Discover the hidden meanings behind what people write and say, and find out how you can use therapeutic writing to change — or even save — your own life
Imagine a scenario where every email you sent — and in fact everything you said and wrote — included hidden messages.
That scenario is real, according to expert Dr. James Pennebaker who recently spoke at length to Scientific American about the implications of his breakthrough work in language analytics. Pennebaker’s new book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, reveals the secret codes in language, especially forgettable words like I, you, me, we, they, he, and she.
Pennebaker uses his therapeutic writing techniques to scrutinize not just emails but political speeches, advertisements, historical documents, blogs, and even quizzes you can take yourself to discover surprising facts regarding what your words reveal about your psychology.
Our language’s hidden codes can tell you powerful things about yourself and others. These secret patterns can even increase your odds of correctly guessing whether a person is lying or telling the truth. Best of all, intentional forms of language use can actually improve your health … or even save your life.
Using Pronouns “Flexibly” Leads to Improved Health
The health effects of language first grabbed Pennebaker’s attention back in the 1980s. He and his colleagues developed a computerized text analysis program for predicting how language use affects future health. He discovered that when people were asked to write about emotional upheavals, their physical health improved.
Pennebaker also found out that those who boosted their health most were those who changed the way they used pronouns from one writing assignment to the next. In other words, they sometimes used a lot of first-person personal pronouns such as I, me, and we, and other times they focused on the perspective of others with pronouns like he, she, they, and you.
Their ability to shift perspectives led to better health.
Therapeutic Writing to Heal
Pennebaker has devoted two books to the specifics of language and better health: Opening Up and Writing to Heal. His research shows that just 4 days of focused writing can bring big payoffs for everyone, whether their problems are death, divorce, or just a difficult commute.
“They go to the doctor less,” said Pennebaker in an interview with the University of Texas (UT). “They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up.”
Interestingly, it doesn’t matter if people rip their words to shreds immediately after writing them. Even those participants who share their writing with no one gain better health.
The Basic Assignment for Writing to Heal
Dr. Pennebaker’s basic therapeutic writing assignment is amazingly simple. He instructs participants as follows:
“Over the next 4 days write about your deepest emotions and the emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. Write continuously for 20 minutes.”
A Diary Does NOT Offer the Same Benefits
Pennebaker is doubtful that a daily diary brings the same health benefits as his basic writing assignment. “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks,” he told UT. “You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity.”
Pennebaker’s Writing to Heal is filled with exercises suitable for anyone with pen and paper. It also includes some dos and don’ts. For example, Pennebaker doesn’t recommend writing about a trauma too soon after it happens. A little distance is often necessary before we’re ready to dive into something difficult.
“People who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.” –Dr. James Pennebaker
Therapeutic Writing Saved Her Life
One of Pennebaker’s research participants was a woman whose husband died suddenly in an accident. Her fellow students were unanimously impressed with her ability to carry on with no dramatic negative effects from her husband’s death.
After coming to Pennebaker saying she needed to write about her loss, the young woman claimed she was transformed. A short time later, she left school and moved back to her hometown. The writing assignment led her to realize she was on the wrong path, and that she had been putting up a cheerful front when what she deeply needed was something entirely different.
She said those four days of writing with Pennebaker actually saved her life.
Pronouns and Power: Your Emails Reveal Your Perceptions of Status
Pennebaker told Scientific American that one of his most fascinating studies dealt with status in email correspondence. “Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less than people who are low in status,” he explained.
After observing that this effect was strong and consistent, Pennebaker decided to test it on himself by analyzing his own sent emails. He found that he, too, changed the way he used pronouns depending on whether he felt more or less powerful than the person to whom he was writing.
“I was the same as everyone else,” Pennebaker said. “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.”
How Certain Words Can Tip Us Off to a Lie
The most potentially controversial application for Pennebaker’s function-word analysis is lie detection.
Among the controlled studies Pennebaker and his team conducted to test their language-based lie detection was one in which 200 students were asked to write two essays about abortion. In one essay, the students expressed their actual views — in the other, they took a false stand. Human judges who analyzed the views were able to distinguish truth from lies 52% of the time, just a hair above the chance rate of 50%.
In contrast, Pennebaker’s linguistics analysis computer program predicted lying about 67% of the time. “This is actually quite impressive…,” Pennebaker told Scientific American. He noted that a 95% accurate language-based lie detection system won’t happen in this lifetime because it’s simply too complicated.
According to Pennebaker, people telling the truth use:
• More words
• Bigger words
• More complex sentences
• More exclusive words (except, but, without)
• More I-words (I, me, my, etc.)
Liars, apparently, rely on straightforward statements. However, their simple statements are less specific and more general than those of truth-tellers. Pennebaker speculates that it’s more difficult for us to make up ideas than to express our real ones. As for I-words, liars avoid them because they don’t feel (or want to express) ownership of false views.
Language Use and Success
Another fascinating capacity of Pennebaker’s therapeutic writing programs is the prediction of a person’s academic (or possibly other) success based on the words they use in college admissions essays. The findings are surprising and seem applicable to success in work and life as much as in college.
Across four years, Pennebaker’s team analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Those who used more nouns and fewer verbs and pronouns had higher GPAs throughout college, regardless of their majors.
“To me, the use of nouns — especially concrete nouns — reflects people’s attempts to categorize and name objects, events, and ideas in their worlds,” said Pennebaker.
“Forgettable” Words Have Major Life Impact
It may seem ironic that our forgettable words like pronouns and prepositions hold such powerful secrets. But the truth is that a closer look at what our words are really saying can bring surprising revelations about our attitudes. The words of others can tip us off to equally valuable information.
Best of all, using words intentionally to heal can yield profound and permanent health improvements. It all starts with recognizing the patterns uncovered by Pennebaker’s language analysis programs.