Department of Psychology
Department of Psychology

James W Pennebaker

ProfessorPh.D., University of Texas at Austin

Regents Centennial Professor
James W Pennebaker



Natural language and social behavior; group processes and educational outcomes; how individuals, groups, and cultures respond to traumatic events


Dr. Pennebaker does not plan to admit a new clinical doctoral student for Fall of 2016.

James W. Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts. He and his students are exploring natural language use, group dynamics, and personality in educational and other real world settings. His earlier work on expressive writing found that physical health and work performance can improve by simple writing and/or talking exercises. His cross-disciplinary research is related to linguistics, clinical and cognitive psychology, communications, medicine, and computer science.  Author or editor of 9 books and over 250 articles, Pennebaker has received numerous awards and honors.

Personal Information

Born: March 2, 1950, Midland, Texas
Married to Ruth Burney Pennebaker
Children: Teal Pennebaker and Nick Pennebaker


B.A. Eckerd College, 1972 with honors
Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin, 1977



Regents Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts


Chair of Psychology Department, University of Texas at Austin


International Research Professor, University of Central Lancashire, UK


Bush Regents Professor of Liberal Arts


Professor, University of Texas at Austin


Associate and Full Professor, Southern Methodist University


Chair of Psychology Department, University of Texas at Austin


Assistant Professor of Psychology


PSY 194Q • Text Analysis For Soc Scien

42557 • Spring 2016
Meets M 600pm-730pm SEA 3.250

Seminars in Clinical Psychology. One or three lecture hours a wekk for one semester. May be repeated for credit when the topics vary. Prerequisite: Graduate standing and consent of instructor.

PSY 301 • Introduction To Psychology

42160 • Fall 2015
Meets TTH 100pm-230pm SEA 2.114

Basic problems and principles of human experience and behavior. Three lecture hours a week for one semester, or the equivalent in independent study.



PSY 301 • Introduction To Psychology

42170 • Fall 2015
Meets TTH 330pm-500pm

Basic problems and principles of human experience and behavior. Three lecture hours a week for one semester, or the equivalent in independent study.



PSY 301 • Introduction To Psychology

43545 • Fall 2014
Meets TTH 100pm-230pm SEA 2.114

Basic problems and principles of human experience and behavior. Three lecture hours a week for one semester, or the equivalent in independent study.



PSY 301 • Introduction To Psychology

43551 • Fall 2014
Meets TTH 330pm-500pm

Basic problems and principles of human experience and behavior. Three lecture hours a week for one semester, or the equivalent in independent study.



PSY 394V • Text Analysis Of Literature

44370 • Spring 2014
Meets M 300pm-600pm SEA 4.242

Seminars in Social and Personality Psychology. Three lecture hours a week for one semester. May be repeated for credit when the topics vary. Prerequisite: Graduate standing and consent of instructor.

PSY 301 • Introduction To Psychology

43610-43612 • Fall 2013
Meets TTH 600pm-730pm

This is an online class jointly taught by Professors Sam Gosling and Jamie Pennebaker.  The course is broadcast live and requires students to "attend" each class session.  The final grade is based solely on daily benchmark quizzes and four writing assignments.  No textbook -- all readings will be free and from online sources.  This is a challenging and fun class that encourages students to work together in order to learn about psychology and about themselves.

PSY 394V • Language And Social Processes

43695 • Spring 2013
Meets M 300pm-600pm SEA 1.332

Seminars in Social and Personality Psychology. Three lecture hours a week for one semester. May be repeated for credit when the topics vary. Prerequisite: Graduate standing and consent of instructor.

PSY 301 • Introduction To Psychology

43135-43150 • Fall 2012
Meets TTH 200pm-330pm BUR 106

Introductory Psychology is designed to give students a broad overview of the theory, methods, and findings of modern-day psychology.  This is a computer-intensive course whereby students will be required to bring a laptop or other wifi-enabled device to every class.  In addition to daily benchmark quizzes, students will be expected to discuss class topics, take surveys, and participate in exercises on their computers.  Although there is no textbook, online reading assignments will be assigned for each class.  Grades will be based on the daily benchmarks and four writing assignments.

