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What Our Words Say

written by Aren Cohen 18 November 2010

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

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.

Blogger in action

Blogger in action

Blogger Personalities

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

Blogger staring at post

Blogger staring at post

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.

So What?

Words in This Article

Words in This Article

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?

Donald Keene Writing

Donald Keene Writing

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

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Ms. V 29 November 2010 - 10:46 pm

Hi Aren,

I agree that words are somewhat a quiet form of what we are. I know that we use things such as bloggers, twittering, facebook, etc. and maybe we can determine some personality from there; but what about children? Do you believe that children’s writings also have a tendancy to express who they are or what might be going on with them as well? Maybe the child who writes a sad story about a rainy day outside is experiencing unhappiness? Or maybe they just felt like writing about something sad? Also curious to know if this is one of the methods(writing) that psychologist use to find out how children are feeling without asking them directly….thoughts?

Aren Cohen 30 November 2010 - 12:45 am

Ms. V,

Thank you for your interesting question. In my experience, children’s writing often reflects what is going on with them personally. Of course, if you give them an assignment to write about the State of Delaware, this will not be the case. But with creative, open-ended writing, you often learn quite a lot about what makes a little person tick.

At one point in time, I had two second graders in my practice, and the contrast between them was quite striking. Jessie was a very happy little girl whose parents were low-key, loving and realistic. Often when I would ask Jessie to write about something, she would write a story about a birthday party or a sleep-over date, and then we would get into “wish-fulfillment territory” when she described a breakfast with pancakes made with M&M’s accompanied by chocolate milk. All in all, Jessie’s stories were always upbeat, and even if there was something sad thing in her story, she would not linger on it and often the characters in the story would overcome it.

The second little girl, Maria, was not so happy. Her parents, while loving, put undue pressure on her. According to her parents, Maria was “not challenged enough in school.” At seven years old, Maria already knew that she much preferred writing non-fiction to creative writing because it was based in fact. One day I asked Maria to write a poem about herself. It was one of the saddest things I had ever read. Maria talked about how her parents were chasing her, how she had to eat fast because it was getting late and how she was lazy. She also said she had a paper cut in the poem.

Paper cuts and M&M pancakes are worlds away from each other. At first glance, one would assume both girls were happy and confident.* But when I scratched the surface and read what they wrote, I gained a whole new perspective about what was going on in their heads.

So, in answer to your question, yes, getting children to write about themselves (or even sometimes fictional characters) is an effective method for finding out how they are feeling.

Thanks for the question,

*I make the note that outwardly both girls seems “happy and confident” because I think it is important here to distinguish between “can we know a child’s personality” vs. “can we know how a child feels.” I do believe that looking a child’s writing will give us clues to how she/she feels and perhaps give us insight as to whether or not the child has a tendency towards optimism (or an optimistic explanatory style.) As to whether or not children’s writings can be used to determine or predict their personalities, I would have to say (based on gut, not research or personal experience) that the jury is still out on that.

Holly 30 November 2010 - 5:49 pm

Hello there,

I was wondering and very interested in how would the “big five” personality traits affect our terms of language when using your words wisely?

Aren Cohen 30 November 2010 - 11:32 pm

Hi Holly,

Great question. First off, let me qualify this whole discussion by saying that I am not an expert on the Big Five personality traits, but my understanding is that the way we use language is a reflection of our personality. Our use of language allows psychologists to parse our words and examine our personality types (which are presumably a combination of all of the Big Five).

I suppose what I meant when I said we should “use” or “choose” our words wisely is that our words reveal more about us than we might think. As a result, it is in our own benefit to be thoughtful about the words we use because they are directly linked to our personality traits and how others perceive us.

My Grandfather once told me a story:

During World War II, my Grandfather and Grandmother were moving from Pennsylvania to Kansas because my Grandfather had enlisted in the Army and had been sent to a base for training. My Grandfather was a young man then, and when a older friend of the family asked him about his upcoming journey, my Grandfather responded saying that he was “anxious to go.” The older man corrected my Grandfather and said, “Mort, you are NOT anxious. You are EAGER to go.”

Years later my Grandfather shared this with me and I have always remembered it. A person who uses the word “anxious” is more likely to be showing the trait of Neuroticism. By using the word “eager,” a person is more likely to be considered exhibiting the traits of Openness or Agreeableness. Which personality trait would you rather flaunt?

The language we use to describe our life and the world around us creates a frame, but we choose the frame. Research shows that “optimistic explanatory style” is often healthier for us. We know that in Appreciative Inquiry, if we ask the question, “What’s right with us,” we tend to have a better, more productive, meaningful and constructive conversation than if we had asked, “what’s wrong with us?” How we ask our questions, how we describe events all help create the frame.

I don’t mean to place any value judgements on personality traits. All are valid and important, and each of us probably possesses some amount of all of them. But personally, I would rather have less neuroticism in my life. I would like to use (and hear) the words “sad, unhappy and depressed” less. I prefer being (and being perceived as) open and agreeable. I enjoy thinking about and sharing with my friends and family the things that make me happy and give me joy: my wonderful husband, a great meal, a fantastic sunrise or a gorgeous Van Gogh painting.

One of the most active choices we make is what words we use to express ourselves and how they are going to frame our lives. It is in that context that I say, “choose your words wisely.”



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