Unformatted text preview: Contents Cover
Preface Chapter 1
Discovering the Secret Life of the Most Forgettable Words Chapter 2
Ignoring the Content, Celebrating the Style Chapter 3
The Words of Sex, Age, and Power Chapter 4
Personality: Finding the Person Within Chapter 5
Emotion Detection Chapter 6
Lying Words Chapter 7
The Language of Status, Power, and Leadership Chapter 8
The Language of Love Chapter 9
Seeing Groups, Companies, and Communities Through Their Words Chapter 10
Bibliography and References
A Handy Guide for Spotting and Interpreting Function Words in the Wild
A Note on the Author
By the Same Author
Imprint For you
and for us
and where we have been
and where we will go. Preface STOP FOR A minute and think about your last conversation, e-mail, or text
message. You think you said something about dinner plans, your laundry, a
strategy for the next sales meeting. And you probably did. But at the same time,
you said much, much more. The precise words you used to communicate your
message revealed more about you than you can imagine.
You, a, am, to, I, but, the, for, not …
Pronouns, articles, prepositions, and a handful of other small, stealthy
words reveal parts of your personality, thinking style, emotional state, and
connections with others. These words, typically called function words, account
for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of your vocabulary but make up almost 60
percent of the words you use.* Your brain is not wired to notice them but if you
pay close attention, you will start to see their subtle power.
Function words behave differently than you might think. For example, the
most commonly used word in spoken English, I, is used at far higher rates by
followers than by leaders, truth-tellers than liars. People who use high rates of
articles—a, an, the—do better in college than low users. And if you want to find
your true love, compare the ways you use function words with that of your
Although this book focuses on function words, it really isn’t about parts of
speech at all. Rather, it’s about how these words serve as windows into people’s
personalities and social connections. My training and early research bridged the
areas of social, personality, clinical, and health psychology. Only through some
accidental discoveries did I even notice the existence of these stealth words.
At first, the study of function words was a side venture. But as I delved
more deeply into the topic, I started making some unexpected connections to
leadership, mental health, brain function, and other issues. Soon, my students
and I were spending time with computer engineers, linguists, FBI agents,
lawyers, doctors, and marketing gurus, and with colleagues in history, political
science, communications, and even accounting. And, most recently, we have
been swept up in the social media frenzy—applying our ideas and methods to
Twitter, Facebook, online dating, blogging, instant messaging, e-mail, and even
the occasional old-fashioned telephone call. This book is a little like a travel guide. It is organized around some of my
favorite topics in psychology and the social sciences—personality, gender,
deception, leadership, love, history, politics, and groups. The goal is to show
how the analysis of function words can lead to new insights in each of these
topics. At the same time, I want you to appreciate ways of thinking about and
analyzing language. No matter what your personal or professional interest, I
hope you come to see the world differently and can use this knowledge to better
understand yourself and others. A REVOLUTION IS under way in the analysis of language that will have a
profound effect on the social sciences and humanities. The words that people
generate in their lifetimes are like fingerprints. Increasingly, these words can be
used to establish people’s identities and even their backgrounds. Language use,
especially the use of function words, can signal people’s social networks and the
roles they play in their families, in their neighborhoods, and at work. Wherever
there is a word trail, a host of new computer-based methods can follow it.
Shakespeare, Confucius, authors of ancient religious texts, politicians, and
novelists have left behind a mind-boggling number of words that scholars from
all disciplines can now study with new eyes and unprecedented tools.
Although the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a
work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for
its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological
states. Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s
thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements
in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars
across many disciplines—linguists, sociolinguists, English scholars,
anthropological linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists,
computer scientists, computational linguists, and others. Some of the most
innovative work is now coming from collaborations between academics of all
stripes and companies such as Google.
