Thursday, January 12, 2012

I-I-I-I ...

I'm reading a very interesting book, comme typique, entitled The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker who is a psychologist working at UT-Austin. (There are exercises and experiments you can do at the site. Hours of time wasting fun!) As also usual, I've had this one out of the library forever and am hastening to finish it and return it as there is a waiting list.

The use of I-words has tremendous social and psychological significance. By definition, it is an identity statement. Using I in conversation is announcing to your speaking companion that you are aware of yourself, that you are paying attention of yourself. There is a certain degree of vulnerability in doing this — especially if there is a chance that your companion is judging you or seeking to harm you in some way. I’ve often thought of the use of I as a subtle submissive gesture—much like the lower-status dog rolling over and baring his belly to the bigger, more dangerous dog. “Hey, I’m not a problem. I’m at your service. I’m not a threat.”

There have been several studies that suggest when people are forced to pay attention to themselves, they become more humble and honest. Robert Wicklund, who is now at the University of Bergen in Norway, pioneered a theory of self-awareness in the 1970’s. He and his colleagues devised dozens of imaginative studies where people would have to do some kind of task in one of two conditions—in front of a mirror or away from a mirror. If they completed a questionnaire in front of a mirror, they reported having lower self-esteem and generally less positive moods. More intriguing, their answers to questions tended to be more honest—their reports of their weight, grades, and behaviors tended to match objective measures of their true weight, grades, and behaviors. Also, completing questionnaires in front of a mirror caused people to use the word I more.

Why does self-attention make people more honest? Wicklund posited that paying attention to the self made people briefly ponder who they ideally wanted to be. Perhaps their lifelong dreams were to be strong, honest, beautiful, brave, and compassionate. Looking in the mirror made them realize that they had not attained these ideals. Ultimately, then, people would see the gulf between their ideal and real selves, which made them feel bad about themselves, but, at the same time, motivated them to try to be better people. Self-awareness, in Wicklund’s view, drives us all to be the people we’ve always wanted to be.

Indeed, most of us usually want to be honest with others and with ourselves. Self-attention provokes honesty. I-words simply reflect self-attention. Across the multiple studies, when we see the use of I-words increase, it is likely that self-attention is higher. And with self-attention, people tend to be more honest.

I'm not entirely sure why this struck me except that I wonder and worry about this blog. Self-attention, self-examination were the reasons to start and work at it, besides the goal of learning to have discipline and a "practice" ... or practices for life. (Can cleaning the kitchen every day be considered a "practice"? Or a habit? And the difference is ... ? Awareness? Purpose? 

Looking for work at this age and at this time in culture and history demand explication of self and purpose. I feel I have not been as aware of myself as I need to be in order to succeed more consistently. 

Today was not terrible, and moments were even enjoyable or positive. I feel neither joy nor positivity right now. I hope it is just that I am tired and it is the end of the day. 


  1. So what does it mean that spanish speakers don't use personal subject pronouns? Lack of self awareness?

  2. May have to find that book...Sounds like it describes the therapy our daughter is going through at boarding school... Hard for a teen when they don't know who "I" is...