Summer Series #5: It's the Boring Ones you Have to Look Out For

What if I told you that I once went on a thrill ride that spun me around in circles as I dangled over a fifteen-hundred foot tower? Or that I once spent an entire night running around Times Square in New York City photobombing complete strangers’ pictures?

Based on those two sentences, how would you describe me? You’d probably focus on the words like “thrill ride,” “dangled,” or “fifteen-hundred foot tower” to infer that I might be adventurous or an adrenaline junkie.  Maybe you’d focus on the word “New York City” to infer that I like to travel, or maybe even “photobombing” to infer that I am that annoying person who likes to ruin pictures.

Sure, those specific and descriptive words may have revealed the type of person I am. However, research by James Pennebaker and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin suggests that it is actually function words, such as pronouns (I, you, he), articles (the, a, an), prepositions (of, to), auxiliary verbs (am, was), and several other word categories that actually tell us a lot about someone. 

Function words? Really? Those measly little things?

Chances are you don’t pay much attention to function words and instead focus on more descriptive and eye-catching words like “photobombing”.  Yet, function words fill over 55% of the words we say, hear, and read every day and gives us more information about someone than we think.

For example, a study conducted by Pennebaker found that couples in a speed-dating event who used similar levels of personal pronouns, prepositions, and articles were 3 times more likely to want to date each other than couples who used less similar levels of function words.  In other words, similar use of function words can predict who would make a love connection (that is, couples who mimicked each other more frequently) and did so better than the individuals themselves.

Function words can even tell us about power dynamics.  Pennebaker suggests that it is possible to identify who has a higher social status or possesses the power in any situation.  For example, the person who uses the word “I” more often tends to feel more insecure—their language reflects their self-consciousness. 

What can function words tell us in advice-giving situations? Perhaps it can identify specific advice-seekers who are more insecure or less confident about themselves; advice-givers can thus tailor their advice to best fit the advice-seeker’s needs.

Or, perhaps function words can predict what kind of advice the advice-seeker actually takes or perceives as most helpful. If the advice-seeker receives three pieces of advice from three different people, are they more likely to take the advice that matches them the most on use of function words?  

Before I dangled off of that 1500-foot tower, I sought advice from the people around me if I should actually go through with it.  Knowing there is always a risk of something going wrong, I was having second thoughts. Some encouraged me to go for it.  Others urged me to err on the side of caution.  I ended up going for it, and it became one of the best experiences of my life. 

I can’t help but wonder: was it something so unmemorable, like function words, that led me to do something so memorable?


This post was written by Sooth Intern, Vivan Ta

Vivian is a 3rd year doctoral student in the experimental psychology program at University of Texas, Arlington. Her research focuses on latent semantic similarity in initial dyadic interactions, both online and face-to-face. She also does research related to personality, specifically narcissism, and evolutionary psychology.