If you are interested in the topics or approach of this book, there are a
handful of very bright thinkers and writers whose work is accessible to a wide
audience. Some who have influenced my approach the most include the
sociologist Erving Goffman, the linguist George Lakoff, the cognitive scientist
Steven Pinker, the sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, and the anthropologist Anna
The contributions of many others have directly affected my thinking about the fundamental connections between word use and psychological state. Freud’s
early work on slips of the tongue marked the first psychological
acknowledgment that unintended words that pop out of our mouths can reveal
hidden thoughts and feelings. Later psychoanalysts, such as Louis Gottschalk
and Walter Weintraub, provided road maps on how to link seemingly innocuous
words to deeper motivations and fears that patients were expressing.
Several computer-based text analysis systems presaged my own computer
work, especially Philip Stone’s General Inquirer program in the 1960s. Any
comprehensive story about the early days of text analysis also includes names
such as Doug Biber, Herb Clark, Donald Foster, Howard Giles, Rod Hart, Robert
Hogenraad, Hans Kordy, Klaus Krippendorf, Colin Martindale, Erhard
Mergenthaler, and others.
The people who have influenced me the most, however, have been my
students and colleagues over the years. This book reflects the collaborative effort
of dozens, even hundreds, of people. Those who have been most central to the
current language project include Jenna Baddeley, David Beaver, Roger Booth,
Martha Francis, Art Graesser, Carla Groom, Jeff Hancock, Molly Ireland, Ewa
Kacewicz, Laura King, Matthias Mehl, Kate Niederhoffer, Keith Petrie, Nairán
Ramírez-Esparza, Stephanie Rude, Yitai Seih, Richard Slatcher, Lori Stone
Handelman, and Yla Tausczik. Bill Swann, Bob Josephs, and my other
colleagues in the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin
have also been important in guiding my work.
This book would not have been possible without funding from the National
Science Foundation, Army Research Institute, National Institutes of Health, and
College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas. I’m especially grateful for the
support of my book whisperer, Marc Aronson, agent, Deirdre Mullane, and
editors at Bloomsbury Press, Peter Ginna and Pete Beatty.
Three people have influenced this book more than any. Cindy Chung has
been at the heart of the language research with me for many years. Her ideas,
feedback, and humor have made the journey a pure pleasure. Sam Gosling, my
colleague and co-conspirator, has pressed me to think more broadly about
personality and social processes. Finally, my wife, Ruth, has inspired, guided,
and nudged me to think about stories, social relationships, and the real world in
new ways every day. Her delicate fingerprints are on every page of this book. CHAPTER 1
Discovering the Secret Life of the Most Forgettable Words
Good morning everyone! Have a fabulous day! Xoxo Paris :)
—PARIS HILTON, media personality
went to the mountains above Beirut yesterday to meet with Walid Jumblatt—the
leader of the Druze—fascinating experience.
—JOHN MCCAIN, U.S. Senator
Hanging out with friends—“pom” martinis-getting ready to watch xmas special.
10 eastern 9 central. Going caroling afterward!
—OPRAH WINFREY, media mogul and television host
time to drink a bottle of wine and sketch for the new tour. st.louis was brilliant.
there’s eyeliner on my knee, and blood on my elbow. shady
—LADY GAGA, singer and songwriter OVER 100,000 YEARS ago, our ancestors began talking. About 5,000 years
ago, humans started writing. In the last 150 years, we adopted everything from
the telegraph, radio, and television to e-mail, text messages, blogs, and other
social media. The ways we connect with one another may have changed but we
still are compelled to communicate our ideas, experiences, and emotions to those
Beginning in 2006, we began to use Twitter. Anyone with a Twitter account
can broadcast brief updates, or “tweets,” that can be instantly read by almost
anyone. On a minute-by-minute basis, you can know what your friends or even
world-famous celebrities are thinking. Many readers may wonder why people
would want to do this. However, once you immerse yourself in the Twitter
world, you can begin to appreciate some of its appeal.
Look back at the four tweets that begin this chapter. On a certain level,
these tweets are no different from everyday communication. One can imagine
overhearing similar things from someone at the next table in a restaurant. What
are the different people telling others? Paris Hilton is simply calling out a greeting. John McCain is describing meeting an important person in Lebanon.