PSY 394V • Smnr In Socl & Personality Psy

43520 • Spring 2012
Meets W 400pm-700pm SEA 1.332

Seminars in Social and Personality Psychology. Three lecture hours a week for one semester. May be repeated for credit when the topics vary. Prerequisite: Graduate standing and consent of instructor.

PSY 301 • Introduction To Psychology

43035-43045 • Fall 2011
Meets TTH 200pm-330pm BUR 106

Daily benchmarks and grading. Although psychology is fun and exciting, don't expect it to be an easy course. Having taught this class dozens of times, we expect you to immerse yourself into the readings and lectures. This is an idea class as opposed to a simple fact class. We are more concerned with the ideas and implications of what Freud or Skinner thought than with their birthdays or favorite colors. All of the assessments will stress psychological concepts and their relationships to other concepts and to practical examples.

Rather than thinking of grading as a result of exams, tests, or quizzes, we think of this class as an opportunity to learn to ideas and perspectives. Instead of exams, we call them assessments or benchmarks. The benchmarks reflect student progress over the course of the semester. Although the lectures and readings are the same for both classes, the Pennebaker and Gosling sections will have separate benchmark assessments. If you are signed up for the 2:00 class, you can only take the 2:00 exam; ditto for the 3:30 class. The two sections will have somewhat different benchmark questions and may emphasize slightly different issues. Because any given lecture may be somewhat different in one class versus the other, be sure and attend the class you signed up for.

There will typically be an online benchmark at the beginning of every class. The benchmark assessments will generally include 8 questions – roughly half from lecture and half from the reading. Of the 8 questions, 5 or 6 will come from the previous lecture and most recent readings. The remaining 2-3 questions will be cumulative from previous parts of the course. In addition, at least one question will be specially selected from questions you have missed on your previous exams. Counting the first day of class, there are 28 lectures. The second lecture will be the first benchmark but it won’t count in order to give everyone the opportunity to learn how the system works. The remaining 26 classes will all have benchmarks that will count towards your final grade.

The final grade is based on your benchmark scores and the completion of the writing requirement. Each benchmark is worth 3.6% of your final grade. Your three lowest assessments are worth only 1%. The benchmark assessments are given at the same time at the beginning of class. If you are sick or have an emergency of some kind, you can take the benchmark remotely as long as you take it at the appointed time. If that doesn’t work, you can simply count up to three assessments that you miss as one of the lowest grades worth only 1% each. Because of this policy, there will be no makeup exams except under extremely unusual circumstances. Note that you are restricted to taking only five benchmark assessments remotely. If more than five are done remotely, you will be required to take supplementary exams during the final exam period on the supplemental assessments.

PSY 394V • Language And Social Processes

44050 • Spring 2011
Meets M 300pm-600pm SEA 4.242

Seminars in Social and Personality Psychology. Three lecture hours a week for one semester. May be repeated for credit when the topics vary. Prerequisite: Graduate standing and consent of instructor.

PSY 301 • Introduction To Psychology

42995 • Fall 2010
Meets TTH 200pm-330pm BUR 106


A passing score on the reading section of the TASP test.

Course Description

The purpose of this class is to explore the many ways in which psychology illuminates our understanding of thinking and behavior and to examine critically theories and explanations of psychological phenomena.

Topics will include: the brain and its hemispheres, stress and lie detection, sleep, dreaming, and consciousness, cognitive and moral development, Freud and personality, schizophrenia and depression, and social psychology across cultures.

Course Requirements

Five multiple-choice exams will test your understanding of the material. In-class exercises and the departmental research requirement (subject pool) will provide you with a close-up view of research methods. In addition to the class work, all Psychology 301 students must complete a research requirement by either participating in experimental sessions within the Psychology Dept. or by writing a research paper(the topic must be approved by the TA).

Grading Policy

The five tests. Your final grade in the course is based on your performance on the five exams -- and your turning in your writing assignments. There is no final exam in the course. The computation of your final grade is based on the following:

Lowest of your five tests = 0% Other 4 exams @22.5% each = 90%

Writing assignments. Five writing assignments are due over the course of the semester. You will be graded simply on whether or not you turn them in. Each writing assignment is worth 2%, all 5 count for 10%.

There is no extra credit for this course.

