Let me count the ways

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Cosma Shalizi, "Lyric poetry in Pluto's Republic", 5/8/2011, considers DeWall et al. on pop-culture pronouns in the light of genre and style differences:

The empirical basis for inferring narcissism from using first person singular pronouns appears to be Robert Raskin and Robert Shaw, "Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns", Journal of Personality 56 (1988): 393–404. This shows that, over twenty years ago, there was a modest positive correlation (+0.26) between scores on a quiz intended to measure narcissism, and how often 48 UC Santa Cruz undergrads used first-person singular pronouns in extemporized five minute monologues. Top 100 songs are not spontaneous monologues by undergrads looking for a painless way to get $5 and/or check off a Psych. 1 requirement, and DeWall et al. offer no evidence that this correlation generalizes to any other context. In particular they offer no reason to think that differences over time, as language and culture changes, should be explained in the same way as these differences across people, at a single time and in a single school.

[…] To draw the moral explicitly, even if there is such a thing as a one-dimensional personality trait of narcissism, and even if that was correlated with pronoun use in one particular historical population, in one particular social/rhetorical context, that tells us nothing at all about the correlation in other situations. I don't assert that it can't be true, but there is no psychological or statistical reason to presume that it is true, and so it needs to be established. In more psychological terms, thinking otherwise is not so much slipping into the fundamental attribution error as wallowing in it.

In the genre of lyric poetry, it's obvious that extensive use of the first person singular has a long tradition, starting well before the 1980 beginning of the DeWall et al. study of hit song lyrics, and even before the 1960s R&B that I looked at here.  Thus a literal English translation of Sappho's famous fragment 2 (from around 600 BC) has 13.1% first-person-singular pronouns; and looking elsewhere in lyrics from the first millennium BC, I was able to provide an empirical nugget for an update to Cosma's post:

Mark Liberman points out, by e-mail, that the famous 23rd psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want") clocks in at 14.3% first person pronouns in the King James Version, above the DeWall et al. confidence limits for all but seven [of 28] years. I would add that "Rock of Ages" is a lower but still well-above-average 13.3%. On the other hand, "Rock of Ages" by Def Leppard (a top 100 song in 1983, and so part of the data) is between 4.6% and 6.2% first person singular pronouns (depending on how you want to count "gimme"). Clearly, the only thing saving American popular culture from epidemic narcissism in the early 1980s was preferring heavy metal to hymns.

For the last four years of DeWall et al.'s study, 2003-2007, they cite 95% confidence intervals between 4.8% and 10.9% first-person-singular pronouns  So perhaps American popular music is becoming more biblical, or at least more psalm-like? I don't think so, of course. In fact, as Cosma points out, the evidence cited in DeWall et al. gives no convincing evidence that a quantitative trend even exists, whatever its interpretation:

DeWall et al. also provide a table with the mean and standard deviation of the first person pronoun use for each year, and a 95% confidence interval. (They don't say how they calculated the latter, but I'll take them at their word and presume they did that properly.) This lets me plot the actual data, which looks like this:

(My code, in R.) The black dots, joined by lines to guide the eye, are the actual percentages. The dashed lines are the 95% confidence limits. The horizontal grey line is the over-all mean percentage, over the whole data set. The two colored lines are two smoothing spline fits, one with (purple) and one without (blue) giving extra weight to years with smaller standard deviations. Making the smoothing splines requires a little knowledge of statistics; everything else just needs the ability to draw the numbers DeWall et al. provide.

The flat horizontal line is inside the confidence limits in 27 of the 28 years. This is exactly what we would expect if there was no signal here whatsoever, and all fluctuations from year to year were just noise. (95% coverage per year and 28 years yields 1.4 expected non-coverage events.) There is nothing here to explain; the appearance that there is something in their Figure 1 is one part bad data analysis to one part How to Lie with Statistics-level bad graphing.

Cosma's overall evaluation of DeWall et al. is not a positive one:

While perhaps not a truly epic fail, this is not a creditable performance. The paper probes a hugely complex tangle of issues relating individual minds, communication, social norms, artistic expression, social change and cultural transformation. There is no shame in not unraveling the whole snarl at once, but between the incompetent data analysis, the failure of logical imagination, and the deep misunderstanding of how works of art are made and used, it does nothing to advance our knowledge of anything.

