Do You Say 'I' Or 'We'? ⋆
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Do You Say ‘I’ Or ‘We’?

When you talk about relationships, your choice is revealing, psychology study suggests.

Did you ever take the time to observe your pronoun usage when talking about a significant other? Probably not. Why would you? Well, a study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science has found that your “attachment style” might be evident from the language that you use when talking about your relationship.

Psychologists use the term “attachment style” to refer to the various ways humans relate to one another in interpersonal relationships.

“As psychologists, we are often interested in identifying new and novel ‘clues’ that may provide an indication of one’s underlying personality and character,” Will Dunlop, an author of the study from the University of California, Riverside, told Newsweek.

“Previous work has provided indication that the pronouns people use when describing a number of things tells us something about their levels of neuroticism—another important component of personality,” he said.

“Here, we wanted to determine whether and the degree to which pronoun use may offer indication of the tendencies, or styles, people exhibit in their romantic relationships.”

According to Psychology Today, the Riverside scientists took into consideration over 1,400 observations from seven other studies that had previously examined the relationship between attachment styles and the use of specific pronouns in adults.

The way these previous studies had been conducted was by having the participants provide a narrative informing the researchers of their past romantic relationships; in addition, the participants took tests to assess which attachment style best described themselves.

Next, using a psychological analysis program called the “Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count,” the Riverside scientists analyzed the language used in the narrative.

The results showed that those who tended to use the pronoun “I” instead of “we” tended towards “anxious and avoidant” attachment styles – those who evade emotional intimacy in relationships.

“We found that those who had higher levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance —i.e., an insecure attachment style—tended to use a greater proportion of I-words (e.g., I, me, mine) and a lower proportion of we-words (e.g., Us, ours) when describing experiences from their romantic lives, as compared to individuals with a more secure attachment style,” Dunlop said. “Among these relations, the negative association between avoidant attachment and we-words was particularly robust.”

“Focusing on this latter relation, our findings suggest that refraining from using we-words when providing an overview of previous romantic experiences may indicate that one is largely uncomfortable getting close to others and/or depending upon them—i.e. that they have a high degree of avoidant attachment.”

Understanding Relationships

The researchers say that the results could have several implications for our understanding of interpersonal relationships.

“These results are meaningful for a few reasons,” Dunlop said. “First, they are some of the first to provide evidence that the words people use when outlining previous romantic experiences offer ‘clues’ as to the ways these individuals may think, feel, and behave in romantic contexts—i.e. their attachment tendencies.”

“Second, unlike the self-report measures used to assess attachment styles, people are often unaware of the pronouns they use when outlining autobiographical experiences, so this linguistic ‘clue’ may be less impacted by self-presentation biases,” he said.

The researchers have yet to conclude why pronoun usage changes with attachment style, but they surmise that it may have to do with the fact that those who tend towards avoidant and anxious attachments styles often see themselves negatively. “We-talk” assumes intimacy and closeness which they often have a distaste for.

However, the researchers caution that these issues require more research before they are conclusive.

“There are many limitations regarding this work,” Dunlop said. “To begin, although we had observations from over 1,400 participants, this is some of the first work to explore associations between word use and attachment styles. As such, the results reported here need to be replicated using different narratives and by additional research groups.”