May 02, 2012

James Pennebaker's 'Secret Life of Pronouns'

Two days ago, I wrote: "Healthy narcissism is having enough self-worth to use the capital "I" without fainting. The capital "I" familiarizes us with ourselves. Me, myself and I enhances self-awareness. For those of us who weren't quite sure who we were or what we stood for, the capital "I" is our best friend during recovery...It's important to rustle up enough courage to say "I"...pathological narcissists are loath to reveal anything about themselves that other people  could use against them."

Synchronicity? Serendipity? After writing my post about Healthy and Pathological Narcissism, I stumbled across a video by James Pennebaker who says people using "I" tend to be telling the truth. That assertion flies in the face of pop-psychology suggesting the number of "I"s in someone's writing proves they're mendacious narcissists. So there. End of story. People using "I, me, my" are honest.

There's a few other interesting things Pennebaker had to say about frequent-"I"-ers. But if I tell you everything they discovered, it'll mess up your score on his "I" exam. You can take the "I" test on his website: The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Several tests are located under the Exercises tab at the top of his webpage. He provides an image on one of his tests and you write a ten-minute story about the image. That was fun! The computerized results of my writing tests were interesting. They weren't AMAZING like an astrological chart, or exciting like a psychic palm reading but, they were likely more accurate. *grin*

Other Resources you might enjoy:

Scientific American "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." 

Wikipedia Page "James W. Pennebaker (born March 2, 1950, Midland, Texas) is an American social psychologist. He is the Centennial Liberal Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.[1] His research focuses on the relationship between natural language use, health, and social behavior, most recently "how everyday language reflects basic social and personality processes". 

James Pennebaker's website: The Secret Life of Pronouns

James Pennebaker's book, The Secret Life of Pronouns

Reference Post: Healthy Narcissism and Self-Admiration


  1. I was taught "I" language is healthy. It moves us into our power, claims our presence and grounds us in the moment.

    So there.

    I'm an I'er because 'youing' it disconnects me from you! :)

    And btw -- the word verification was -- 'upostur phype' -- go figure :)


    1. ha@upostur phype! By the way, sorry about using word verification. When it wasn't required, my email filled up with spam ads...a real pain in the youknowwhat.

      When we start learning about narcissism, especially if we're highly stressed at the time, it's easy to see N-ism everywhere and in everyone (even ourselves!). The world is suddenly populated by narcissists everywhere.

      I remember being pregnant and suddenly noticing all the pregnant women that I had never noticed before. Where did they come from? ha!

      Counting the number of "I's" in a paragraph was listed as a tool people could use to determine the writer's narcissism. It made pretty good sense so why not go with it? Well, there was hesitation on my part because the narcissists in my life would never dare put themselves out there where they could be HELD accountable. Narcs-in-suits fit this profile. They are more likely to use 'we' than 'me'.

      It's reductive concluding narcissism is in the "I's". If it were that easy to spot an unhealthy partner/family member, we wouldn't have the social problems we do.

      I'm glad you posted though, Louise because you are one of my 'traumatized' friends who had put herself back together, one "I" at a time. Since my work involves conversing with people who've been shocked and shattered by the narcissistic relationship, using the capital "I" is imperative for restoring our self-confidence, self-worth and self-awareness (to name a few).

      Nice to see another frequent-i-er join this conversation.


  2. This is very interesting, because I always considered excessive usage of "I" as a sign of narcissism (you can see the book Pursuit of Attention by Charles Derber for an analysis of this finding). However this angle about "I" being indicative of honesty is very persuasive too.

    I don't think either side is wrong, but I'm very interested in theories about how both findings can be reconciled into a single rule.

    1. Hi T. Ricky Raw,

      I had this thought in reference to your comment: the narcissism is in the context. Kinda like the FCC ruling on what words require censorship. Narcissism is in the context.

      I might refer to what I think or feel or what my opinion is and how I came to have that opinion. A narcissist will refer to what they are doing (that's so great), how they look (that's so fabulous), their accomplishments (highly successful), the people they know (in high places) and all the reasons why you should be envious of them. ha!

      That's a simplification of course. Not all narcissists are overtly arrogant.

      Covert/shy narcissists are smart enough to hide their self-centeredness...they may even leave out an "I" for fear of being 'caught'. Even when the sentence requires an "I" to make sense. Like this:

      "Went to the store and met an old friend."

      Where's the "I"????? I've noticed this happen on healing forums where people might be neurotic about self-referential pronouns and the capital "I". Becoming comfortable with exposing ourselves takes time, testing, and tenacity.

      In making narcissism determinations, context is key. Just as the FCC is unable to 'ban' words with one rule fits all, the same goes for using "I".


  3. In my experience, using "I statements" takes practice. I spent four years in 12-step recovery groups (as a participant and a facilitator) and one of the Group Guidelines is "Use I or Me statements, not You or We."
    It is a healthy way to talk but it doesn't come naturally. Partly out of habit, and [I think] partly out of a desire to distance MYself somewhat from what I'M saying. Especially when I'm talking about being abused.

    I started to notice how often people being interviewed on TV use "you" statements, even when being asked how it feels to win the Super Bowl. (It doesn't have to be something negative that they're trying to worm their way out of.) I sure wouldn't assume all those people are not being honest; I think 9 times out of 10 it's a personal habit and a cultural norm. (I'm in the U.S., by the way. I don't know if that's common other places.)

    1. Thank you for commenting, Amy! 12-step is also part of my background. 'You' puts other people on the defensive. So we oughtn't use 'YOU' when we're talking about 'I'.

      Then came criticism about the 'Royal We'. You know, the way I write. hehehe My work with victims of narcissists has informed my replies and I frequently use the plural 'we'. 'We' doesn't mean I speak for 'all'.

      I think, purely observational, that people who do NOT know themselves very well, are reluctant to use 'I'. People who fear rejection or criticism, refrain from using 'I'. It doesn't necessarily mean they aren't narcissistic. In fact, it might indicate covert narcissism. (denial of the true self)

      For myself and others in my circumstances, using 'I' was a intimidating at first but it has initiated an intimate relationship with myself...a knowing of who we are what we stand for, what we think.

      I agree that it might be a cultural norm, a personal habit having nothing whatsoever to do with narcissism. Where we live now, people use 'you' far more than they did in California. It could be the homogeneity. Good point!



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