Oprah Winfrey tells us about her plans for the evening. Lady Gaga wants us to
know that she is getting into the spirit of her new tour.
But there is more in these tweets than their authors appreciate. Each entry is
like a fingerprint. For example, if this were a multiple-choice test and people
were asked to match the tweet with the author, most would make a perfect score
on the test. Even if you had never heard of any of the authors, the mere label of
“media personality,” “U.S. senator,” etc. would provide enough information to
make educated guesses about who tweeted what.
The tweets also provide insights into each person’s thinking and
personality. Hilton is relentlessly upbeat with her exclamation points and
emoticons. McCain works to impress his readers with his big words and
worldliness. Winfrey, the consummate salesperson, “drops” what time the
Christmas special (which is actually her Christmas special) will be aired. And
Lady Gaga conveys that she is a bit wild but also thoughtful and, judging by her
use of pronouns, somewhat prone to depression.
If we started analyzing more tweets from each of these people, we would
begin to get a much richer sense of their motivations, fears, emotions, and the
ways they connect with others and themselves. Each person uses words in a
unique way. Some people, like Lady Gaga, tend to be highly personal in the
ways they communicate—they are self-reflective in their use of words such as I
and me. Others, like John McCain, reveal that they have a great deal of trouble in
connecting to others. In fact, if you would like to try out a quick personality
analysis tool based on peoples’ Twitter feeds, try out the experimental website
that my colleagues and I created, .
Often, some of the most revealing words that we use are the shortest and
most forgettable. Pronouns (such as I, you, we, and they), articles (a, an, the),
prepositions (e.g., to, for, over), and other stealth words broadcast the kind of
people we are. And this is the story of this book.
It has been a long road from our ancestors’ uttering their first sentences to
Paris Hilton’s tweeting her greetings. Due in large part to the current
technological revolution, we now have the tools to analyze tweets and Facebook
updates, e-mails, old-fashioned letters and books, and the words from everyday
life. For the first time, we are able to use computers to determine how everyday
words can reflect our social and psychological states.
Who, for example, would have ever predicted that the high school student
who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essay is likely to make lower
grades in college? Or that the poet who overuses the word I in his poetry is at
higher risk of suicide? Or that a certain world leader’s use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he’d lead his country into war? By looking more
carefully at the ways people convey their thoughts in language we can begin to
get a sense of their personalities, emotions, and connections with others. WHEN SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AND LANGUAGE MEET
Before describing the secret life of words, it may be helpful to say a bit about the
author. That would be me. I’m a social psychologist whose interest in words
came about almost accidentally. As you will see, the focus of this book is really
on people rather than language per se. Words and language are, of course,
fascinating topics. Through the eyes of a social psychologist, words are even
more intriguing as clues to the inner workings of people.
By way of background, my early career dealt with health, emotions, and the
nature of traumatic experiences. In the early 1980s, I stumbled on a finding that
fascinated me. People who reported having a terrible traumatic experience and
who kept the experience a secret had far more health problems than people who
openly talked about their traumas. Why would keeping a secret be so toxic?
More importantly, if you asked people to disclose emotionally powerful secrets,
would their health improve? The answer, my students and I soon discovered, was
We began running experiments where people were asked to write about
traumatic experiences for fifteen to twenty minutes a day for three or four
consecutive days. Compared to people who were told to write about
nonemotional topics, those who wrote about trauma evidenced improved
physical health. Later studies found that emotional writing boosted immune
function, brought about drops in blood pressure, and reduced feelings of
depression and elevated daily moods. Now, over twenty-five years after the first
writing experiment, more than two hundred similar writing studies have been
conducted all over the world. While the effects are often modest, the mere act of
translating emotional upheavals into words is consistently associated with
improvements in physical and mental health.