Tests are non-cumulative. The format of the test will be multiple-choice questions. You will be tested on the content of the textbook and lectures (including demonstrations and videos). Everyone is expected to take tests at the regularly scheduled time. The best 4 out of 5 exam grades will be used to determine the course grade. You can drop any of the exams for any reason BUT YOU MUST PASS THE LAST EXAM. If you do not pass the final exam, your score on that exam will count as one of your 4 grades. If you do pass the final exam, then the best 4 grades will used (irrespective of your score on the final exam).


Experience Psychology with Connect Plus Psychology Access Card, 1st Edition.  Laura A. King, University of Missouri---ISBN-13 9780077406578

PSY 394V • Words And Social Processes

43472 • Spring 2009
Meets T 230pm-530pm SEA 4.242

Seminars in Social and Personality Psychology. Three lecture hours a week for one semester. May be repeated for credit when the topics vary. Prerequisite: Graduate standing and consent of instructor.

Honors & Grants




President, Society for Personality and Social Psychology


Distinguished Contributions to Social and Personality

Psychology,Society for Personality and Social Psychology


Academy of Distinguished Teachers


Dads’ Association Centennial Teaching Fellowship


Raymond Dickson Centennial Endowed

Teaching Fellowship Award


ISI selection for being among

the most cited researchers in Psychology/Psychiatry


Hero of Midland, Texas Award, Midland Independent School District


Outstanding Contributions to Health Psychology (APA Division 38)


Freshman Honor Societies Teaching Award, University of Texas


President's Associates University Teaching Award, University of Texas


Pavlov Award, The Pavlov Society


Honorary Doctorate Degree, University of Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium


Hilgard Visiting Professor, Stanford University





 NSF grant and subcontract.  Natural language and values, $600,000. Co-PI


Army Research Institute  Language and group dynamics, $500,000. PI


NSF grant and subcontract.  Social and language cues in threatening behavior, $500,000. Co-PI


DOD and DIA contract.  The language of secrets in electronic communication, $300,000. PI


DHS contract.  The language of extremist leaders, $600,000. PI


Army Research Institute, Language and social dynamics, $450,000, PI


DOD and CIFA contract, Viewing text through English and Arabic eyes, $300,000, PI


NSF Grant, Language and deception workshop, $59,000, PI


DOD Contract, Timing of expressive writing exercises, $28,000, PI


NIMH Grant, Interpersonal disclosure processes and health, $1,600,000, PI


NIMH Grant, Interpersonal disclosure processes and health, $320,000, PI


NSF Grant, Disclosure, language, and health, $80,000, PI


NSF Grant, Cognition, disclosure and health, $149,000, PI


NSF grant, The psychological consequences of the 1989 California earthquake, $14,919, PI


NSF grant, Inhibition, disclosing, and health, $89,717, PI


NIH grant, Perception of physical symptoms and blood pressure, $183,415, PI


NSF grant, Psychological impact of Mt. St. Helens Volcano, with Darren Newtson, $10,000


Boyd, R.L., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2015).  Did Shakespeare write Double Falsehood? Identifying individuals by creating psychological signatures with text analysis.  Psychological Science, online version April 8, doi:10.1177/0956797614566658.  Using LIWC, meaning extraction, and machine learning, it is possible to build a smart approach to author identification.

Campbell, R.S., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2003). The secret life of pronouns: Flexibility in writing style and physical health. Psychological Science, 14, 60-65. Using Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA), it was found that changes in the ways people use pronouns when writing about traumatic experience was a powerful predictor of changes in physician visits in three previously-published writing projects.

 Chung, C.K. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2007).  The psychological function of function words.  In K. Fiedler (Ed.), Social communication: Frontiers of social psychology (pp 343-359).  New York: Psychology Press.  A summary of recent findings concerning the links between pronouns, prepositions, and other function words with markers of social and personality processes.

 Chung, C.K. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008).  Revealing dimensions of thinking in open-ended self-descriptions: An automated meaning extraction method for natural language.  Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 96-132.  By using a factor analytic method on content-related words, it is possible to extract meaning from samples of text files.  These language dimensions are linked to personality.


Cohn, M.A., Mehl, M.R., & Pennebaker, J.W.  (2004).  Linguistic markers of psychological change surrounding September 11, 2001. Psychological Science, 15, 687-693. An analysis of over 1000 people who wrote online journals in the weeks before and after September 11.


