Professor works to help explain human psychology through words

Professor James Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin spoke at the Weston A. Bousfield Psychology Building on Jan. 20, 2016. (William Chan/The Daily Campus)

University of Texas at Austin professor James Pennebaker gave a broad talk detailing his academic career studying the human psychology of words to a group of faculty and students Wednesday afternoon at the Weston A. Bousfield Psychology Building.

Pennebaker, who served as his university’s Chair of Psychology Department from 2005-2014, began his lecture by detailing the experiment that launched the bulk of his studies. For this experiment, he asked subjects to write anonymously about the traumatic experiences that they have kept to themselves throughout their lives.

After assembling two randomly-selected groups, one to serve as the experimental group that would write about these experiences and one to serve as the control group writing about purely superficial topics, Pennebaker used his students to help evaluate the results. Using a system to help analyze the word content, he found that after the experiment, the experimental group visited the Student Health Center at half the rate of the control group.

With these findings on health improvement under his belt, Pennebaker set out to write a computer program to help study the psychological linguistics of words even further. With help from an enterprising computer science student, he created the Linguistic Inquiring Word Count system (LIWC), to help evaluate people through their own words.

The system divided words into different categories, including emotion words, causal words and various parts of speech. After some fine-tuning, the system was honed to primarily calculate the rates at which “emotional words” and “cognitive words” appear.

Through some more experimentation, LIWC helped to bring Pennebaker a plethora of discoveries. He found that people who acknowledged their level of happiness in their writing were happier regardless of their actual emotional state. He also noticed distinct mental differences between those who primarily used first-person pronouns in their writing and those who switched between various pronouns as the experiment progressed.

As he fed more words into his program, Pennebaker noticed confusing differences between genders, statistics that he believed went against the common societal perceptions. This helped lead him to studying social differences through words and he learned a lot from a book he read that detailed the use of “function words.”

“Function words,” which he also described in the lecture as “junk words,” are inherently social and mean nothing to the outside viewer of an interaction between people. However, they are hugely important in defining a person’s social interest. The more “junk words” that one uses, the more likely they are to seek out social interaction.

These words serve another purpose, which is to study the similarities between two people, or a group of people. Two people who use similar amounts of “function words” are more likely to remain in a romantic relationship together, as they show high levels of engagement through a common “style-matching” score.

The final dimension that Pennebaker explored through his program was analytical thinking. By feeding college application essays into LIWC, he discovered that those who showed higher levels of analytical thinking in their writing displayed higher grade-point averages over the course of their college careers.

Pennebaker closed his lecture by acknowledging that we live in an age with many enticing new ways to study and analyze lectures. However, he also pointed out that the field is filled with computer scientists, rather than psychologists, whom he believed should be heavily involved in these studies. He implored the gathered audience to go out and change that.


Tyler Keating is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu