Buzzfeed linguistics, presidential pronouns, and narcissism revisited

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John Templon, "No, Obama’s Pronouns Don’t Make Him A Narcissist", BuzzFeed News 10/19/2014:

Conservative commentators are fond of pointing to Barack Obama’s excessive use of the word “I” as evidence of the president’s narcissism. (“For God’s sake, he talks like the emperor Napoleon,” Charles Krauthammer complained recently.) But there’s one tiny problem with this line of reasoning. If you’re counting pronouns, Obama is maybe the least narcissistic president since 1945.

BuzzFeed News analyzed more than 2,000 presidential news conferences since 1929, looking for usage of first-person singular pronouns — “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.” Just 2.5 percent of Obama’s total news-conference words fell into this category. Only Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt used them less often.

MSNBC turned the BuzzFeed FPSP counts into a nice graph (Steve Benen, "Criticism of Obama's pronouns falls apart", MSNBC 10/21/14):

It's great to see some journalists fact-checking this nonsense. But why didn't any of the "serious" journalistic organs commission a report of this kind at any point during the past five years? The Washington Post is especially culpable, in my opinion, since they have featured George Will and Charles Krauthammer repeatedly ringing the Obama-is-a-narcissist-because-pronouns bell. Other guilty publications include the New York Times (Stanley Fish), the Wall Street Journal (Peggy Noonan), U.S. News and World Report (Mary Kate Cary), etc.

There's a long history of LLOG coverage of the "Obama overuse of 'I'" derp, for example:

"Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009
"Obama's Imperial 'I': Spreading the meme", 6/8/2009
"Inaugural pronouns", 6/8/2009
"Royal baloney", 6/9/2009
"Another pack member heard from", 6/9/2009
"I again", 7/13/2009
"What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009
"Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse", 7/10/2010
"Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", 10/6/2009
"Recommended reading", 5/3/2011
"Presidential pronouns, one more time", 5/22/2011
"Two more pundits who don't count", 6/21/2011
"Another pundit who can't (or won't) count", 6/23/2011
"A meme in hibernation", 3/31/2012
"Another lie from George Will", 5/7/2012
"Obama pronouns again", 10/31/2012

"First Person Singular, Redemption Plea Edition", 1/11/2014
"Another casual lie from Charles Krauthammer", 9/16/2014

And the whole inferring-narcissism-from-I-talk idea turns out to be nonsense anyhow — Angela L. Carey, Melanie Brucks, Albrech C.P. Küfner, Nichlas S. Holtzman, Fenne große Deters, Metija D. Back,  M. Brent Donnellan, James W. Pennbaker, and Matthias R. Mehl, "Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited", in press, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

Among both laypersons and researchers, extensive use of first-person singular pronouns (i.e. I-talk) is considered a face-valid linguistic marker of narcissism. However, the assumed relation between narcissism and I-talk has yet to be subjected to a strong empirical test. Accordingly, we conducted a large-scale (N = 4,811), multi-site (five labs), multi-measure (five narcissism measures) and dual-language (English and German) investigation to quantify how strongly narcissism is related to using more first-person singular pronouns across different theoretically relevant communication contexts (identity-related, personal, impersonal, private, public, and stream-of-consciousness tasks). Overall (r = .02, 95% CI [-.02, .04]) and within the sampled contexts, narcissism was unrelated to use of first-person singular pronouns (total, subjective, objective, and possessive). This consistent near-zero effect has important implications for making inferences about narcissism from pronoun use and prompts questions about why I-talk tends to be strongly perceived as an indicator of narcissism in the absence of an underlying actual association between the two variables.


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    For those wondering about derp (roughly, 'foolishness'), see the entry in the Winter 2011 installment of “Among the New Words” in American Speech (Internet meme edition). There's some further discussion in the comments on Arnold Zwicky's 2012 blog post on derpy.

    [(myl) Noah Smith defines derp in Bayesian terms as "the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors". Paul Krugman re-phrases this as "a determined belief in some […] doctrine that is completely unmovable by evidence". I'm using derp in this technical sense, not just as a breezy term for "foolishness".]

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

    "…prompts questions about why I-talk tends to be strongly perceived as an indicator of narcissism in the absence of an underlying actual association between the two variables."

    But not very difficult questions, surely.

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    @Ben Zimmer-

    Krugman just covered derp too.

  4. D.O. said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

    Overall (r = .02, 95% CI [-.02, .04]) and within the sampled contexts, narcissism was unrelated to use of first-person singular pronouns (total, subjective, objective, and possessive).
    No, no, no. If the goal is not to reject the null-hypothesis (that is to prove that effect exists and is visible in the data), but to remain comfortably within the null-hypothesis ("there is no there there as far as we can see") 95% CI makes no sense. It should be something like 50% CI or maybe even 20% CI (if the consequences of missing an effect are really bad), if you insist on doing it by CI and checking whether 0 is included. Or you can take the upper boundary of 95% CI (0.04) and argue that even this effect (and the true effect can reasonably be considered smaller than that) is of no real world consequence, but you have to argue it.

    Even better is to take whatever you think would be a borderline consequential effect and show that it is excluded. Or maybe move from the hypothesis-testing paradigm entirely, but in any case "0 is in the 95% CI" is a very poor argument.