Davison, K.P, Pennebaker, J.W., & Dickerson, S.S. (2000). Who talks? The social psychology of illness support groups. American Psychologist, 55, 205-217. An analysis of internet and real world support groups for 20 different diseases.


Ireland, M.E., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2010).  Language style matching in writing: Synchrony in essays, correspondence, and poetry.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,  99,  549-571.  Demonstrates the basic properties of language style matching (LSM).  People naturally entrain to the function word usage of others.  Across multiple media, the more they pay attention to and emotionally connect with others, the higher the LSM.


Ireland, M.E., Slatcher, R.B., Eastwick, P.W., Scissors, L.E., Finkel, E.J., & Pennebaker, J.W.  (2011).  Language style matching predicts relationship initiation and stability. Psychological Science, online version, December 13, 2010. doi:10.1177/0956797610392928.   Two studies demonstrate that language style matching in the natural conversation of couples in speed dating predicts future dating behavior and, in instant messaging between young dating couples, predicts the stability of the relationship three months later.


Kacewicz, E., Pennebaker, J.W., Davis, M., Moongee, J., & Graesser, A.C. (2013). Pronoun use reflects standings in social hierarchies. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33, 125-143. doi: 10.1177/0261927X1350265. Five studies demonstrate that high status people use I-words less and you-words and we-words more than lower-status individuals.


Laserna, C.M., Seih, Y., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2014). Um... Who says "you know": Filler word use as a function of age, gender, and personality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33, 328-338. doi:10.1177/0261927X14526993. In everyday language, people between 18-25 years old use filler words at much higher rates than older individuals. These effects are stronger for females than males. Only modest personality effects emerge.


Linguist Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC2007). The LIWC2007 computer text analysis program is an updated version of LIWC2001.  The actual program can be purchased from _However, the two manuals are available here:


Pennebaker, J.W., Booth, R.E., & Francis, M.E. (2007).  Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count: LIWC2007 – Operator’s manual.  Austin, TX:


Pennebaker, J.W., Chung, C.K., Ireland, M., Gonzales, A., & Booth, R.J.  (2007).  The development and psychometric properties of LIWC2007.  Austin, TX:


Mehl, M.R. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2003)The social dynamics of a cultural upheaval: Social interactions surrounding September 11, 2001. Psychological Science, 14, 579-585.  An analysis of 11 people who wore the EAR prior to and for 10 days after September 11.


Mehl, M.R. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2003). The sounds of social life: A psychometric analysis of students' daily social environments and natural conversations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 857-870. Using the EAR (see below), it is possible to assess the basic psychometric properties of the ways people select their environments and use language in natural settings.


Mehl, M.R., Vazire, S., Ramirez-Esparza, N., Slatcher, R.B., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2007).  Are women really more talkative than men? Science, 316, 82. (Including supplemental materials).  Across six EAR studies with college students in the U.S. and Mexico, tape-recorded conversations over several days reveal that both men and women say about 16,000 words per day.  Women and men don’t differ in talking rates.


Newman, M.L., Groom, C.J., Handelman, L.D., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008).  Gender differences in language use: An analysis of 14,000 text samples.  Discourse Processes, 45, 211-236.  Women and men use langauge differently and talk about different things. Women use words that reflect social concerns; men refer to more concrete objects and impersonal topics.


Newman, M.L., Pennebaker, J.W., Berry, D.S., & Richards, J.M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 665-675. An analysis of 5 studies where participants lied and/or told the truth. Truth-tellers use more 1st person singular words, markers of cognitive complexity, and fewer negative emotion words.


Pennebaker, J.W. (1994). Hints on running a writing experiment. Unpublished manual. This is a general how-to manual that will help the individual in designing a disclosure experiment -- with particular attention to measurement.


Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162-166. A brief overview of the nature of the writing paradigm and its effects on physical health.


Pennebaker, J.W. (1982). The psychology of physical symptoms. New York: Springer-Verlag. Warning: This is very large file since it is the entire book that is now out of print.


Pennebaker, J.W. (2003). Social physics: The metaphorical application of principles of physics to social behavior. Unpublished manuscript, University of Texas at Austin. A short position paper about the idea of social physics. The central idea is that the ways humans and other organisms use space can be modelled by applying Newtonian rules of gravity, mass, motion, etc.


Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Theories, therapies, and taxpayers: On the complexities of the expressive writing paradigm. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 138-142. A review of recent research and thinking about expressive writing. No one theory explains it. In evaluating expressive writing, we need to be attentive to economically-relevant outcome measures, i.e., think of research from the taxpayers' perspective.


Pennebaker, J.W. (2010).  Expressive writing in a clinical setting. The Independent Practitioner, 30, 23-25.  A brief practical guide to expressive writing for therapists and counselors.


Pennebaker, J.W. & Chung, C.K. (2011). Expressive writing and its links to mental and physical health. In H. Friedman (Ed.), Oxford handbook of health psychology. New York , NY : Oxford. A general summary of expressive writing research.


Pennebaker, J.W., Chung, C.K., Frazee, J., Lavergne, G.M., & Beaver, D.I. (2014).  When small words foretell academic success: The case of college admissions essays. PLoS ONE 9(12): e115844. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0115844.  Introduces the CDI or categorical-dynamic index to predict grade point average from admissions essays four years later.


Pennebaker, J.W., & Gonzales, A.(2008).  Making history: Social and psychological processes underlying collective memory. In J.V. Wertsch and P. Boyer (Eds.), Collective memory (pp. 110-129).  New York: Cambridge University Press.


Pennebaker, J.W., Gosling, S.D., & Ferrell, J.D. (2013). Daily online testing in large classes: Boosting college performance while reducing achievement gaps. PLoS ONE, November 20, 2013. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.007977. An in-class online software system was developed that allowed for 901 students to take daily class benchmark quzzes. In comparison with traditionally-taught and graded exams by the same instructors, students performed better in the psychology class as well as the other classes they took that semester and the subsequent semester. Differences in the performance of upper-middle and lower-middle class students were reduced.


Pennebaker, J.W., Groom, C.J., Loew, D., & Dabbs, J.M.  (2004).  Testosterone as a social inhibitor: Two case studies of the effect of testosterone treatment on language. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113, 172-175. The personal diary or outgoing emails of two people (one a female-to-male transexual; another a heterosexual male) undergoing testosterone treatment were tracked over 1-2 years.  LIWC analyses found that testosterone injections suppressed participants’ reference to other people.


Pennebaker, J.W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239-245. The first writing study to demonstrate that disclosure of emotional upheavals can influence immune function.


Pennebaker, J.W. & King, L.A. (1999). Linguistic styles: Language use as an individual difference. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1296-1312. A series of studies that reveal how language use reflects personality, health, and social behaviors.


Pennebaker, J.W., Mehl, M.R., & Niederhoffer, K. (2003). Psychological aspects of natural language use: Our words, our selves. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 547-577. A general review of text analysis approaches in the social sciences -- with primary attention to word count strategies. This extensive literature review also summarizes work linking pronouns, prepositions, and other particles to social, personality, and clinical psychology.


Pennebaker, J.W., Paez, D., Deschamps, J.C., Rentfrow, J., Davis, M., Techio, E.M., Slawuta, P., Zlobina, A., & Zubieta, E. (2006). The social psychology of history: Defining the most important events of the last 10, 100, and 1000 years.  Psicologia Politica, 32, 15-32. A summary of a large cross-cultural project wherein students reported on significant national and cultural events.


Pennebaker, J.W. & Stone, L.D. (2003).  Words of wisdom: Language use over the lifespan.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 291-301.  As people age, the words they use in everyday language changes.  This is based on analysis of over 3000 individuals writing about emotional topics and the collected works of 10 famous authors.


Petrie, K.J., Pennebaker, J.W., & Sivertsen, B. (2008). The things we said today: A linguistic analysis of the Beatles.  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2, 197-202.  A language analysis of the history of the Beatles, including a comparison of the lyrics of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison.


Richards, J.M., Beal, W.E., Seagal, J., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2000). The effects of disclosure of traumatic events on illness behavior among psychiatric prison inmates. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 156-160. Writing about traumatic experiences improves the health of maximum security inmates -- especially those convicted of sexual crimes.


Ramirez-Esparza, N., Gosling, S.D., Benet-Martinez, V., Potter, J., & Pennebaker, J.W.  (2005).  Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of frame switching.  Journal of Research in PersonalityWhen bilinguals switch languages, their personalities subtly change.


