I contacted Dr Pennebaker after reading an excerpt from his latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. The product of fifteen years of research, The Secret Life of Pronouns argues that the way people use pronouns – the itty-bitty words like ‘you’, ‘I’ and ‘we’ that account for more than half of daily conversation – can predict things like emotional state (depressed people say “I” a lot), social status (powerful people use “I” less frequently), or truthfulness (liars tend to say “we”). No self-respecting word geek could fail to be intrigued. Dr Pennebaker replied promptly and said an interview sounded like “fun” – not a word journalists often hear from prospective subjects. My curiosity ran higher.
Turns out Pennebaker would be a tough draw in Pictionary. Born in 1950, he grew up in Midland, Texas, where his lawyer father found work amidst an oil boom that drew, among others, the Bush family. Like fellow Midlander George W, Pennebaker was an active kid with a penchant for mischief: “I had a Tom Sawyer kind of childhood,” he says. “I was a trickster. I loved school but had no memory for any of the classes.” He was curious, fun-loving, and fascinated by what made people tick. “People are the most interesting thing in Midland,” he explains. “The landscape is just flat – like a beach with no ocean.” Young James was deliciously free of career aspirations. Maybe he’d follow his father into law, which “seemed like a good life.” He loved playing the clarinet, though, and that won him a music scholarship to Eckerd, a small Presbyterian college in Florida. There, he flitted through majors in music, sociology, history and mathematics before picking up a psychology book and realizing: “This is it. This ties it all together.”
Crushing yet another academic stereotype, Pennebaker admits he didn’t grow up loving books. He only started reading to woo his writer girlfriend Ruth, who became his wife. Once discovered, novels fed his insatiable curiosity about human nature, and he gravitated towards masterfully-told tales of troubled souls, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
After finishing his BA Pennebaker went on to do a Ph.D. in social psychology, arriving at his speciality by process of elimination. Psycholinguistics was “tedious,” cognitive psychology “superficial,” and clinical psychology “didn’t appeal”. He chuckles at the fact his work has evolved to focus on precisely the elements of psychology he was trying to avoid: “I was wrong!”
His early research on what types of patients report the most illnesses delivered unexpected data about the correlation between keeping a secret and illness. Ever curious, Pennebaker developed a study to investigate how writing can affect people’s health. Working with sexual abuse survivors, he asked them to write down things they couldn’t bring themselves to say. “Three out of four studies don’t turn out the way you hope they will,” he notes. “But this one did.” What he found is that writing about trauma can significantly improve a person’s emotional state, immune function, and coping ability – a discovery that was the basis for his books Opening Up and Writing To Heal.
Then another question popped into his head: If writing makes people feel better do specific features of language predict health? The tool designed to answer this question has the weighty title of Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software. Invented by the Doctor and his colleagues in the 1990s, LIWC (pronounced ‘Luke’) is a text analysis program that acts like a syntactic microscope. Unleashed on the written word, or transcripts of speech, it helps researchers to explore subtle shades of language usage. As he explains, the human brain is terrifically good at assessing meaning but it is rubbish at counting. LIWC however, thrives on this dull task, stepping in where biology bows out.
Using LIWC Pennebaker spent years gleaning data on everyday language from blogs, bulletin boards, emails and transcripts of conversation, the results of which eventually became The Secret Life of Pronouns. He is quick to point out there was no master plan driving the project – just curiosity. “Every month I’d do a new study but I never got to a point where I had enough perspective to write anything.” Ask what finally prompted him to sit down and write and he snickers un-academically: “The University gave me a year off to write so I had to write the damn book. That was it.” Now that The Secret Life is safely on the shelves Pennebaker is pottering amidst reams of research. “One of the most exciting things about writing The Secret Life of Pronouns was that I could sit down and come up with a new idea. Now I can go through new data files and discover new ideas,” he says happily. “Writing is one of the most thrilling things, it is an act of self-expression, but it is also an act of discovery.”