You are what you say

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Juli Breines and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on May 4, 2012.

Outside of high school English classes, most people don’t give much thought to pronouns, prepositions, articles, auxiliary verbs, and other “function words” (e.g., I, to, of, am, the). They seem to be no more than fillers for the more important content words–the who, what, where, and why of language. But it turns out that these invisible words have psychological significance. In his new book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, psychologist James Pennebaker describes findings from his research on the relationship between natural language use, personality, and social life. Much of this research is conducted using a computerized linguistic analysis program that calculates the percentage of words in a given text that fall into a range of grammatical, emotional, and topical categories.

On the book’s website, Pennebaker features six simple linguistic exercises that have the potential to reveal aspects of your personality and your compatibility with others. I tried out a few of them…

1. The Water Bottle Test (you can take it here). The way people describe a simple object–in this case, a water bottle–can reveal something about how they see the world and how they think. Without giving too much away, I will say that my results were mostly in the average ranges, meaning that they couldn’t tell me much about how I’m different from other people. But one piece of feedback in particular was right on: “I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think engineering is a good profession for you.” I can’t argue with that.

The linguistic tool used for analyzing these descriptions is called “meaning extraction.” The researchers first had hundreds of people describe the water bottle, then determined the most commonly used words, and finally factor analyzed the words to find clusters of words that tended to be found together. These clusters provide the basis for each of the personality dimensions that are assessed. Though the connection to personality (and career aptitude) is based partially on research evidence, it does involve some extrapolation, hence the warning to take the results with a grain of salt.

2. The “I” Exam (you can take it here). Spoiler Alert: Don’t read this section yet if you want to take the quiz yourself first. In this quiz I was asked to guess who uses the word “I” more often – men or women, Bush or Obama, truth tellers or liars, etc. Many of the answers will surprise you (I’m familiar with this research and I still got a few of these wrong). For example, you might expect powerful people in leadership roles to say “I” more often than others, since “I” seems to be a word that signifies agency and control. It turns out, however, that the use of “I” is associated with a lower power role. If this seems strange, look back to emails you’ve exchanged with a higher power person, such as a professor or supervisor, compared to someone you instructed or supervised. Who used more first person pronouns (this includes me, my, and mine)? Pennbaker gives the following example:

Dear Dr. Pennebaker:
I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I’ve learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?

Dear Pam – 
This would be great. This week isn’t good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30? It will be good to see you.
Jamie Pennebaker

In addition to signifying low power, first-person pronouns are associated with self-consciousness (they suggest that attention is focused on the self), insecurity, and depression. An analysis of poetry, for example, showed that well-known poets who went on to commit suicide tended to use more first-person pronouns in their poems.

To illustrate, here is the first stanza of Mad Girl’s Lovesong, a poem by Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide at age 31:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

And here is the first stanza of The Ache of Marriage, a poem by Denise Levetov, who did not commit suicide:

The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth.

Most people do not do very well on the “I” quiz because in everyday life we pay little attention to people’s use of first-person pronouns. But they are clearly far from meaningless, and it’s possible that they still influence our social judgments without our explicit awareness.

3: The N’SYNC Assessment (you can take it here). This test allows you to compare two people’s IMs, emails, or other writing samples to determine compatibility. Pennebaker’s research suggests that similar language styles can predict romantic success. In a speed dating context, the extent to which potential pairs used pronouns, prepositions, and other seemingly trivial words in similar ways predicted the likelihood that the pair would decide to go out on a date. This match also predicted the likehood that an early-stage dating couple would still be dating three months later. These results are presumably due to engagement and interest, not just general similarity. Language patterns (like nonverbal behaviors) tend to shift to align with the speech patterns of our conversation partners, especially if we like them. I won’t disclose the exact results of my own compatibility test, but they did seem fairly accurate. Keep in mind though that this test is still in an experimental stage, so don’t be disheartened if you and your loved one are given a lower than average compatibility score.

If you take any of these tests yourself, let us know what you think in the comments section!


Ireland, M., & Pennebaker, J. (2010). Language style matching in writing: Synchrony in essays, correspondence, and poetry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99 (3), 549-571 DOI: 10.1037/a0020386

Pennebaker, J., & Ireland, M. (2011). Using literature to understand authors: The case for computerized text analysis Scientific Study of Literature, 1(1), 34-48 DOI: 10.1075/ssol.1.1.04pen

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  1. Ronit

    Took the water bottle test. Interesting…

  2. These were very interesting tests. The bottle description test had me pegged with some very obvious descriptions (if you know me). That is, I’d not make a very good sculptor (not tactile), and I have no business being a graphic artist. One thing I found rather confusing was that it told me that I scored 5.something on contextual, compared to 0.79 for the average person, and then said I was in the average range. I’m not sure how a multiplier of 6.5 over the average qualifies me as average on that score. I’d sure like to know what that says about me.

    In the “I” test, I scored 7 out of 10. My theory going in was that those who suffer more, are less accomplished, and are more likely to be be-woed are more likely to be internally focused than externally focused. It seems as though my rationale (whether correct or not) led me to many of the correct answers.

    Not knowing what such a high score on contextual means is still bugging me.