Roberts, T.A. & Pennebaker, J.W. (1995). Women's and men's strategies in perceiving internal state. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 27 (pp 143-176). New York: Academic Press. Women and men perceive their bodies, symptoms, and physical health differently. We propose that women rely more on external situational cues relative to men.


Rude, S.S., Gortner, E.M., & Pennebaker, J.W.  (2004).  Language use of depressed and depression-vulnerable college students. Cognition and Emotion, 18, 1121-1133. Depressed students use more first person singular pronouns than never-depressed when writing about their college experiences. Formerly-depressed students initially use few pronouns but, by the end of the writing exercise, use pronouns like currently-depressed students.


Seih, Y., Chung, C.K., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2011).  Experimental manipulations of perspective taking and perspective switching in expressive writing.  Cognition and Emotion, 25, 926-938.  Two studies found the writing in the first person singular was most beneficial across different ways of perspective taking or perspective switching.


Slatcher, R.B. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2006).  How do I love thee? Let me count the words: The social effects of expressive writing.  Psychological Science, 17, 660-664.  A study using expressive writing that finds that people who write about their relationship are more likely to remain in that relationship.  Also, the analysis of Instant Messages (IMs) finds that certain word-use patterns correlates with relationship success.


Spera, S.P., Buhrfeind, E.D., & Pennebaker, J.W. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, 37, 722-733. High level engineers who lost their jobs were more likely to be re-employed if they wrote about their job loss than those who either did not write or who wrote about time management.


Stirman, S.W., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2001). Word use in the poetry of suicidal and non-suicidal poets. Psychosomatic Medicine 63, 517-522. A text analysis of the poetry of poets who committed suicide vs a matched control who did not -- promising evidence for the power of linguistic tools to understand psychological state.


Tausczik, Y., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2010). The psychological meaning of words: LIWC and computerized text analysis methods.  Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29, 24-54.  A broad summary of the LIWC dimensions and how they are related to various psychological states.  A must read for the LIWC researcher.


Tausczik, Y.R., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2013).  Improving teamwork using real-time language feedback.  CHI 2013, ACM 978-1-4503-1899-0/13/04.  Small online working groups received real-time feedback based on computer analyses of their language use.


Watson, D. & Pennebaker, J.W. (1989).  Health complaints, stress, and disease: Exploring the central role of negative affectivity.  Psychological Review, 96, 234-254. Self-reports of stress and physical symptoms are often colored by people’s general Negative Affectivity (NA) or neuroticism.


Writing & Health

Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice

Writing about emotional upheavals in our lives can improve physical and mental health. Although the scientific research surrounding the value of expressive writing is still in the early phases, there are some approaches to writing that have been found to be helpful. Keep in mind that there are probably a thousand ways to write that may be beneficial to you. Think of these as rough guidelines rather than Truth. Indeed, in your own writing, experiment on your own and see what works best.

Getting Ready to Write

Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed. Ideally, pick a time at the end of your workday or before you go to bed.

Promise yourself that you will write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least 3 or 4 consecutive days.

Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written.

You can write longhand or you can type on a computer. If you are unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder.

You can write about the same thing on all 3-4 days of writing or you can write about something different each day. It is entirely up to you.

What to Write About

Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much
Something that you are dreaming about
Something that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way
Something that you have been avoiding for days, weeks, or years

In our research, we generally give people the following instructions for writing:
Over the next four days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?

Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts

Warning: Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.

What to do with your Writing Samples

The writing is for you and for you only. Their purpose is for you to be completely honest with yourself. When writing, secretly plan to throw away your writing when you are finished. Whether you keep it or save it is really up to you.

Some people keep their samples and edit them. That is, they gradually change their writing from day to day. Others simply keep them and return to them over and over again to see how they have changed.

Here are some other options:
Burn them. Erase them. Shred them. Flush them. Tear them into little pieces and toss them into the ocean or let the wind take them away. Eat them (not recommended).

Some References for Writing, Journaling, or Diaries

A video of the original writing method can be seen by clicking here.


There are some outstanding books by people who have an intuitive and practical approach to writing. Each author approaches journaling or diary writing in very different ways. Check the various books out and see what works best for you.


Adams, Kathleen (1998). The Way of the Journal : A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing. Sidron Press.

