Who knew that pronouns can predict romantic compatibility, reveal power dynamics, lying, and who will recover from trauma? James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin has been tracking the truth of pronouns for 20 years.
He includes them in the group he calls “function words,” necessary parts of speech that are invisible to us in conversation: the, this, though, I, and, an, there, that, he, she, where, when. Pennebaker contrasts these with “content words,” which carry meaning and evoke images in our minds, words like, school, family, life, friends.
In a recent NPR interview, Pennebaker related that he and his students studied couples’ compatibility in the context of speed dating, http://tinyurl.com/7skcgf4. Computers proved an essential tool for analyzing results, since try as we might, we really don’t hear function words. By entering both the transcript and the speed dating outcomes, Pennebaker’s team discovered a strong correlation between matching function word usage and the decision to get together after the first meeting. The computer predicted who would hit it off more accurately than the couples themselves.
This is not because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says; people can be very different. It’s that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.
“When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way,” he says. “And it’s one of these things that humans do automatically. They aren’t aware of it, but if you look closely at their language, count up their use of ‘I, and, the,’… you can see it. It’s right there.”
The other discovery Pennebaker discussed in the interview centers on power dynamics. When two people with different status or power interact, the subordinate uses “I” much more frequently. Pennebaker suggests self consciousness is the cause, concern about how we’ll be perceived.
Finally, Pennebaker weighed in on the My Fair Lady question: if we change our language, do we change? After 20 years of research, Pennebaker says no. Change who you are and your language will change, but not vice-versa.
What’s interesting is that several people I respect claim that changing your handwriting changes personality. Organize your penmanship, for instance, and other aspects of your life will follow. This suggests the added visceral dimension makes the difference. Makes you wonder – The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Probably doesn’t work as well on a keyboard…
You can read about Pennebaker’s research in The Secret Life of Pronouns, 2011: