Pronoun usage: a psychological tell

Psychologies James Pennebaker has unearthed a hidden code in the way we use pronouns, and he shares some of the more intriguing findings in this interview

Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status. The effects were quite robust and, naturally, I wanted to test this on myself. I always assumed that I was a warm, egalitarian kind of guy who treated people pretty much the same.

I was the same as everyone else. When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached -- hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free.

One of the most fascinating effects I’ve seen in quite awhile is that we can predict people’s college performance reasonably well by simply analyzing their college admissions essays. Across four years, we analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students’ major.

To me, the use of nouns -- especially concrete nouns -- reflects people’s attempts to categorize and name objects, events, and ideas in their worlds. The use of verbs and pronouns typically occur when people tell stories. Universities clearly reward categorizers rather than story tellers. If true, can we train young students to categorize more? Alternatively, are we relying too much on categorization strategies in American education?
Ben Zimmer reviews Pennebaker's book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, and offers one cautionary tale of note. Many political pundits excoriate Obama for using I/me/my too often in his speeches, but using statistical analysis, Pennebaker determines that Obama uses those words less frequently than any modern U.S. President (post Truman).

But Pennebaker warns that this doesn't mean Obama is less confident than past Presidents. In fact, it's a sign of his self-confidence that he uses first-person pronouns with such low frequency.