Pronouns, Individualism, and the Human Heart

Posted: August 18, 2013 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

booksI read with interest this week a brief note from the Harvard Business Review blog regarding a recent study of pronouns used in books published in America between 1960 and 2008.  According to the study:

  • Use of singular pronouns like “I” and “me” increased 42% over the time period.
  • Use of plural pronouns like “we” and “us” declined 10%.
  • Use of second person pronouns like “you” and “your” quadrupled.

Given the large quantity of books in the Google Books database used in the analysis – 766,513 such books – the data point to an interesting trend.  The more challenging question, though, is what to make of it.  What conclusions can or should we draw from the analysis?

The researchers hypothesized that “pronoun use will reflect increasing individualism and decreasing collectivism in American culture.”  They believe their study results “complement previous research finding increases in individualistic traits among Americans.”  That seems fair.  Unfortunately, you have to pay to subscribe to a journal in which the results are published to see all the data (something I won’t do purely out of protest in this age of widely available, free information on the Internet), so the brief HBR article and study abstract is all I know about it.

What are the possible reactions to the data?  I can easily imagine three:

  • Some will say, as the researchers suggest, that individualism is on the rise and collectivism is on the decline.
  • Some will jump at the opportunity to castigate younger generations as more self-centered than older ones (although those doing so will conveniently forget their own self-centeredness and the fact that it isn’t today’s youngest Americans who are writing the books that were analyzed).
  • Some may claim that the data may be interesting but not necessarily indicative of any definitive personal, societal or cultural conclusions as opposed to mere changes in accepted writing style.

From this 56-year-old’s perspective whose life spans closely the time frame studied, I have mixed emotions about the study results.  It certainly rings true that American society is more individualistic in some ways today than in times past.  For example, there are fewer children in families (children have a way of forcing parents to think less of themselves and their plans than of their children), infrequent extended family gatherings (too little time or interest or too great a distance between members), greater geographic dispersion of families (many times in response to following career or educational opportunities), and more personal career-focused lifestyles and decisions.

However, I can point to other ways in which society is far less individualistic and more inclined to promote collective action, such as in people taking less personal responsibility for their lives and expecting dependence on government and others for support.

One reason I struggle with interpreting the results of the study is that we should be careful not to equate individualism with self-centeredness.  Most would generally categorize individualism as a positive thing whereas self-centeredness is deemed to be more negative.  Therefore, it makes a huge difference in whether we interpret something like pronoun use as either individualism or self-centeredness.  They are not the same thing.

I’ll go out on an unscientific limb and say that I do not believe the study results indicate that we are more self-centered than before.  Why?  Because I don’t believe the human heart has changed throughout the history of humankind.  Every one of us was at some point a self-centered little child who thought the world revolved around him or her.  Some of us eventually realize the error of that perspective – some do not.  As a Christian, I don’t think the human heart is any worse (or better) by default now than in 1960 A.D. or 1960 B.C.  Humankind is selfish by nature and in need of a spiritual heart transplant by the One who created the human heart.

The pronoun study is interesting, but the interpretation is up for grabs.  It certainly reveals a literary trend, but one that is difficult to transfer to broader cultural conclusions.

What do you think it means?  Tell me in a comment.

By the way, for those keeping track at home, here is a count of various pronouns use in this post:

First person singular pronouns: “I” (10), “I’ll” (1), “me” (2) = 13 total
First person plural pronouns: “we” (5), us (3) = 8 total
Second person pronouns: “you” (3), “your” (1) = 4 total
Third person pronouns: “him” (1), “her” (1), “they” (1), “themselves” (1), “their” (5) = 9 total

  1. Jordan Smith says:

    It’s difficult to definitively choose whether American published books are more individual or collective in nature when you don’t know what specific type of books are included in this study. Non-fiction novels will use pronouns in a different context than will fiction novels, and different genres within those non-fiction and fiction novels will use pronouns in different context from one another.

    Not that I write books, but as a media professional I write copy for advertising clients for commercials and narratives for companies for employee training. I will most likely use pronouns directed towards my audience because it’s my job to relate to them and inspire them to act. A better conclusion to this study could be determined if pronoun-use data was attached to specific book types.

    • Jeff Ross says:

      Good point, Jordan. Both fiction and non-fiction were included in the study. I really lean toward the simple conclusion that it’s an interesting observation, but that we really can’t draw any other conclusions from it.

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