Spoken language reveals how people develop and mature

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Credit: Florida Atlantic University

When people think of "personality," they are likely to think of traits such as warmth or extraversion. For example, a person with high extraversion tends to exhibit an enthusiastic, gregarious, socially dominant, reward-seeking style of social performance across a wide range of situations and contexts as compared to a person with low extraversion.

But personality also develops from self-involvement, through conformity, and toward conscience. These developing aspects of personality are frequently understood as "maturation."

In a novel study, "Personality Development through Natural Language," published in the international journal, Nature: Human Behaviour, Kevin Lanning, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a professor of psychology in Florida Atlantic University's Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, together with FAU Wilkes Honors College alumna Rachel (Evans) Pauletti, and collaborators Laura A. King, Ph.D., University of Missouri, and Dan P. McAdams, Ph.D., Northwestern University, examined how personality maturation or development was reflected in natural language.

For the study, they examined 44,000 brief samples of text collected over 25 years from the Washington University Sentence Completion Test (WUSCT), a measure of the stages of ego development. They also used the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), which breaks down texts based on categories that include both syntactical composition and psychological meaning. The LIWC includes about 6,400 terms that are classified into 81 categories ranging from first-person singular pronouns ("I" and "me") to drives such as power ("superior" and "bully").

Results from the study find that throughout the course of development, language indicative of self-centeredness (e.g., using the word "I") decreased, while complexity (words such as "but" and "although") increased. LIWC categories associated with informality (leisure, assent) and impulse (anger, swear words, sexual, body, ingestion) were generally associated with declining ego level, while the relationship of ego development to verbosity or response length showed the greatest increases at the later stages of development. Taken together, these and other results provide support for the claim that ego development can be understood as a set of qualitatively distinct stages as well as a single dimension.

At the earliest of these stages, language was characterized by a preoccupation with impulse gratification. Subsequently, language was marked by a concern with appearance, then with "fitting in." The next and most common developmental stage was found to be characterized by self-doubt and the costs and benefits of being in the public eye. Following this, a concern for achievement becomes paramount. At still higher levels of development, abstract considerations such as privilege arise and, ultimately, a still-broader perspective on life goals.

"Building on the empirical analysis of ego level and language will provide us with a deeper understanding of ego development, its relationship with other models of personality and individual differences, and its utility in characterizing people, texts and the cultural contexts that produce them," said Lanning. "If ego development can be scored from everyday language, then the content of text from Twitter feeds to political speeches, and from children's stories to strategic plans, may provide new insights into our state of moral, social and cognitive development."

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About Florida Atlantic University:

Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU's world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of critical areas that form the basis of its strategic plan: Healthy aging, biotech, coastal and marine issues, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, informatics, lifespan and the environment. These areas provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU's existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit http://www.fau.edu.

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