  5. Y said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    Aha! So the absence of first-person pronouns in his speech proves he's a narcissist!

    (Yeah, yeah. Zero correlation, negative correlation, let's not get technical.)

  6. Rubrick said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

    For the palindromically inclined, assuming and reiterating a belief before any evidence is present at all is "pre-data derp".

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

    Now we just need BuzzFeed to make some pretty charts and graphs showing that short sentences are not evidence of masculinity.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 8:32 pm

    "narcissism was unrelated to use of first-person singular pronouns"

    So, in spite of his low FPSP ranking among modern presidents, he may in fact be an insufferable narcissist. Even worse, he may be trying to appear modest by deliberately avoiding FPSPs.

  9. Joe said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    "Even worse, he may be trying to appear modest by deliberately avoiding FPSPs."

    "So the absence of first-person pronouns in his speech proves he's a narcissist!"

    I think GeorgeW was contributing an example to the derp thread of this post.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 9:57 am

    Joe: (a) I was trying to be sarcastic, (b) I didn't say that it proved anything. In fact, I said, "may be." Since the study says that narcissism is unrelated to FPSPs, Obama's relatively little usage of the FPSPs gives us no evidence as to whether he is or is not.

  11. Linda Seebach said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

    I do think that Obama displays narcissism, but not because of pronouns; it's sentences like this, saying that his election will mean "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth."
    Even for political oratory (this was in 2008) that's extraordinary. And until I looked up the oceans-and-planet part just now, I'd forgotten the last part, where he was predicting ISIS and Ebola.

    But I don't know how any kind of corpus search could identify patterns like that.

  12. Joe said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

    @GeorgeW: Please consider your derp undeserved. Please pass it on to Linda Seebach.

  13. Is Obama a Narcissist? | The Trait-State Continuum said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    […] Answer: There has been a fair bit of discussion about narcissism and the current president (see here for example). Some of this stemmed from recent claims about his use of first person pronouns (i.e., […]

  14. Graham Campbell said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    I have what I consider to be an odd twist on the 'I-as-narcissism' meme, which I suppose I could label (following the form) 'you-as-blame'. Hear me out.

    I work in the IT industry as a Technical Writer, preparing (usually) User Guides for various different software solutions. These guides have (sometimes long) procedures that spell out exactly what a user must do to accomplish a certain task, often called task-based topics in DITA (for those familiar).

    Recently in my career I worked under a senior writer who went out of his way to not have 'you' used anywhere throughout his guides, even if it meant reworking entire paragraphs to read more awkwardly or without any clear agency (the latter being a rarer occurrence for sure, but still). The never-explained justification was that the use of 'you' suggested blame for something that had or could happen as a result, but perhaps wasn't intended (system errors or whatever).

    An excerpt, by way of an example:

    "2. Click the Add button.
    Note: You must be logged in as administrator user."

    In-house style guide considerations to one side for a moment, this kind of thing would never pass edit, with the reason being that the use of 'you' suggests that it's the user's fault that something hasn't gone as planned, such as the Add button isn't there or the user hasn't already logged in as an administrator. 'Logically', the more uses of 'you' in a sentence or paragraph, the more 'blame' the user would feel. Those poor wee lambs.

    I've never come across this before, but reasoned that it couldn't be so isolated as all that. So I wonder: has anyone else come upon this particular pronoun bashing?

  15. D.O. said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 1:29 am

    It's interesting how mind works. Ebola and ISIS indeed. How 'bout Deepwater Horizon, 5 years of high unemployment, Benghazi, ACA website glitches, IRS questioning Tea Party groups, "if you like it, you can keep it". By now you can have a truckload of invective against president Obama. And yet, it's only recent news cycle that sticks in mind.

  16. Jan Schreuder said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    Curious indeed how your mind works. You forgot to add the Hatian earthquake, the missing Malaysian plane and my uncle Chad's premature death due to alcoholism, to the ever growing list of possible invectives against Obama. Curiouser and curiouser.

  17. R K D said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

    I'd think that the use of first person plural would be a stronger indicator of narcissism: "We are not amused."

  18. Patriot O'Grady said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    He's not a narcissist. He just wrote an autobiography in his thirties. Doesn't everyone?

  19. Joe D. said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    Just out of curiosity, did the study provide the counts that were used to develop the percentages? A larger denominator would lead to a smaller percentage. Seeing the raw data would also eliminate questions about the sample size for each President.


    [(myl) Data and code is here.]

  20. Hypatia said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

    Queen Victoria said never to begin a sentence with "I". She has terrorized me to this day, such that I will twist a sentence into a pretzel to avoid countering Her Majesty.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 7:01 am

    In this post, I'm being exposed to an aspect of derpiness that I was hitherto unaware of. The young people whom I've heard use "derpy" mean by it "goofily happy and simple", like a smiling corgi with its tongue hanging out to the side.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 7:12 am


    My wife obsessively avoided the use of the first person pronoun, both in Chinese and in English, and I've known a number of other self-effacing Chinese who behaved in a similar fashion. Li-ching told me that her mother brought the whole family up that way, and that there was a long tradition of "I" avoidance among her relatives.

  23. Eli Anne said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 7:43 am

    I hadn't encountered "derp" being used as a noun before: Neat. I've been missing out!

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