We all know the old adages, “Choose your words wisely,” “Watch what you say,” or “Think before you speak.” This holds true both for what we say and for what we write. Our words, and specifically our choice of words, reveal a lot about us.
I wonder, when you visit Positive Psychology News Daily and other blogs on the Internet, what do you think of the authors? Are they friendly? Are they knowledgeable? Are they funny? Would you like to get to know them? What kind of person do you think the author is based on what she writes? New research can help you gain insight into that question.
Personality, the characteristics that make us who we are, are based on our patterns of thought, feeling, and action. Personality psychologists in the 1970’s and 1980’s defined what are known as the “Big Five” personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (sometimes remembered by the mnemonic OCEAN).
The “Big Five” traits (with the exception of Neuroticism) seem to relate directly to character strengths. Openness seems like appreciation of beauty, love of learning, curiosity, and creativity. Conscientiousness overlaps with prudence, self-control, and persistence. Extraversion matches zest and social intelligence, while Agreeableness also links with social intelligence as well as with kindness, citizenship, and fairness.
Yes, Somebody Studied Blogger Personality Traits
In a recent article, Tal Yarkoni, a researcher at the University of Colorado, published the results of an extensive study looking at what bloggers write. The article examined correlations between personality traits and word use, using a sample of almost 700 bloggers who had written an average of over 115,000 words over almost two years.
Yarkoni identified the bloggers through Google Blog search. 75% of the participants were women, and the average age was 36. The participants took personality tests and were scored in terms of the Big Five personality traits. Then the language in the blogs was analyzed, using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) protocol. The results were compared to the six sub-traits of each of the Big Five to see which words most commonly matched.
Here is a list of four of the top words found for each Big Five personality trait and the Big Five Personality Traits. Before looking, can you guess which go together?
Highly correlated words
Big Five Personality Trait
|1. Wonderful, together, visiting, morning||A) Openness|
|2. Completed, adventure, stupid, boring||B) Conscientiousness|
|3. Folk, humans, poet, art||C) Extraversion|
|4. Awful, lazy, worse, depressing||D) Agreeableness|
|5. Bar, drinks, restaurant, dancing||E) Neuroticism|
The answer key is: 1D, 2B, 3A, 4E and 5C
Are You Surprised?
When we look at the words and the personality types they are paired with, are we surprised? For the most part, probably not. It makes sense that an extraverted person would write about the time she spent at a bar having drinks with friends and then going out to a restaurant and then dancing. And a neurotic person, rather than describing the world in optimistic terms is likely to characterize things as “awful, lazy, worse, or depressing.” Also, it was interesting that the word “size” correlated with neuroticism, particularly in the terms of clothing sizes and self-consciousness.
Equally, an agreeable person, who focuses on kindness and teamwork would be likely to write about “visiting” other people, and maybe even sharing a “wonderful morning together.” An amusing side note about agreeableness was that when it first correlated with sexual words, the researchers were somewhat puzzled. However, when they did more investigation, they found the “sexual” words used by agreeable people were more likely to be “loves,” “love” and “hug” rather than something like “porn,” or other more off-color words.
In the article, Yarkoni speaks least about conscientiousness and the findings in this area. In the top four listed above, “completed” seems to be the most logical word to find in the conscientious list. The six sub-traits under conscientiousness are self-efficacy, orderliness, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, and cautiousness. My favorite finding here was that the following words, “tbsp,” “vegetables,” “temperature,” “carrots,” and “snack” were correlated with orderliness. My sense was that a handful of cooking blogs fell into the research. It seems that people who cook (or write about recipes) must be conscientious and orderly.
However, the personality trait that seemed the most interesting from this linguistic study was that of openness. People high in this trait used 13 times as many words! The sub-traits under openness are Artistic Interests, Emotionality, Imagination, Adventurousness, Intellect, and Liberalism. Artistic Interests and Emotionality both positively correlated with positive emotions. And perhaps because writing is an intellectual and artistic endeavor, it was easier to spot openness, rather than other traits, among bloggers.
People interested in positive psychology know the importance of optimistic explanatory style from Seligman’s work and the significant benefits of writing for health from the work of Burton and King. Yet while we know our writing, when focused on the positive is good for us, what effect does it have on other people? This study of personality represented through blogs is important because it shows us how our use of language presents us to others. While personality is inherent, it is also how the world sees us.
Of course, this raises many questions, both about this research and future research. While Yarkoni threw out any commercial blogs, were all the blogs included of a personal narrative style? A cooking blog or a positive psychology blog may have personal anecdotes but it is designed for public consumption, not for sharing private details. And, if we judge personality on the “public” versions of ourselves that we put out, how accurate is that to our true nature? Does a blog have to be a personal diary to be helpful in this case?
And beyond blogs, for everything we read, what does word use tell us about the writer, and how does it inform and shape us as the readers? As we look towards a “positive humanities,” must we look not only at the moral of the story, but also at the very words that are used to tell it? Are there books where the language of the story is so uplifting, that it supersedes the tragedy of the story? (I point to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby here as a potential example.)
At the same time, does this research point us to words that we should try to use more frequently or avoid? Are we healthier and more positive when we talk about dancing and visiting together, sharing wonderful poetry and art, rather than dwelling on things we consider awful, stupid or depressing? Surely, life can’t always be happiness and play, but how we use our words to describe our experiences or to relate to others, reflects what we think and do. As a result, the old adage, “Be careful how you chose your words,” holds a lot of truth, because our words shape our world
Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2009). The benefits of writing about positive experiences: Applying the broaden and build model. Psychology and Health, 24, 867-879.
Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2008). The effects of (very) brief writing on health: The 2-minute miracle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13, 9-14.
McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T. (1987) Validation of the five-factor model of personality across instruments and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81-90.
McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T. (1997) Personality trait structure as a human universal. American Psychologist, 52, 509-516.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Toepfer, S. & Walker, K. (). Letters of Gratitude: Improving
Well-Being through Expressive Writing. Journal of Writing Research, 1(3), 181-198.
Yarkoni, T. (2010). Personality in 100,000 Words: A large-scale analysis of personality and word use among bloggers. Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 363-373.
Fitzgerald, F. S. The Great Gatsby.
Laptop, Headphone, and Comfort courtesy of Adam Tinworth
Personalizing WordPress 1.5 (blogging software) courtesy of Juan Pablo Olmo
Spark Meat with Herbs courtesy of Thoth, God of Knowledge
Word Cloud for this article generated with Wordle.net
Donald Keene at home in Tokyo courtesy of Aurelio Asiain