The author of Psalm 6 expressed himself less temperately:

O LORD, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.
Have mercy upon me, O LORD; for I am weak: O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed.
My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O LORD, how long?
Return, O LORD, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies' sake.
For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?
I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.
Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies.
Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the LORD hath heard the voice of my weeping.
The LORD hath heard my supplication; the LORD will receive my prayer.
Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed: let them return and be ashamed suddenly.

14.5% first-person-singular-pronouns. Old school.

In lyrics from biblical times to the present, first-person-singular references are often an invitation for the hearer to identify with the author, or rather with the persona presented by the author or the performer. As Cosma points out, this is not at all the same situation as first-person references in the extemporized monologues of Santa Cruz undergraduates participating in a psychology experiment.


  1. Martin J Ball said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 7:41 am

    The depressing thing is that the journal concerned presumably found some peer reviewers who thought that this was worth publishing … :(

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    Objection to the labeling of Def Leppard as metal!

    Cosma gets at a key point, I think: "The persona of the song or poem is not the personality of the song-writer or poet." As a writer of songs, I can attest that the first-person voice of many lyrics is totally fictive and often not really coherent enough to be considered to have a referent. So the question is, if it's supposedly narcissistic, who is the narcissist?

  3. KevinM said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    Not to be overlooked, youngsters: I remember a time when schoolchildren were taught that use of the personal pronoun in formal writing was a stylistic gaffe (leading to circumlocutions such as "this writer," etc.). That proscription, like many of Mrs. Thistlebottom's rules, has been eroded. Today, you will see "I" (and contractions) in judicial opinions and other formal contexts. Correlation? Causation? Don't know, but I believe childhood training constituted an artificial barrier to the use of "I," a barrier that had nothing to do with earlier writers' lack of narcissism.

  4. Ken Brown said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    @Rod: Def Leppard may not count as what passes for "metal" now, but they certainly did in the late 70s and early 80s when they made that not-so-egotistical song. Or "heavy metal" as we would have said then. And they managed to rhyme "crazier" with "pyromania" :-)

    And more on topic but still musical, does anyone know how long ago rastas started using "I and I" and similar phrases? Springing from a deliberate attempt to replace Jamaican usage of "me" with "I", because "I" is the supposed actor or subject of a sentence, and "me" the object, and they wanted to educate people away from thinking of themselves as objects and victims.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    @Rod: "Rock of Ages" may or may not be heavy metal, but it apparently is an anthem.

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    Looking at the original Greek of the Sappho poem raises more questions about these narcissistic pronoun assumptions.

    Depending on how you reconstruct the fragment, by my count there are only 3-5 personal pronouns, or 4-6%, in the original.

    Of course, pronouns are often omitted in Greek, because verbs inflect for person. But even if you count inflections, Greek still omits pronouns much more readily, especially with things like parts of the body: in this case Sappho's heart, breast, tongue, skin, eyes and ears all appear, with (at most) two associated pronouns between them.

    So, does the same poem become more narcissistic when it's translated it into English?

    [(myl) It gets worse in the translation and extension of this poem by Catullus, who adds a stanza addressed to himself in the second person:

    otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est;
    otio exsultas nimiumque gestis;
    otium et reges prius et beatas
    perdidit urbes.


  7. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    Italians frequently drop the first person nominative pronoun, don't they? I leave the implications for correlation with narcissism as an exercise for the reader.

  8. The Ridger said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    I'm not sure you can say of a language that it "drops" the pronoun when the ending of the verb exlicitly codes the same information. Instead, I'd say that the (for instance) -U ending on a Russian verb is the same as saying "I", and explicitly using the pronoun as well is an emphatic construction.

    Of course, English can drop the pronoun once the listener can be expected to supply it. "Guess what happened to me? Went shopping and saw the boss…"

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    @Ken Brown: a few minutes on Google books uncovers the phrase "I and I" quoted from the mouth of a Rastaman in an academic work called "Caribbean Studies, Vol. 10" purportedly published in 1970 by the University of Puerto Rico (I incorporate by reference the standard complaints about dodginess of date-coding in google books). (The same quote has "I-niversal" for universal, evidencing the general morphologically productive Rasta pattern that leads to "Ital," "I-ration," etc etc etc) Feel free to antedate. Rasta culture/tradition/distinctive lexicon was obv. originally heavily oral and outsiders may not have paid much attention prior to the 1970's. Of course, there's the methodological question of whether this should count as one first-person-sing. pronoun or two when used in song lyrics . . . (if the former one should probably adjust the denominator by treating the whole phrase "I and I" as if a single hyphenated word "I-and-I").

