This short word signals who has the power

People who are self-confident, who have power or status, tend to use the word “I” more frequently than those with less power or less sure of themselves. Right? Wrong.

A study done at University of Texas at Austin found that people who often say “I” tend to be less powerful or sure of themselves than those who refrain from using “I.”

James W. Pennebaker, chairman of the Psychology Department at the university, and his colleagues, have pioneered research on the vertical pronoun and its manifestations and uses. Your use of “I” says more about you than you realize.

The words people use are a lot like fingerprints. They can reveal relationships, honesty and their status, according to Professor Pennebaker.

“Using computerized text analyses on hundreds of thousands of letters, poems, books, blogs, tweets, conversations, and other texts, it is possible to read people’s hearts and minds in ways they can’t do themselves, explains Pennebaker.

He is the Liberal Arts Foundation Centennial Professor as well as being Chair of the Psychology Department.

“There is a misconception that people who are confident, who have power, have high status tend to use “I” more than people who are of lower status. This is completely wrong says Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns.

“I” is more powerful than you might think, he says. For example, you are speaking with your loving wife of 45 years. The high-status person has a more worldly view. The low-status person is looking at himself or herself.

So, how often should you use “I” in your discussion or dispute with your spouse? Use “I” more to sound humble, or at least not critical of your spouse if you want to keep the peace. Or use “I” less and you will come across as more assured of your point or position in the discussion. The professor does say you should try to say “I” at approximately the same rate as your spouse to keep the relationship in balance.

In study after study, pairs of people chatted face-to-face, such as at a party, getting to know one another. Later, when asked which person had more status or power they tended to agree. And that person with more status and power was the one who used “I” less.

Another study involved emails. People turned over their incoming and outgoing emails. That experiment rated how much status they had in relation to each email correspondent. The person with the higher status in each exchange had used “I” less frequently.

Pennebaker uses his research in computational linguistics to analyze the use of pronouns, prepositions and the fewer than 500 “function” words. These words, however, account for more than half the words we use, hear, or read on a daily basis.

In other studies, Pennebaker developed a linguistic lie detector. Pennebaker says people who are telling the truth have a different language profile than do people who are lying. The experiment had a 67 percent accuracy.

Those telling the truth use “I” frequently. They also use such words frequently as “except,” “but,” “without” and “unless.”

Professor Pennebaker has found heavy users of the word “I” among people who are more at ease with personal topics. And with women (who he says are typically more reflective than men).

Looking at politics, Pennebaker finds that President Obama uses the word “I” “less than any modern president” by a considerable amount. “People across the board think that Obama uses the word “I” at such high rates due to his self-confidence and the misconception that confident people use “I” at incredibly high rates.

Comparably, however, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush used “I” at higher rates, being self-reflective. Pennebaker says he find that people who use “I” at such high rates come across as more personal, warm, and honest. People who use “I” come across as more confident than those using it at lower rates. The person who uses “I” the least tends to be the higher status person.

Another study examined emails (the government had translated) from Iraqi military. Some 40 correspondences were selected. In each case the person with the highest military authority used “I” less.

People curb their use of “I” subconsciously, says Dr. Pennebaker. Maybe surprising to some people, he finds narcissists don’t use the “I” word more than other folks.