Baldwin, Christina (1992). One to One : Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing. Evans Publisher

DeSalvo, Louise A. (2000). Writing As a Way of Healing : How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Beacon Press.

Fox, John (1997). Poetic Medicine : The Healing Art of Poem-Making. Tarcher Press

Goldberg, Natalie and Guest, Judith (1986). Writing Down the Bones : Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala Press.

Jacobs, Beth (2005). Writing for Emotional Balance, New Harbinger Publishers.

Pennebaker, James W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. NY: Guilford Press.

Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words that Heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor.

Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. Denver, CO: Center for Journal Therapy.

Rainer, Tristine (1979). The New Diary : How to Use a Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity. Tarcher

Explorations into Language

The World of Words

The words we use reflect who we are. Word choice can serve as a key to people's personality and social situations. Since the mid-1990s, my students, colleagues, and I have been exploring the psychology of word use. Before reading further, you might want to try one or more brief demonstrations that will give you an appreciation of language use, measurement, and personality.

Demonstration 1:  The basic text analysis using the LIWC computer program.  This asks you to respond to a traditional TAT picture.  The feedback is fairly broad.

Demonstration 2:  Using a new method that we call the meaning extraction method, we are able to get LIWC to analyze people’s personality along a completely new set of dimensions. 

Demonstration 3:  Using the meaning extraction strategy, the computer can give you feedback about the ways you see the world depending on how you describe something as simple as a bottle.

Demonstration 4: Applying both LIWC and the meaning extraction method, we have developed an interesting way to analyze people's Twitter feeds. If you have a twitter handle, just enter one and you get feedback about that particular person. If you don't have one, try BarackObama for a demonstration.


What words should we pay attention to?

Very broadly, there are two types of words: content and style. Content words include nouns, regular verbs, and most adjectives and adverbs. Style words include pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and auxiliary verbs. The content words tell us what a person is saying; style words convey how they are saying it.

Style words, then, can be powerful indicators of people’s psychological states. They require a certain social skill to both use and interpret. In a conversation, if one person refers to “her table”, both people must remember who the “her” is. Similarly, the difference between “a table” and “the table” conveys a subtle difference in the relationship between the speaker and the table in question.

What can the analysis of words tell us about people?

For starters, style-related words can signal basic social and demographic categories, such as:

  • Sex. In general, women tend to use more pronouns and references to other people; men are more likely to use articles, prepositions, and big words.
  • Age. As people get older, they tend to refer to themselves less, use more positive emotion and fewer negative emotion words. Older people also use more future tense and fewer past tense verbs.
  • Social class. The higher the social class, the less likely one uses 1st person singular pronouns and the less one uses emotion words.

Style-related words can also reveal basic social and personality processes, including:

  • Lying vs telling the truth. When people tell the truth, they are more like to use 1st person singular pronouns. They also use more exclusive words like except, but, without, excluding. Words such as this indicate that a person is making a distinction between what they did do and what they didn’t do. Liars have a problem with such complex ideas.
  • Dominance in a conversation. Analyze the relative use of the word “I” between two speakers in an interaction. Usually, the higher status speaker will use fewer “I” words.
  • Social bonding after a trauma. In the days and weeks after a cultural upheaval, people become more self-less (less use of “I”) and more oriented towards others (increased use of “we”).
  • Depression and suicide-proneness. Public figures speaking in press conferenecs and published poets in their poetry use more 1st person singular when they are depressed or prone to suicide.
  • Testosterone levels. In two case studies, it was found that when people’s testosterone levels increased rapidly, they dropped in their use of references to other people.
  • Basic self-reported personality dimensions. Multiple studies are now showing that style-related words do much better than chance at distinguishing people who are high or low in the Big Five dimensions of personality: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
  • Consumer patterns. By knowing people’s linguistic styles, we are able to predict (at reasonable rates), their music and radio station preference, liking for various consumer goods, car preferences, etc.
  • And much, much more.

What is the best way to measure words?

LIWC, of course. The computer program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC, has been in development in our lab since the mid-1990s. LIWC analyzes individual text files and computes the percentage of words in each text file fall into each of 70+ linguistic categories.

