Ask a UT psychologist (emotional well-being) — James Pennebaker



[ music ] >> I was doing some research looking at how people cope with
traumatic experience. If you ask people to write for 15
minutes a day for three or four days, what happens is if you track the
physical health they actually get better. There are changes in
your immune function. They get along with people better. It often helps them to put things
together in their own minds. I became fascinated with this. What is it about writing
that makes a difference? So my students and I started to
look at the words people were using, seeing if we could identify
healthy writing. As we did we started looking at essay
after essay and we soon discovered that the way people wrote could
tell us if they were going to get better or not after writing. To my surprise, the words
they were writing that were important were
not these content words; they were these invisible
function, words like pronouns and prepositions and articles. The way people constructed a story
by using these invisible words turned out to predict health improvements. This discovery was eye-opening for
me; we ended up writing a series of computer programs to start
looking at words across the spectrum so we could look at poems or books,
or essays or e-mails or Twitter feeds, almost anything, and get a sense
of the psychology of the author. As we went back and looked
at all the writings, people writing about
traumatic experience we started to discover there were certain types
of words that made a big difference. For example, people who increase their
use of what we call insight words or causal words, like because,
cause, effect, reason, rationale, or words like understanding and realize. Over time these people increased
their use of these words; if they did that their health
was much more likely to improve. And then we discovered
some of the things. As we started looking at pronouns, these
pronouns ended up – they were amazing – we discovered that people who bounced
back and forth between using words like I, me and mine, and maybe in
the next writing session they talked about he, she, they, and the next
one they go back to I, me, my, what we discovered is those
people who flip back and forth in the way they use pronouns,
they were the healthiest. It was almost a marker, but they have
the ability to change perspective. Today they could talk
about how this felt. The next day they could talk
about how somebody else did. This has yet to agree that start
just know it is a he is what is

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