It’s often believed that people who talk about themselves a lot do so because they’re narcissists — but that might not actually be the case. In fact, “I-talk” — the frequent use of first-person singular pronouns — might actually be a sign of something else entirely: According to a new study, using a lot of “I-talk” might indicate a tendency towards not only depression, but also negative emotionality more generally. And that, in turn, has some major implications for how we approach mental health care.
The “no, you’re not a narcissist” portion of the results line up with previous research that came to similar conclusions: In 2015, a study of 4,800 participants published by researchers from the University of Arizona, Stanford University, the University of Munster, Georgia Southern University, the Free University of Berlin, TexasA&M University, and the University of Texas at Austin (quite a collection, no?) found that, contrary to popular belief, I-talk didn’t correlate with narcissism. The idea that narcissists use first-person pronouns a lot comes mainly from a study published in 1988 — but given that that study had a participant pool of only 48 people, our ability to extrapolate to the population at large from it is extremely limited.
But the implications of the current study, which comes out of the University of Arizona and was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, aren’t really about narcissism; they’re about misinterpreted markers of mental health conditions and disorders.
The researchers examined data from 4,754 participants spanning six labs and two countries and found a “small but reliable positive correlation between depression and I-talk.” The effect was quite consistent; it showed up in conjunction with both subjective and objective first-person singular pronouns (although not possessive ones), in nearly all communication contexts (that is, it was present in personal, momentary thought, and identity-related contexts, but not impersonal ones), and with no differences with regard to gender.
But the link between I-talk and depression is only part of the picture. The same pattern was also identified between I-talk and negative emotionality more generally — that is, people’s tendency toward emotional distress, which can manifest in a variety of forms including depression, anxiety, worry, or anger, according to Science Daily. The study found that most people use around 16,00 words per day — either written or spoken — with about 1,400 of them being first-person singular pronouns. People who tend toward negative emotionality, however, may use first-person singular pronouns as many as 2,000 times per day.
What the study reveals is that I-talk may not be a reliable way to identify whether someone is dealing with depression. Said study co-author Matthias Mehl to Science Daily, “The question of whether I-talk reflects depression more specifically, or negative affect more broadly, was a really important question because if you’re thinking of using I-talk as a screening tool, you want to know if it screens specifically for a risk for depression or if it screens more broadly for a tendency to experience a negative affect, which is a broader risk factor for a suite of mental health concerns.”
This matters because accurate diagnosis matters. It seems like it a no-brainer, but it’s very much worth remembering that without an accurate diagnosis, people can’t get the right treatment for whatever they’re dealing with. Consider, for example, the results of a study published in 2012 that found that, when a group of people who had been diagnosed with depression were re-evaluated, only 38.4 of them were actually found to meet the criteria for depression. The implications of the current study suggest that these misdiagnoses of depression could be due, at least in part, to at least one inaccurately interpreted symptom. If I-talk is frequently being read as an indicator of depression when it could in fact be an indicator of a wide variety of other issues, then a patient who might actually be dealing with, say, anxiety might end up being treated for depression instead. And that's not actually going to help.
As lead author Allison Tackman put it to Science Daily, “Previous research had found the one link — between I-talk and depression — but it hadn’t examined moderators in great detail in a large sample. That was the next step.”When she and her team took that next step, they found that “I-talk may not be very good at assessing depression in particular,” Tackman said. “It may be better at assessing a proneness not just to depression but to negative emotionality more broadly.” But that’s useful: It tells us not to rush to diagnosis, but to examine a patient who’s displaying large amounts of self-talk for other markers — both of depression, and of other possibilities.
If you think you might be dealing with depression, anxiety, or another issue, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Finding a therapist might help; a variety of free or low-cost mental health resources might, too. Take care of yourself — you deserve it. Everyone deserves it.