Monday 17 May 2010

Research Bulletin: Words Reveal the Personality of Writers

Many a reader has pondered what his or her famous writer is really like in person. It is tantalizing to think that we really know an author, in some way, from reading what he or she writes. A fascinating study currently In Press in the Journal of Research in Personality (Kufner et al., in press), provides evidence that in some ways, we can infer what an author is like based solely on their writing. Although previous studies on inferring personality from written text have been conducted, this was the first study to look at creative writing as opposed to personal essays. One group of people were given 7 minutes to write a piece of creative fiction that incorporated these 5 words: plane crash, parlor-maid, fireworks, Middle Ages, and supermarket. These authors also rated their own personality and completed a measure of verbal ability (i.e., a vocabulary test). A separate group of individuals then read these stories, and attempted to judge the personality of the author. There was remarkable consensus among these raters for these judgments, but even more surprising there was also some measurable accuracy. Specifically, these raters could accurately predict the personality of the authors for two main personality traits: Openness and Agreeableness. Openness refers to how creative, open-minded, and intelligent a person is, and raters appeared to make these judgments based on the creative expression found in the writing. Agreeableness is a trait that describes the degree to which a person is focused on harmonious personal relationships, and raters accurately judged Agreeableness by noting the social orientation of words found in the text. Lastly, raters were also successful in predicting the verbal ability of the author, by noting how sophisticated the writing was in the story. Rater were not successful, however, in judging how outgoing, conscientious, or susceptible to negative emotion the writers were. These results were replicated in a second sample of participants, increasing our confidence in these findings. From these findings, it appears that creative writing can indeed reveal aspects of the author’s personality to readers. An encouraging result for those of us who feel we’ve come to know an author by reading his or her books.

Kufner, C. P. A., Back M. D., Nestler, S., & Egloff, B. (In Press). Tell me a story and I will tell you who you are! Lens model analyses of personality and creative writing. Journal of Research in Personality.

* Interested readers can contact me (RM) and I will provide a copy of this article.

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ABi said...

The post accounts for, I’m sure, a well run lab experiment.

Nevertheless, inside or outside the lab, do written words reveal the personality of a writer?

I’d like to consider viewing the topic from non-lab angles. Written materials and documents, as well as life experience bring evidence that writing and the writer are essentially separate things, regardless of possible overlapping. To what extent is the intellectual output of an individual a mirror of his/her character? Let’s just think about works of well-known writers, philosophers, journalists, artists etc. vs biographies and historical accounts shedding light on their personality or private lives. No doubt there are elements of “writing aspects matching facets of true psychological character”, but how significant could this be compared to mismatching aspects? I don’t think it’s necessary to list examples, as I am sure one can easily think of a few, maybe dozens. What is a bit harder, is to come up with counter examples. One that comes to mind effortlessly (don’t know why) of a rare similarity between “what one writes” and “what one is” comes from R. Heilbroner’s “The Worldly Philosophers”, where he more or less describes John Stuart Mill, as someone who “is what he writes”. Are such cases exceptions?

I often think that in a certain way someone writes to become what she is not, to fill known or unknown gaps, or to become a better version of self. In real life I happen to know a writer, whose mind is perhaps one of the most brilliant ones I have had the fortune to know in person. There is, on the one hand, a distinctive mismatch between the mighty pen, splendor of language, artistic sensitivity, multi-disciplinary knowledge, ability to establish report with readers, to touch aesthetically emotional cords or to communicate reason lucidly about almost any range of complex problems trenching inerasable impressions on the readers’ minds and… alas, on the other hand the real unremarkable, if not banal, personal self.

Raymond A. Mar said...

Thank you ABi, for this comment. Yes, you are completely right that while creative writing can reveal something about the writer's personality, it certainly doesn't reveal everything. And there can be wide gulfs separating the impression one gains from a piece of writing and the impression one gains from actually knowing a writer. Both things, what can be accurately inferred and what cannot, are interesting, I think. In the study I mentioned, they found that raters scores predicting between 3% and 25% of the variance in the scores reported by the writers, which means a great deal remain unaccounted for.

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