Some of the categories that are measured include:

  • Emotion-related words
    • General positive emotions
    • Optimism
    • General negative emotions
    • Sadness
    • Anger
    • Anxiety
  • Cognitive process words
    • Causation
    • Self-reflection (realize, understand)
    • Inhibition
    • Self-discrepancies (would, should, could)
  • Social processes
  • Physical issues
    • Body
    • Sex
    • Eating
  • Current concerns
    • Work and school
    • Metaphysical issues (religion, death)
    • Home and leisure activities
  • Linguistic style markers
    • Pronouns
    • Prepositions
    • Articles

Is LIWC available for the general public?

Yes. You can either purchase it online ( or I would be happy to analyze your text files for free. All I ask in return is the right to keep a copy of your files to add to my growing text archive of over 500,000 files. Indeed, if you would like to analyze some of the archived text as part of another project, contact me.

To learn more about LIWC, you can read a detailed description online or download the manual which is in pdf format. Also, feel free to browse and/or download several of our recent papers on language use by clicking on one of the buttons below:

Check out the LIWC site online

Download the LIWC manual

For those who would like a very good overview of LIWC and the meaning of words, check out:

Tausczik, Y., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2009, in press). The psychological meaning of words: LIWC and computerized text analysis methods.  Journal of Language and Social Psychology, in press.

Helpful Questionnaires

The following questionnaires are available for research use. Feel free to download and use them as needed. (*indicates an adobe acrobat pdf file).

*The Pennebaker Inventory of Limbic Languidness (the PILL). From Pennebaker, J.W. (1982). The psychology of physical symptoms. New York: Springer-Verlag. This is a 54-item scale taps the frequency of occurrence of a group of common physical symptoms and sensations. Cronbach alphas range from .88 to .91; 2-month test-retest reliability range from .79 to .83. The PILL can be scored by summing up the total number of items on which individuals score C, D, or E (every month or so or higher). With this strategy, the mean score is 17.9 (SD=4.5) based on a sample of 939 college students. You can also simply sum up the 54 items resulting in a mean score of 112.7 (SD=24.7).

*************Take the PILL online. Once you complete the questionnaire, you will get feedback about your score relative to others.***************

*The College Adjustment Test (CAT). From Pennebaker, J.W., Colder, M., & Sharp, L.K. (1990). Accelerating the coping process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 528-537. This 19-item survey taps the degree to which students have experienced a variety of thoughts and feelings about being in college. Cronbach alpha = .79; 2-mo test-retest = .65. Three stable factors have emerged that tap general negative affect, positive affect or optimism, and home sickness.

*The SMU Health Questionnaire (SMUHQ). From Watson, D., & Pennebaker, J.W. (1989). Health complaints, stress, and distress: Exploring the central role of Negative Affectivity. Psychological Review, 96, 234-254. This 63-item symptom and illness questionnaire measures whether individuals have either been diagnosed or treated for a variety of health problems. The health items can be viewed separately or as a composite index. On a sample of 437 SMU undergraduates (see Watson & Pennebaker, 1989), the coefficient alpha for the full 63-item version of the SMU-HQ was .75.  The coefficient alpha for the factor-analytically derived 13 item SMU-HQ Symptom scale (described in Watson & Pennebaker, 1989) was .72.

*College Activities and Behavior Questionnaire (CABQ). From Pennebaker, J.W., Colder, M., & Sharp, L.K. (1990). Accelerating the coping process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 528-537. This questionnaire is a general inventory of objective behaviors and activities commonly performed by students. Most behaviors reflect social activity and health-related behaviors.

*The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. From Pennebaker, J.W. & Susman, J.R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and psychosomatic processes. Social Science and Medicine, 26, 327-332. A brief survey of 6 early traumatic experiences (death, divorce, violence, sexual abuse, illness, or other) and ratings of the degree to which individuals confided the traumas.  There is no psychometric information available for this questionnaire.  The items are face valid.  There is no scoring key for this questionnaire.  You can score it any way that you like.  Feel free to change the items in any way you prefer.  Go ahead and translate it into any language.  You do not need my permission to use this. 

*Questionnaires from a typical writing study. From Pennebaker, J.W., Colder, M., & Sharp, L.K. (1990). Accelerating the coping process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 528-537. This file includes a group of questionnaires and other materials used in the Pennebaker et al (1990) experiment. Many of these items have been used in a variety of writing studies by our lab and the labs of others.


The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions

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