Word Choice Detects Everything from Love to Lies to Leadership, According to Psychology Research

Aug. 1, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — The words people use are like fingerprints that can reveal their relationships, honesty or their status in a group, according to research by University of Texas at Austin social psychologist James W. Pennebaker.

“Using computerized text analyses on hundreds of thousands of letters, poems, books, blogs, Tweets, conversations and other texts, it is possible to begin to read people’s hearts and minds in ways they can’t do themselves,” says Pennebaker, the Liberal Arts Foundation Centennial Professor and Psychology Department chair.  Pennebaker will publish his findings in his new book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” (Bloomsbury Press, August 2011), which is based on a large-scale research project that links natural language use to social and psychological processes.

James Pennebaker
video icon Watch Dr. James Pennebaker discuss this topic and more in a Knowledge Matters five-part video series on YouTube.

Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics to analyze pronouns, articles, prepositions and a handful of other small function words.

“On their own, function words have very little meaning,” Pennebaker says. “In English, there are fewer than 500 function words yet they account for more than half of the words we speak, hear and read every day. Who would have guessed that words like I, you, the, to, but, and and could say so much about us.”

He even delves into politics, discovering why President Barack Obama uses “I” less than any modern president of the United States.

“People across the board think that Obama uses the word ‘I’ at incredibly high rates, but if you do an analysis he uses the word ‘I’ at lower rates than any modern president, by a lot,” Pennebaker says.

Comparably, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush used “I” at very high rates. Pennebaker finds that people who use “I” at higher rates tend to come across as more personal, warm and honest. While people who use “I” at lower rates come across as more self-confident. He attributes people thinking of Obama using “I” at such high rates, due to his self confidence and the misconception that confident people must use “I” all the time. He also finds that the highest status person in a relationship tends to use “I” the least, and the person who is the lowest status tends to use the word “I” the most.

In other studies, Pennebaker has helped to develop a linguistic lie detector. Within a group of college students, half were prompted to lie. According to the study, people who are telling the truth demonstrate a different language profile than those who are lying. Detection was much better than chance, with 67 percent accuracy.

“One way you can tell if people are telling the truth, they use ‘I’ more. They use more complex language,” Pennebaker says. “People who are lying tend to not use the word ‘I.’ They are psychologically distancing themselves. And they also avoid markers of complexity such as conjunctions and prepositions.”

Pennebaker applies some of his language findings to love. Using a speed dating study, he and his team looked at language style matching, which is how function words are being used at a comparable rate between a couple. According to the study, those people whose language styles most frequently matched were much more likely to go on a subsequent date.

“We did a better job predicting if they would go on a date than they did themselves,” Pennebaker says. “This style-matching statistic tells use how the two are clicking with one another. The more likely they were to match in future text messages and instant messages, the more likely they were to still be dating several months later.”

For more information, contact: Michelle Bryant, College of Liberal Arts, 512 232 4730;  James Pennebaker, Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts, 512-232-2781.

29 Comments to "Word Choice Detects Everything from Love to Lies to Leadership, According to Psychology Research"

1.  Kathy said on Aug. 2, 2011

This is fascinating. I am 50+, and a stay-at-home mom for almost twenty years, so I forfeited many educational opportunities to teach tiny children and grandchildren how to speak, read and write. When our schools let them get behind in class, and I mean 1st, 2nd, 3rd... grades, I withdrew from my community college classes and 'caught them up' with home-made flashcards. When I wrote my book, I struggled terribly to write in what I believe is called 3rd person omniscient because I believed that was the proper and best form. So this book is something I might actually eventually buy, since I love language and sociology. It also explains why seeming genuine was difficult in my writing.



2.  Abbas H said on Aug. 3, 2011

Great Article and great videos! I gained a lot of useful information out of both. In the last video you discuss style matching. Is this linguistic style matching?



3.  Kenneth H. Wax said on Aug. 4, 2011

Pennebaker must be either be on another planet or a liberal democrat or missed the same speeches of the Obama Realm than I. Between Obama and Sara Jackson Lee they probably are not aware that there is a third person.

4.  Rachel Z said on Aug. 4, 2011

Kindly stick to the merits of the argument rather than ad hominem attacks. Prof. Pennebaker cited the current president as a source of language that many people are likely to have encountered. Politics has nothing to do with it, If you think the research is bunk, fine, but I'd say your word choice in this forum reveals plenty about you.

5.  Bob Espey said on Aug. 4, 2011

To Kenneth H. Wax:

Whether Dr. Pennebaker is "on another planet" or a "liberal democrat" seems like a rather simplistic dismissal of his analysis. I think that he is making the point that while there is a perception that the President uses the word "I" frequently, his analysis indicates to the contrary. Perhaps you should be asking about the details of Dr. Pennebaker's analysis. If you find the analysis and Dr. Pennebaker's conclusions well-founded, it might cause you to reevalute your perceptions concerning the President, at least as to this point. Just a thought.

6.  Mary said on Aug. 4, 2011

Language is fascinating! Kenneth, Just because you don't like President Obama, doesn't make the findings in the study false nor does it mean you need to insult the integrity of anyone whose findings differ from your own perceptions. I believe those who do this type of research take it very seriously regardless of their personal political views.

7.  Bethany Brandon said on Aug. 4, 2011

Kenneth: it's Sheila Jackson Lee. But I agree with your comment wholeheartedly! Well said.

8.  Mars Bonfire said on Aug. 5, 2011

Kenneth H. Wax said: "Pennebaker must be either be on another planet or a liberal democrat or missed the same speeches of the Obama Realm than I. Between Obama and Sara Jackson Lee they probably are not aware that there is a third person."

Say what??

Talk about clumsy, non--sequitur writing... Dr. Pennebaker, would you care to crack this nut?

9.  Martha McLain said on Aug. 5, 2011

I heard Dr. Pennebaker speak at UT Alumni College. He
was our favorite speaker and I am eager to read his book.
I introduce him and was fascinated with his exciting, creative work. I am always excited about new research that adds to our understanding of people.

10.  Bill Petticrew said on Aug. 6, 2011

Fascinating research. This should be a very useful tool for law enforcement as well as matchmaking. As to the Presidents, like them or not, according to Dr. Pennebaker, Presidents Clinton and Bush, by their use of "I" did demonstrate that they were actually speaking the truth, at least as they saw it. By contrast the fact that President Obama is perceived as using "I" more frequently speaks to the perception that he is more egotistical and narcissistic. That he actually usees "I" less frequently tells us that he is "psychologically distancing" himself from his statements and is therefore not telling the truth. Is that not the logical conclusion?

11.  Santiago from San Angelo said on Aug. 6, 2011

English has always been one of my favorite subjects. Knowing how to use it is very rewarding when I can communicate more effectively.

12.  Emiko said on Aug. 7, 2011

Dr. Pennebaker is correct about the high/low staus relationships. In parent/child, teacher/student or employer/employee relationships, I have seen/heard the lower status person use "I" more often.

13.  Dianne Arnett said on Aug. 7, 2011

How can I get more information on this project? This is fascinating. Sounds absolutely valid to me.

14.  John said on Aug. 8, 2011

Concerning Obama, Dr. Pennebaker's statistics nailed it. “People who are lying tend to not use the word ‘I".

15.  waverly1106@yahoo.com said on Aug. 8, 2011

Bob Epsiy, it's comments like yours that make me want to live on another planet. I don't like people like you using someone else's research and findings on a genuine scale for growth to promote your political agenda or opinions. Stick to the subject when commenting. This is valuable information that has thought, analysis, interpretation and research behind it. It is not a political stance or rendering of one. I can't wait to read book!

16.  Sheree said on Aug. 8, 2011

This research is fascinating. I can't wait to read the book. I'm really surprised by the "I" discovery. When I'm writing and talking, I try not to use "I" but I do--case in point, this comment! I always thought that people who used "I" were self-centered. Is that true?

17.  J said on Aug. 9, 2011

Re: "I" usage: could it be that the higher status individuals tend to make statements that take the appearance of objectivity and take the form of an imperative? Such as: "Revenues are dropping; the company must decrease spending" or "The world is not always fair. Eat your broccoli."

Whereas someone lower down on the status totem pole is more "honest" in saying things like, "I think long-term revenues will be down, so we should probably look towards low-cost investments" or "I think that broccoli is good for you, so you should eat it."

