The words people use are like fingerprints that can reveal their relationships, honesty, or their status in a group. Scientists are using linguistic software to analyze pronouns, articles, prepositions and a handful of other small function words. Social psychologist James W. Pennebaker says, "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.
"On their own, function words have very little meaning. 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."
Pennebaker even delves into politics, discovering why President Barack Obama uses "I" less than any modern president of the United States. He says, "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,” which may be why he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts at conciliation. It may also be why he gets criticized by people who prefer a more brash approach to politics.
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 to his self confidence and the misconception that confident people must use "I" all the time (when it’s really the opposite). 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.
Hmmm, that’s something to think about when we begin to hear all those campaign speeches next year. Will we be able to tell if they’re lying? "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’ (because) 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 how words are being used 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. He says, "We did a better job predicting if they would go on a date than they did themselves."
Meanwhile, Classicist Robert E. Wolverton Sr. has released his survey of ugliest and most beautiful words used in the media, and he has noticed a new trend–fewer religious words. Have we finally stopped using religion as a weapon?
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