Writing Style Can Reveal Social Identity
NODE SMITH, ND
Small changes to people’s writing style can reveal which social group they “belong to” at a given moment, new research shows. Groups are central to human identity, and most people are part of multiple groups based on shared interests or characteristics — ranging from local clubs to national identity. When one of these group memberships becomes relevant in a particular situation, behavior tends to follow the norms of this group so that people behave “appropriately.”
The new study — by the University of Exeter, Imperial College London, University College London and Lancaster University — demonstrates that group normative behavior is reflected in a person’s writing style. It also shows that assessing writing style can reveal — with an accuracy of about 70% — which of two groups affected a person while they were writing a particular piece of text. To demonstrate their method, researchers studied how people who are parents and feminists change their writing style when they move from one identity to another on anonymous online forums such as Reddit, Mumsnet and Netmums.
“People are not just one thing — we change who we are, our identity, from situation to situation,” said Dr Miriam Koschate-Reis, of the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, both at the University of Exeter.
“In the current situation, many people will need to switch between being a parent and being an employee as they are trying to manage home schooling, childcare and work commitments.
“Switches between identities influence behavior in multiple ways, and in our study we tracked which identity was active by focusing on language.
“We found that people not only change their writing style to impress their audience — they change it based on the group identity that is influencing them at the time.
“So, when we asked people in an experiment to think about themselves as a parent, their language patterns reflected this.”
The study avoided “content” words (a parent might mention “childcare” for example) and focused on stylistic patterns including use of pronouns, “intellectual” words and words expressing emotions.
Commenting on the possible uses of the new method, Dr Koschate-Reis said: “We are currently focusing on mental health.
“It is the first method that lets us study how people access different group identities outside the laboratory on a large scale, in a quantified way.
“For example, it gives us the opportunity to understand how people acquire new identities, such as becoming a first-time parent, and whether difficulties ‘getting into’ this identity may be linked to postnatal depression and anxiety.
“Our method could help to inform policies and interventions in this area, and in many others.”
Group identities have been found to affect thoughts, emotions and behavior in many settings — from work contexts to education to political activism. Research is ongoing to understand how much control we have over switches between different identities — most of which are thought to be triggered by the social context. Dr Koschate-Reis said it might be possible to manipulate the cues that trigger an identity switch by going to a location associated with the identity. For example, students might find it easier to write in an “academic style” when they are in the library rather than the local coffee shop.
The study was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
1. Miriam Koschate, Elahe Naserian, Luke Dickens, Avelie Stuart, Alessandra Russo, Mark Levine. ASIA: Automated Social Identity Assessment using linguistic style. Behavior Research Methods, 2021; DOI: 10.3758/s13428-020-01511-3
Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Humboldt, Saskatchewan and associate editor and continuing education director for NDNR. His mission is serving relationships that support the process of transformation, and that ultimately lead to healthier people, businesses and communities. His primary therapeutic tools include counselling, homeopathy, diet and the use of cold water combined with exercise. Node considers health to be a reflection of the relationships a person or a business has with themselves, with God and with those around them. In order to cure disease and to heal, these relationships must be specifically considered. Node has worked intimately with many groups and organizations within the naturopathic profession, and helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic Revitalization (ANR), which works to promote and facilitate experiential education in vitalism.