Pretty interesting stuff, across the board.

18.  J bloggs said on Aug. 9, 2011

Dont they teach that there is no 'I' in team work? Find it difficult to agree to the 'I' analysis

19.  Ken Hughes said on Aug. 9, 2011

My most lasting course at The University, as we called it in those days, was freshman English (creative writing). In that class, I learned a lot more than just how to write well.

The correct and visceral use of pronouns, and adverbs and adjectives, for that matter came from that course. The use of "I", "we" and "they" were clearly conveyed. So, here is my UT interpretation of this complicated president Obama.

The emphasis on "I" is imperative in conveying who is selling the idea or conveying a personal accomplishment. The use of "we" has certainly become patronizing, and it doesn't represent the true source of opinion.

I am a big advocate of using "I" when one really means it; or should I say, "when you really mean it.

20.  M.C. said on Aug. 9, 2011

This is fascinating research. Just to set the blog record straight, it was Kenneth H. Wax, not Bob Espey, who made the disrespectful remark about Pennebaker being on another planet, a statement that came more from Wax's own political stance than from his careful reading of the text about the research. Espey rightly asked Wax to stick to the subject and look at the researcher's analysis. It's so easy to be thoughtless in email, especially if thinking comes hard to one anyway.

21.  katherine said on Aug. 10, 2011

This made me think of therapy sessions in which the therapist instructs the patient to use "I" statements when in a confrontation. According to this, then, is that person lowering themselves compared to the status of the person they are confronting and giving them control? Obviously it is probably standard technique because it is at least relatively effective, but it seems interesting that it could be working because the person subconsciously subjugates themselves to the person they are confronting, thus making it easier for the confronted to hear what they are saying while feeling confident? I'd be interested in reading the book and seeing if he discusses language in terms of psychology and therapy.

22.  UT Alum in Florida said on Aug. 10, 2011

Fascinating work, I look forward to the book.

I'm sending this link to another loved Texan, Dr. Phil (forgive me, you can always refuse to appear.) But hopefully it will help you sell lots of copies and help a lot of people learn to listen between the words of others!

Thanks Dr. Pennebaker - you make the University proud.

23.  Frisby said on Aug. 13, 2011

Interesting correlation indeed.
As for the rest of you stop picking on Kenneth H. Wax.
There is no need to make such an interesting discussion into something so destructive.

24.  fflint said on Aug. 18, 2011

Is it possible that in the Obama case he is distancing himself from the discourse in the vein of the consumate politician. If he never embraces the ideas being discussed, he can't be held accountable. In this way, maybe his lack of use of the work "I" is more a commentary on his leadership than truthfulness.

25.  Dev said on Aug. 18, 2011

Interesting study. We always learn from these studies - bit by bit and eventually make computers learn behaviors. Those making political statements - coming from extreme right - clearly have no inclination for learning and those are the ones who criticize research and University. What a shame!

26.  Rachel said on Aug. 19, 2011

Just a note to UT that Facebook has inexplicably flagged this article as "This message contains blocked content that has previously been flagged as abusive or spammy. Let us know if you think this is an error."

I've written them about it, but so far, nearly a day later, it's still blocked, which means it can't be shared on Facebook.

27.  Samantha Stiles said on Aug. 19, 2011

Hi Rachel -- The page's admins are aware of the problem. We've written to Facebook about it too, and the issue hasn't been resolved. Apologies for the inconvenience.

28.  JJ said on Aug. 24, 2011

Very interesting. As a woman who has worked for 25+ years in what has historically been a man's industry, I consciously try to speak in terms of "we" rather than "I" to promote a more collaborative environment. I'll certainly take note of this information when it's important that "I" get "my" point across.

29.  sue c said on Aug. 26, 2011

Prior to reading the actual book, I am thinking that the short version might be:
Use "I" when speaking from your subjective personal opinion.
Use "we" when speaking of (an apparent) consensus of persons.
Skip the pronoun and give orders or make direct observations when appropriate.
Try to understand the difference between these...

That said, I am often skeptical of the use of "they", which is all too often used to talk about others not present to their detriment, and full of assumptions.

Obviously many of us look forward to reading this book!