Reading between the Blogs




Blogger Lorelle VanFossen got it right when she wrote, “Your blog is your unedited version of yourself.” Personal blogs not only reveal bloggers’ opinions on assorted motley topics such as fashion, politics, TV shows, food, pop culture, subculture, whatnots, but also expose the bloggers’ psyche. Psychologists have long suspected links between language and personality, but scientific investigations were restricted to a small number of people tasked to write short essays on a given topic. Recently, Tal Yarkoni, a researcher at University of Colorado at Boulder, analyzed over 80 million words from 694 bloggers and discovered strong, surprising, and sometimes amusing associations between personality traits and word use.

Half a million personal blogs are posted online each day. That number translates to a new post every 3 minutes, or about 2,000 words written per second. The blogosphere has thus become a treasure trove for linguists and psychologists wishing to mine the relationship between language and human behavior. Websites like Typealyzer.com claim to assess the personalities of the bloggers based on their writing style, but their methods have not been validated scientifically. In a recent study published in Journal of Research in Personality, participating bloggers filled out extensive personality questionnaires and turned over a copy of all their blog posts (written in English) from the previous two years for word use analyses. The questionnaires helped researcher divide the bloggers into five personality groups (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) and sixty-six personality subgroups (i.e. vulnerability, gregariousness, intellect, adventurousness, altruism). The blog posts were analyzed for word use frequency and the number of times each word appeared in comparison to blog length.

Most of the resulting correlations make sense. Extraversion correlates with words like Miami, drinking, shots, restaurants, girls, glorious, sang, and pool. An extroverted blogger likely goes to parties and writes about them often (lucky guy). Some correlations are predictable. Neuroticism correlates with awful, lazy, worse, depressing, stressful.

But then there are these perplexing correlations:

Extraversion: cats, grandfather.
Vulnerability: sunset.

And the head-scratchers:

Trust: Reagan, USA, summer, spring, amendment.
Morality: UK, nap, popcorn.
Modesty: Russian, decades, cities.
Dutifulness: popcorn, pathetic.

And some truly baffling correlations:

Self-discipline: mom’s.
Excitement-seeking: cats, sewing (!), knitting (!), blankets, book.
Gregariousness: tickets, Friday, Ryan (Ryan who?).
Adventurousness: diaper (huh?), legal, poet, employment.

Researchers would point out that statistical correlations do not indicate scientific causality. Yet, it is tempting to try to explain some of these correlations using conventional thoughts about personality types. What aspects of excitement-seeking lead one to blog about such domestic activities like sewing and knitting? What is so adventurous about diaper? Or employment? And why is Ryan so gregarious? Figuring out the reasons behind these correlations could make for an interesting pastime. However, one must keep in mind that a few of these correlations are not specific. For example, some words (i.e. cats) correlated with multiple personality traits. Some words are used much more frequently than others and will appear to correlate with many personalities. Besides, some words have many meanings (i.e. plane). Other words mean different things under different contexts (i.e. bloody nose vs. Bloody Mary vs. bloody!). These ambiguities add even more complexity and beauty to languages.

We are what we write. Or maybe we simply write who we are. This study does not distinguish one from the other, but it does suggest a strong resemblance between a person’s online and off-line self-expression. Many bloggers create and cultivate their online personas; however, their actual personas are easily exposed by their word choices. Our words are intricately connected to our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and speech — all the facets of an individual’s personality. To blog is to bare your unedited soul, indeed.

Reference

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 (3), 363-373 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.04.001

  • I concur with your conclusion but I interpret it as a conjunction rather than disjunction, i.e., we are what we write and we write who we are (simple or complex).

    That said, I find the layers of ambiguity, complexity and qualifications in the results of this study – and the possible interpretations – to render it a perfect projection platform for confirmation biases, i.e., anyone who consumes or produces blogs can read into it – or write about it – according to whatever best suits their, well, personalities.

  • Chris

    Thanks for sharing this. I was quite interested in this so I dug up the paper.

    I’m not sure if you were aware that they reported both positive and negative correlations for the words/personality types. Most of the correlations that you were perplexed by are negative correlations. Those are the words that those personality types use the least.

    ie, Extroverted people never talk about their cats.

    • cthanyakoop

      Chris, Thanks for pointing out the difference between positive and negative correlations. I had not noticed that.

Chalita Thanyakoop, PhD

Chalita Thanyakoop, PhD, currently works as a postdoctoral researcher in a microbiology laboratory at University of California, Berkeley. She holds a PhD in biochemistry.
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