We each vary in how much we use first-person singular pronouns (I, Me, Myself) in our speech and writing, and how much we use first-person plural pronouns (We, Us, Ourselves). Researchers say it’s a kind of habit and not something we usually have much control over. Now a study conducted in Germany claims that people who are more prolific users of “I” and “Me” tend to have more interpersonal problems and to experience more depression. “Using first-person singular pronouns highlights the self as a distinct entity,” say the researchers led by Johannes Zimmermann, “whereas using first-person plural pronouns emphasises its embeddedness into social relationships.”
Zimmermann and his colleagues counted pronoun use in transcripts recorded from 118 people who’d completed a 60 to 90-minute psychotherapeutic interview taking in topics including their past, their relationships and self-perception. This was an exploratory study and, knowing that these kind of interviews increase first-person singular pronoun use, the researchers thought this would be a good place to start.
The sample was made up of 99 patients at a psychotherapy clinic and 19 “healthy” controls (across both there were 103 women). The patients had problems ranging from anxiety to eating disorder. All the participants also filled out in-depth questionnaires that asked them about depression and their interpersonal behaviour.
Frequent use of first-person singular pronouns went hand in hand with higher depression scores and with interpersonal distress characterised by what the researchers called an “intrusive style”, including inappropriate self-disclosure, attention seeking, and an inability to spend time alone. “First-person singular pronoun use may be part of a … strategy that pulls for friendly-submissive attention from others,” the researchers said. A “tendency to seek attention from others rather than self-focused attention.”
In contrast, greater use of first-person plural pronouns was associated with lower depression scores and lower interpersonal distress. To the researchers’ surprise, this was characterised by a “cold” interpersonal style. However, they think this is a “functional” kind of coldness – the ability to help others with their needs while also remaining appropriately detached for self-protection.
These are interesting findings that build on an established evidence base relating to pronoun use – for instance, past research has linked greater use of first-person singular pronouns with more marital dissatisfaction and social anxiety. However, the study has some obvious limitations, most notably its clinical sample, which limits the ability to say if the same findings would apply to the general population, and its reliance on participants’ own descriptions of their interpersonal style. It’s also important to note that there’s no evidence here of a causal link – Zimmermann’s team aren’t saying that greater use of “I” and “Me” causes interpersonal problems. More likely, this way of speaking probably reflects how people see themselves and habitually relate to others.
Zimmermann, J., Wolf, M., Bock, A., Peham, D., and Benecke, C. (2013). The way we refer to ourselves reflects how we relate to others: Associations between first-person pronoun use and interpersonal problems. Journal of Research in Personality, 47 (3), 218-225 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2013.01.008