slow down and think about the issues that have been weighing on you.”
Current Research and the Power of Pronouns
Dr. Pennebaker’s current research deals with the implications of pronoun usage. He believes that much can be discovered about a person by what pronouns they use. "I became interested in what people were writing because they had provided me with so many amazing, depressing, and even uplifting stories. At first, I was just having student researchers read these stories, but I soon developed a computer program to analyze the multiple dimensions of language, and everything took off from there. Now I could start looking at books, poetry, political speeches, essays, and student projects: It opened this new world that I could begin to analyze.”
"The small words (pronouns, articles, prepositions) are processed in the brain differently than are content words, and they are interesting because they are ultimately very social: Pronouns by definition are making references to people (the self, the group, others). The more a person uses second or third person, or even first person plural pronouns (you, he/she, we), they are more likely to be interested in people. Someone who is more interested in objects and things is less likely to use pronouns and instead they will use articles (a, an, the). By simply analyzing language, we can tell if a person is socially oriented or mechanically inclined. You really can tell a lot about what a person is interested in by what they are paying attention to.”
The Pronoun 'I' and the Differences Between Demographic Groups and Pronoun Usage
"The pronoun that is most interesting from a psychologist’s perspective is the word ‘I,’ because it is the most commonly used word in natural language. It can also tell us a lot about how a person is paying attention to themselves. Often, the more a person uses the word ‘I,’ the more self-focused they are, which could mean that they are more anxious, more insecure, or more depressed than the average.”
According to Dr. Pennebaker, a particularly striking difference of pronoun usage occurs between men and women. "Women use the word ‘I’ at much higher rates than men, partly because they tend to be more self-focused and more aware of their thoughts and feelings. Racial differences are not as striking as social class differences. The lower the socioeconomic status, the more individuals use ‘I;’ the higher the status, the more distant their writing: they pay less attention to themselves and are more psychologically distant from their topic. Concerning age, younger people tend to use ‘I’ more. About fifteen to eighteen percent of all the words spoken by younger people include the word ‘I.” On the other hand, an 80 year-old will only use ‘I’ in three percent of their speech.”
Behavioral Predictions and Legal Implications
Dr. Pennebaker says that many behaviors can be predicted by pronoun usage. Lying, aggression, even suicidal tendencies can be predicted by how a person uses pronouns. "People who are lying tend to use the word ‘I’ less than when they are telling the truth; people tend to avoid ‘I’ when lying. When someone is about to behave aggressively, they tend to use the word ‘I’ less, partly because they are paying attention to who they are aggressing against rather than on themselves. In examining poetry, we have found that suicidal poets use the word ‘I’ at much higher rates than poets who are not suicidal,” explains Dr. Pennebaker.
As for the legal implications to Dr. Pennebaker’s research, he has performed analyses on the documents of people whose causes of death were questionable. "If they have left a written record, we can get a sense of whether they were murdered or committed suicide. On one occasion, we found that as one person got closer to death, he started using the word ‘I’ at increasingly high rates, which supported the speculation that he committed suicide,” says Dr. Pennebaker. "Lawyers, national security workers, and many others are very interested in the behavior and personality of groups and people and with the program I created, you can get a picture of a person’s mind. It isn’t perfect, but it is promising.”
Dr. Pennebaker is going in many directions with his research on language and pronouns. His new book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, What Our Words Say About Us, explores how words reveal much about one’s personality, feelings, and social intelligence. "One study that I am very excited about deals with the world of education and group dynamics. I want to find out if we can use the power of language to get groups to work better,” explains Dr. Pennebaker. "The study focuses on a virtual group, and we want to see if we can get the groups to improve how they work, talk, and listen to one another.”
The Field of Language Research and Tips for Students
Language research is a new and exciting field that deals with how people interact with language. "I work with linguists in my research, and I have discovered that while they mostly care about language, I care about people and how they use language. For me, language is a tool to get inside people’s heads and to get a sense of how they think and feel.”
For students interested in pursuing language studies in psychology, Dr. Pennebaker recommends that they jump into this growing field. "On my website (secretlifeofpronouns. com), I have a number of exercises that students can use to analyze their own language; one exercise even analyzes tweets and text messages. If students are interested more broadly in writing and research, I encourage them to "Google” me, or go to my website to find out more about this very interesting field.”
Dr. Pennebaker’s research on how language and pronouns can be used to analyze a person’s thoughts and feelings is a very new area of study, but students should know that it is full of research possibilities. As Dr. Pennebaker experienced, it can take quite a while to discover what you may be interested in, but there are many tools and opportunities out there to help you discover what is right for you.