The Secret Language Code | The Rundown News Blog | PBS… | XYDO

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The Secret Language Code

From the page: “PENNEBAKER: … In the 1980s, my students and I discovered that if people were asked to write about emotional upheavals, their physical health improved. Apparently, putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. In an attempt to better understand the power of writing, we developed a computerized text analysis program to determine how language use might predict later health improvements. In other words, I wanted to find if there was a healthy way to write.

Much to my surprise, I soon discovered that the ways people used pronouns in their essays predicted whose health would improve the most. Specifically, those people who benefited the most from writing changed in their pronoun use from one essay to another. Pronouns were reflecting people’s abilities to change perspective.

As I pondered these findings, I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts — blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.

COOK: What would make you think that the use of pronouns would be meaningful?

PENNEBAKER: Never in a million years would I have thought that pronouns would be a worthwhile research topic. I ran study after study and initially found large and unexpected differences between people in their pronoun use. In hindsight, I think I ignored the findings because they didn’t make sense. One day, I lined up about five experiments that I had conducted and every one revealed the same effects. It was that day that I finally admitted to myself that pronouns must be meaningful.

COOK: What differences have you found between men and women?

PENNEBAKER: Almost everything you think you know is probably wrong. Take this little test. Who uses the following words more, women or men?

1st person singular (I, me, my) 1st person plural (we, us our) articles (a, an, the) emotion words (e.g., happy, sad, love, hate) cognitive words (e.g., because, reason, think, believe) social words (e.g., he, she, friend, cousin)

Most people assume that men use I-words and cognitive words more than women and that women use we-words, emotions, and social words more than men. Bad news. You were right if you guessed that women use social words more. However, women use I-words and cognitive words at far higher rates than men. There are no reliable differences between men and women for use of we-words or emotion words (OK, those were trick questions). And men use articles more than women, when you might guess there’d be no difference.

These differences hold up across written and spoken language and most other languages that we have studied. You can’t help but marvel at the fact that we are all bombarded by words from women and men every day of our lives and most of us have never “heard” these sex differences in language. Part of the problem is that our brains aren’t wired to listen to pronouns, articles, prepositions, and other “junk” words. When we listen to another person, we typically focus on what they are saying rather than how they are saying it.

Men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently. Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things. To talk about human relationships requires social and cognitive words. To talk about concrete objects, you need concrete nouns which typically demand the use of articles.

No matter what your sex, if you have to explain that Sally is leaving her husband because of her new lover, you have to make references to all the actors and you have to do some fairly complex cognitive analyses. If you have to explain why your carburetor in your car is broken, your causal analysis will likely be relatively pallid and will involve referring to concrete nouns.

PENNEBAKER: 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…”

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