Depression, negative emotionality, and self-referential language: A multi-lab, multi-measure, and multi-language-task research synthesis

Allison M. Tackman, David A. Sbarra, Angela L. Carey, M. Brent Donnellan, Andrea B. Horn, Nicholas S. Holtzman, To'Meisha S. Edwards, James W. Pennebaker, Matthias R. Mehl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations

Abstract

Depressive symptomatology is manifested in greater first-person singular pronoun use (i.e., I-talk), but when and for whom this effect is most apparent, and the extent to which it is specific to depression or part of a broader association between negative emotionality and I-talk, remains unclear. Using pooled data from N = 4,754 participants from 6 labs across 2 countries, we examined, in a preregistered analysis, how the depression-I-talk effect varied by (a) first-person singular pronoun type (i.e., subjective, objective, and possessive), (b) the communication context in which language was generated (i.e., personal, momentary thought, identity-related, and impersonal), and (c) gender. Overall, there was a small but reliable positive correlation between depression and I-talk (r = .10, 95% CI [.07, .13]). The effect was present for all first-person singular pronouns except the possessive type, in all communication contexts except the impersonal one, and for both females and males with little evidence of gender differences. Importantly, a similar pattern of results emerged for negative emotionality. Further, the depression-I-talk effect was substantially reduced when controlled for negative emotionality but this was not the case when the negative emotionality-I-talk effect was controlled for depression. These results suggest that the robust empirical link between depression and I-talk largely reflects a broader association between negative emotionality and I-talk. Self-referential language using first-person singular pronouns may therefore be better construed as a linguistic marker of general distress proneness or negative emotionality rather than as a specific marker of depression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)817-834
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Volume116
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - May 2019

Keywords

  • Depression
  • LIWC
  • Language
  • Negative emotionality
  • Personality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science

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