Not everybody who uses a lot of first-person singular pronouns like “I” and “me” in everyday conversations are narcissistic or even have an inflated sense of their own importance, a new University of Arizona study says.
Narcissists have an unrealistic sense of superiority and self-importance and an overabundance of self-focus, so it might be reasonable to assume that narcissists would be more prone to this kind of language, says study coauthor Matthias Mehl, professor of psychology.
Said Angela Carey, lead author and doctoral candidate in psychology:
“There is a widely assumed association between use of first-person singular pronouns—what we call ‘I-talk’—and narcissism, among laypeople and scientists, despite the fact that the empirical support for this relation is surprisingly sparse and generally inconsistent.”
Measuring Narcissism Rigorously
A prior test of this hypothesis was conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988 and confirmed the association, but it consisted of only 48 participants.
Since then, scientific studies have been unable to consistently replicate the finding. Because it appears to be such a pervasive belief in modern society, the researchers felt it was important to give the hypothesis a rigorous scientific going-over.
For the study, researchers recruited more than 4,800 people in Germany and the United States for the study. 67 percent were female, mostly undergraduate students. Participants were asked to engage in one of six communications tasks in which they wrote or talked about themselves or an unrelated topic.
Researchers scored the participants for narcissism using five different narcissism measures, including the common 40-item Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Their narcissism score was then compared with their use of first-person singular pronouns in the communication tasks.
No Significant Association
The findings showed no association between pronoun use and narcissism. Men had a slightly higher correlation than women, but neither was statistically significant nor practically meaningful.
“The most interesting finding is that the results did not vary much across two different countries, multiple labs, five different narcissism measures, and 12 different samples,” Mehl says. “We were surprised by how consistent of a near-null finding it was.”
Identifying narcissists is important, because over time their grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance can become socially toxic and can have negative consequences on relationships, Carey says:
“The next question, of course, is how else, if not through I-talk, narcissism is revealed through language. We are working on this question in a follow-up study using the same data.”
Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited. Carey, Angela L.; Brucks, Melanie S.; Küfner, Albrecht C. P.; Holtzman, Nicholas S.; große Deters, Fenne; Back, Mitja D.; Donnellan, M. Brent; Pennebaker, James W.; Mehl, Matthias R. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Mar 30 , 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000029