Do you become easily distressed or upset? Watch your words. Too much I-talk could be the problem..

A new study links frequent use of "I," "me," or "my" and proneness to distress.

In 2015, University of Arizona (UA) researchers published a study, "Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited." Their paper concludes that the frequent use of so-called "I-talk" — which refers to using first-person singular pronouns such as "I," "me," and "my" when writing or speaking — is not necessarily an indicator of narcissism. 

A new I-talk study by UA researchers, "Depression, Negative Emotionality, and Self-Referential Language: A Multi-Lab, Multi-Measure, and Multi-Language-Task Research Synthesis," was published on 5th March in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This paper reports that frequent I-talk can be used as an accurate linguistic marker for proneness to distress and negative emotionality.

The term “negative emotionality” refers to someone having a tendency to become easily distressed or upset. According to lead author of the new I-talk study, Allison Tackman, negative emotionality encompasses a wide range of negative emotions that can include depressive symptoms, anxiety, distress, worry, tension, and anger.

For this I-talk study, Tackman and her UA colleagues partnered with psychologist Matthias Mehl, director of the University of Arizona Naturalistic Observation of Social Interaction Laboratory. The UA researchers utilised a dataset of 4,700 individuals from six different labs. The dataset included a calculation of participants' spoken and written use of I-talk along with measurements of depression and negative emotionality. 

Is Frequent I-Talk an Accurate and Specific Linguistic Marker of Depression?

Although Tackman et al. identified a link between I-talk and depressive symptoms, they conclude that high usage of first-person singular pronouns is a more accurate indicator of being prone to general distress and a wide array of negative emotions. In the study abstract, the authors write: "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."

"The question of whether I-talk reflects depression more specifically, or negative affect more broadly, was a really important question because if you're thinking of using I-talk as a screening tool, you want to know if it screens specifically for a risk for depression or if it screens more broadly for a tendency to experience negative affect, which is a broader risk factor for a suite of mental health concerns," Matthias Mehl said in a statement.

Tackman added, "Our results suggest that I-talk may be better at assessing a proneness not just to depression but to negative emotionality more broadly."