Monday, July 17, 2017

Social Psychology and Legal Writing: Part I

*This is the first of a two-part post based on the research of Dr. James W. Pennebaker.*

Dr. James W. Pennybaker
A Twitter friend recently introduced me to the work of Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist who researches the relationships between people’s language and their psychological states. Dr. Pennebaker’s findings have interesting implications in legal writing. But first—some necessary background.

Dr. Pennebaker developed a computer program, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), to analyze the psychology behind what we write. Through his research, Dr. Pennebaker has learned that the words a person uses and the frequency with which the person uses them provide insight into the psychology of the speaker.

Specifically, Dr. Pennebaker is interested in function or style words—pronouns, articles, prepositions, and a few other categories of small words. According to Dr. Pennebaker, these words, which most of us barely notice, account for 60% of the language we use. These stealth words can tell us about whether a person is organized, emotionally stable, social, and many other things.

And Dr. Pennebaker’s research shows that men and women, the old and the young, and people of different socioeconomic statuses use language differently. Specifically, Dr. Pennebaker has discovered that men tend to use more big words, nouns, and words per sentence than women. Women, on the other hand, use more personal pronouns, verbs, and hedge phrases (such as “I think”) than men. Further, according to Dr. Pennebaker, people tend to change their language based on setting. In formal settings, for example, people speak with fewer pronouns, more articles, and fewer social words; that is, the research shows that women adjust their language in these settings to talk like men.

Dr. Pennebaker has also found that our language use changes as we age. Younger writers use personal pronouns and past-tense verbs at higher rates than older people, who use more articles, nouns, prepositions, and cognitive words that reflect insight.

Finally, Dr. Pennebaker has found a “sound of power”—that those with power and status (generally, men, older people, and those of higher socioeconomic status) use more noun clusters and fewer pronouns and verbs. The reasons for these findings aren’t entirely clear, but Dr. Pennebaker suggests that those in power tend to focus on tasks (they are, after all, the deciders) while those with less power tend to pay attention to others (e.g., the deciders).

Given that background, I used Dr. Pennebaker’s website,, to analyze my own writing.

Dr. Pennebaker’s first writing prompt, a perceptual style test, required me to spend five minutes describing a picture. According to Dr. Pennebaker’s research:

I scored above average on functional thinking, tactile sensitivity (appreciation of texture, contour, and dimension), contextual thinking, and visual sensitivity (colors and styles).

And, unsurprisingly, I scored above average on verbal thinking. According to Dr. Pennebaker’s research:

“[I] devoted more time than most describing the words and word fragments. Words grab [my] attention and [I] view them as important anchors to [my] reality.”

That’s certainly true!

The second prompt, a thematic apperception test, required me to spend ten minutes writing a fictional story based on a different picture. My results reflect a higher-than-average need for achievement (unsurprising), use of big words (also unsurprising), and positive emotions. My results show a lower-than-average need for power and negative emotions.

I’m a pretty self-aware person (I think!), and both I and the people close to me agree that the results of these two tests accurately reflect my personality.

I also used Dr. Pennebaker’s other website,, to analyze my @ladylegalwriter tweets. The results are interesting. According to Dr. Pennebaker’s program:

My emotional style is only of average upbeatness (I’m a little surprised by this.)

My social style is highly personable, plugged in, and arrogant/distant (Maybe I am?)

My thinking style is highly analytic (no surprise there).  

While I was at it, I also analyzed tweets from Barack Obama (@barackobama), who, according to Dr. Pennebaker’s program, has a very upbeat emotional style but only average style in personability and analytics.

Finally, I looked at tweets from lawyer Jeffrey Toobin (@jeffreytoobin) who, Dr. Pennebaker's program says, has a highly upbeat emotional style and a highly personable but spacey social style.**

Dr. Pennebaker notes that many factors that cannot be controlled outside a research setting (distractions, level of tiredness, etc.) may affect the results of all his tests. Thus, cautions Dr. Pennebaker, the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

But the outcome of my writing assessments appears to accurately reflect some of my psychological strengths and weaknesses and has gotten me thinking about the implications of Dr. Pennebaker’s research in legal writing. I’ll discuss this in my next post.

**Caveat: I noticed is that the program only analyzes the tweeter’s most recent 1,000-1,500 words or so and factors in retweets, both of which could skew the results.

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