What can be learned from text II

Today let me talk about the internal state channel and what can be learned from it.

First, let me point out that this channel is even more driven by subconscious processes, so we have very little control over it, even if we know how it works. This makes it very revealing.

Some of the properties that can be inferred from the internal state channel are:

  • personality. This is useful in many adversarial situations because you can’t usually get an adversary to sit down and take an MMPI test. Several ways to categorize personality from word usage have been developed, although they are obviously somewhat limited.
  • status of each participant in a conversation. In general, lower status participants tend to use first-person singular pronouns at higher rates, which gives clues about how each participant regards him/herself with respect to the others involved.
  • health. The health of an individual going forward for several months can be predicted by flexibility in pronoun use. This is a bit different from the other categories because it doesn’t rely on a particular signature of word frequencies, but on the ability of each individual to vary his/her word usage widely over time. In other words, unhealthy people maintain a single perspective on the world, and so use consistent pronouns to describe themselves and those around them; healthier people have a changing perspective that is reflected in changing pronouns. (Note the connections to first position, second position etc. associated with NLP and its antecedent psychological approaches.)
  • stress/depression. This is related to the previous category, but both stress and depression show up in characteristic ways in word usage. In the case of depression, the changes continue even after the depression ends, so that the never-depressed differ from the once-depressed.
  • community involvement or embeddedness. The way in which first-person singular and plural pronouns are used gives clues about how an individual feels in relation to a community.
  • deception. I’ve written extensively about this in previous posts.

Much of these results are the work of James Pennebaker and his group at the University of Texas at Austin. His work (here) is quite accessible. The paper by Chung and Pennebaker is particularly relevant.


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