A narcissist is defined as “a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves.” Given their self-obsession, it seems obvious that narcissists would be more likely to overuse first-person pronouns like “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.” We might especially think this is true on social media, where everyone has a platform to reach society. After all, what could be a better way to express your narcissism than talking about yourself to the entirety of the internet? But, according to a new study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, our intuitions are wrong.
This new study, authored by several personality psychologists including Hogan’s own Ryne Sherman, analyzed data on narcissism and word use from 15 samples in multiple languages. Both written and spoken words were analyzed using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), which categorizes words into 72 distinct linguistic categories, including first-person pronouns. Among those categories analyzed, 17 were statistically significantly related to scores on narcissism.
A narcissist may be more inclined to use:
- Sports-Related Words – Narcissism was most positively correlated with using sports-related words (r = .042). So, if you’re sitting around the water cooler at work and you hear co-workers throwing out phrases like “that presentation was a home run” or “we really knocked that one out of the park” or “that meeting was a slam dunk,” you might be dealing with a narcissist.
- Swear Words – The study found that narcissists tend to use more swear words (r = .032). One linguistic marker of disagreeableness is the use of swear words, and narcissists tend to be disagreeable. Narcissists also like to do whatever it takes to be talked about, and swear words generally get peoples’ attention. So, when you hear those four-letter words trickling down the hallway at work, you might be listening to a narcissist.
- Sexual Words – Consistent with other empirical research and theory, narcissists tend to use more sexual words (r = .031). “The idea is that narcissistic people will use sexual language to create a sexualized environment, perhaps as a means to signaling their own sexual availability or to prime sexual concepts in the minds of sexually available others.” So, when your coworker insists on sprinkling in sexual innuendo throughout the course of conversation, you might have a narcissist on your hands.
On the other hand, narcissists tend to avoid:
- Tentative Words – The study concluded that narcissists use fewer tentative words (r = -.045), such as “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “guess.” Because grandiose narcissists are self-assured and confident, it shouldn’t be surprising that they avoid using tentative words. So, when your work colleague says, “I guess we should have tried a different approach” or “perhaps there was a better way to handle this,” you’re probably NOT dealing with a narcissist.
- Fear/Anxiety Words – It should come as no surprise that narcissists use fewer words associated with fear and anxiety (r = -.065), but the potential reasons why are interesting nonetheless. One explanation is that narcissistic people actually experience little fear or anxiety. Another explanation is that narcissistic people may have some anxiety and fear, but they don’t register consciously and, therefore, aren’t expressed in language. So, if you’re in a meeting and a person says, “I’m afraid we don’t have a solution at this time,” you most likely are NOT in the presence of a narcissist.
Perhaps (see what I did there?) the most surprising result is that the study did not see a high correlation between first-person pronouns and narcissism. So, just because someone says “I” and “me” a lot doesn’t mean they’re a narcissist. Of course, they still could be, but it’s less likely than those who constantly use sports analogies, swear words, or sexual language.
Although the study did not reveal pronounced linguistic patterns, it did show that narcissism can be associated the words we use to communicate with others. This study should serve as a strong foundation for future research on narcissists as new text analytics emerge. Until then, you can use this study to sniff out the narcissists among the masses.