Computing

The words you use betray who you are.

Linguists and psychologists have long been studying this phenomenon. A few decades ago they had a hunch that the number of active verbs in your sentences or which adjectives you use (lovely, sweet, angry) reflect personality traits.

They have painstakingly pinpointed various insights. For example, suicidal poets, in their published works, use more first-person singular words (like “me” or “my”) and death-related words than poets who aren’t suicidal. People in positions of power are more likely to make statements that involve others (“we,” “us”), while lower-status people often use language that’s more self-focused and ask more questions. Comparing genders, women tend to use more words related to psychological and social processes, while men referred more to impersonal topics and objects’ properties.

(This 2010 paper in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology goes into great detail about the “psychometrics” of words.)

This research suggests that Internet companies such as Facebook and Google, with their troves of written expressions, are sitting on powerful insights about us as people. But if you ask them, “Hey, can you give me the take on me that you’ve got in-house or that you’ve built for advertisers, with my anonymized data?” — they won’t give it to you. I actually did ask, and they don’t have that kind of offering.

But I’ve found someone who does: IBM’s Watson division. Researchers there have taken the personality dictionaries already created by scientists, dropped them into Watson (the computer that won Jeopardy!), and sent it off to apply it to people on Twitter, Facebook, blogs. That forms a digital population of people and personality types. Over time, more text from more people will help Watson get smarter. (Yes, this is machine learning.)

I Asked A Computer To Be My Life Coach

Note: This post accompanies a story that you can hear on the NPR One app by following this link.