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Use of Social Words in Autobiographies and Longevity

Pressman, Sarah D. PhD; Cohen, Sheldon PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e31803cb919
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Objective: To analyze the relationship between social word use in autobiographies and longevity. Although there is substantial evidence that our social relationships are associated with mortality, interpretation of this work is weakened by the limitations of assessing the social environment with structured questionnaires and interviews. By analyzing the word content of autobiographies, we could assess spontaneous indicators of important social relationships and relate them to longevity. This technique is less subject to social desirability reporting biases and more sensitive to aspects of the social environment that are central to how one experiences his or her social world.

Methods: The autobiographies of 96 psychologists and 220 literary writers were digitized and scanned for social relationship word frequency via a computerized word counting program. Archival data were collected on birth and death dates, year of publication, place of birth, age when the autobiography was written, and sex.

Results: After controlling for sex, year of birth, and age at the time of writing, we found that higher use of words indicating social roles/integration (e.g., father, sister, neighbor, co-worker) was associated with an increased lifespan in both samples. Specific social categories assessing the use of family role terms (e.g., aunt, family, brother) and references to other individuals (e.g., they, we, us, everyone) also predicted longer life, but only in the sample of psychologists.

Conclusions: Assessing social word use in autobiographies provided an indirect measure of social relationships that predicted longevity. This technique of analyzing writing samples may be useful in future archival research as well as in studies where it is desirable to study social relationships in an indirect fashion.

ST = social ties; LIWC = linguistic inquiry and word count

From the Department of Psychology (S.D.P, S.C.), Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Sarah Pressman, Department of Psychiatry, Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, 3811 O’Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. E-mail: pressmansd@upmc.edu

Received for publication June 9, 2006; revision received November 14, 2006.

Research was funded by Grants HL65111 and HL65112 to the Pittsburgh National Institutes of Heath Mind-Body Center.

Copyright © 2007 by American Psychosomatic Society
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