IN SEARCH OF A THEORY TO EXPLAIN THE POWER OF
Why does writing work? Some scientists suggest that repeatedly confronting painful emotions eventually lessens their impact—we adapt to them. Another
group points to the unhealthy effects of rumination and unfinished business.
Many people who have a traumatic experience keep replaying the events in their
minds in a futile attempt to make sense of their suffering. The never-ending
thoughts about their emotional upheavals can disrupt their sleep and make it
impossible to focus on their jobs and their relationships. Writing about the
trauma, according to this view, allows people to find meaning or understanding
in these events and helps to resolve their emotional turmoil.
The answer isn’t simple. I’m now convinced that when people write about
traumatic events, several healthy changes occur simultaneously, including
changes in people’s thinking patterns, emotional responses, brain activity, sleep
and health behaviors, and so forth. Discovering why writing is effective for one
person may not explain why it works for someone else.
What the early writing researchers failed to consider was that people were
using words to describe their personal upheavals. Perhaps the key to expressive
writing was buried in what people actually say in their essays. The stories people
wrote were powerful and oftentimes haunting. In almost every project,
participants wrote about physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, divorce, drug
and alcohol problems, suicides, terrible accidents, and feelings of failure,
humiliation, and suffering. Not only was there a wide range of powerful stories
but the ways people wrote about them differed widely. Some people used humor,
others were full of rage, yet other stories were written in a cold, detached, and
If a group of clinical psychologists or just regular people read these essays,
could they decipher what dimensions of writing predicted improved physical
health? We tried this and the answer was no. The stories were too complicated
and even the most conscientious readers couldn’t agree about which elements of
people’s heartbreaking stories were most meaningful. Some other approach was
needed to unlock the reason behind the effectiveness of expressive writing.
THE COMPUTER REVOLUTION AND THE BIRTH OF LIWC
It was 1991 and the revolution in computer technology was well under way.
There had been some major breakthroughs in the computerized analysis of
language in research that had been done at Princeton, Harvard, and MIT in the
1960s and 1970s. Surely, with this new technology, I could get a computer
program that could analyze my trauma essays. No judges, no heartache. I could
get some answers with the press of a button.
Unfortunately, no simple computer programs were available at the time. “How hard could it be to write such a program?” I asked myself. By a happy
coincidence, a new graduate student who had been a professional programmer
had just joined my research team. “Martha,” I casually told her, “I’ve got a great
idea for a new program that should only take about three weeks to develop.”
Martha E. Francis turned out to be a creative programmer with a flair for social
psychology, though she had no idea what she was getting into. Although the guts
of the program were written very quickly, the “three-week project” took on a life
of its own. In three years, we finally rolled out the first version of a computer
program we called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC (pronounced
The idea behind LIWC was that the words people used—whether in a
trauma essay or everyday speech—would reflect their feelings and that by the
simple process of counting these words we could gain insights into their
emotional states. We assumed that angry people would use anger-related words;
sad people would use sadness words. In writing about a trauma, the emotional
states of our participants should be reflected in their selection of emotionally
So, in developing the LIWC program, we created a series of word
dictionaries designed to capture different psychological concepts. For example,
we built an anger dictionary, now made up of over 180 words, that comprised
numerous words related to anger, such as hate, rage, kill, slash, revenge, etc. We
also included word stems such as kill so that any word that starts with the letters
K-I-L-L, such as killer, killing, kills, and killed, would be counted as well. We
then went on to build dictionaries for sadness, anxiety, positive emotions, and
other mood states.
The trauma essays differed in multiple dimensions beyond their emotional
tone. To cast a fairly broad net we developed other lexicons that measured the
occurrence of other types of words, such as the use of different types of
pronouns (e.g., first-person singular—such as I, me, and my), articles (a, an, the),
different types of thinking-related words that signal cause-effect thinking (cause,
because, reason, rationale), and so forth. Before we knew it, we had created
almost eighty different dictionaries that we felt would include nearly all of the
types of words people commonly use in everyday ...
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