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

    So because I'm procrastinating, I just checked out how Narcissus himself, as channeled by Ovid, scores in his big soliloquy.

    It's a bit subjective because he deliberately muddies the waters using ambiguous 1st person plural forms that could be singular in meaning. But fudging that a bit, and counting all the 1st person singular inflections as well as pronouns in Latin, and pronouns + am in the 1922 Brookes More translation, they came out almost exactly equal, at 22% and 23% respectively. Though the 1567 Golding translation only has 10%.

    This proves conclusively that the Romans and the inter-bellum New Englanders were more than twice as vicariously narcissistic as the Elizabethans.

  11. Chris Holdaway said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    @Ginger Yellow

    We can then all come to the conclusion that speakers of pro-drop languages will be universally less narcissistic :P congratulations, Spaniards et al.

    [(myl) Indeed. And in terms of Cosma's analogy to the correlation of building heights with shadow lengths, we could similarly conclude that buildings at higher latitudes are generally taller, since on average the sun is lower in the sky :-).]

  12. Bill W. said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

    Gosh, the author of Psalm 6 really was a narcissistic drama queen, wasn't s/he?

    [(myl) Some but by no means all of the psalms are like that, e.g. Psalm 142 at 20.3% FPSP:

    [1] I cried unto the LORD with my voice; with my voice unto the LORD did I make my supplication.
    [2] I poured out my complaint before him; I shewed before him my trouble.
    [3] When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walked have they privily laid a snare for me.
    [4] I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.
    [5] I cried unto thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my refuge and my portion in the land of the living.
    [6] Attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low: deliver me from my persecutors; for they are stronger than I.
    [7] Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.

    But the most striking thing about Psalm 6, at least theologically, was this line:

    [5] For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?


  13. Janice Byer said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    KevinM – Me does indeed recall being taught that very proscription to which you refer. "Narcissism" of course wasn't yet a weapon brandished to urge our acquiescence. Something of the kind was insinuated.

  14. Ken Brown said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    There are a lot of depressing or anguished or despairing psalms. In liturgical churches we tend to read them in the weeks leading up to Easter. The "darkest" one is Psalm 88 – most of the rest have some expression of hope or repentance at the end, in that one the writer – after quite a lot of me, me, me-ing – seems to be blaming God.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum:

    So because I'm procrastinating, I just checked out how Narcissus himself, as channeled by Ovid, scores in his big soliloquy.

    It's a bit subjective because he deliberately muddies the waters…

    That's not how I remember it.

    Sorry. I'll just add that somehow this is reminding me of "Narcissus in Camden".

  16. maidhc said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 4:13 am

    I shudder to think that 48 UC Santa Cruz undergrads should be considered typical of anything.

    Had it been U of Iowa it might have been a bit more convincing.

  17. maidhc said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 4:20 am

    Jerry Friedman:

    Haply in the far, the orient future, in the dawn we herald like the birds, Men shall read the legend of our meeting-, linger o'er the music of our words; Haply coming poets shall compare me then to Milton in his lovely youth, Sitting in the cell of Galileo, learning at his elder's lips the truth.

    Haply they shall liken these dear moments, safely held in History's amber clear, Unto Dante's converse bland with Virgil, on the margin of that gloomy mere!

    …which I'm sure is how everyone thinks of their blog posts.

  18. un malpaso said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 8:42 am

    Just as an aside, I had no idea that Jaws' Captain Quint had a side career as a linguist. :P

  19. Bill Walderman said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    I wonder whether the Virginia Department of Transportation, which seems to allow drivers to encode religious sentiments in Biblical verse citations on vanity plates, will let me announce my opinions about the afterlife (if not about the existence of a higher power) on a plate that reads "PS VI 5".

  20. thomas said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    KevinM, Janice Byer:

    Early on Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon (1937) there is an example suggesting that avoiding "I write" is relatively recent. I don't have the exact quote with me, but Bunter is described as been aware of the vulgarity of avoiding "I" at the start of a letter. It sounded as though the issue was active, but that prescriptivists were on the other side. Perhaps avoiding 'I' was a commercial usage that then spread to other formal writing?

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