What Our Speech Reveals About Us
Courtesy of big data:
… data can illuminate patterns of behavior we haven’t yet noticed. For example, I’ve always assumed that people who frequently use words like “I,” “me,” and “mine” are probably more egotistical than people who don’t.
But as James Pennebaker of the University of Texas notes in his book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” when people are feeling confident, they are focused on the task at hand, not on themselves. High status, confident people use fewer “I” words, not more.
Pennebaker analyzed the Nixon tapes. Nixon used few “I” words early in his presidency, but used many more after the Watergate scandal ravaged his self-confidence. Rudy Giuliani used few “I” words through his mayoralty, but used many more later, during the two weeks when his cancer was diagnosed and his marriage dissolved. Barack Obama, a self-confident person, uses fewer “I” words than any other modern president.
Our brains often don’t notice subtle verbal patterns, but Pennebaker’s computers can. Younger writers use more downbeat and past-tense words than older writers who use more positive and future-tense words.
Liars use more upbeat words like “pal” and “friend” but fewer excluding words like “but,” “except” and “without.” (When you are telling a false story, it’s hard to include the things you did not see or think about.)
We think of John Lennon as the most intellectual of the Beatles, but, in fact, Paul McCartney’s lyrics had more flexible and diverse structures and George Harrison’s were more cognitively complex.