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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Pronoun power

    ‘We-talk’ helps heart patients, according to UA researcher

    The health of married individuals who have chronic heart failure is correlated to the words used by their healthy spouse, preliminary results of a UA study indicate.

    Inspired by the results of his previous study of married heart patients in Michigan, Michael Rohrbaugh, a UA psychology professor and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory, took his research one step further. He found that the pronoun a spouse uses in a patient’s presence may help determine the patient’s long-term health.


    The pronoun a spouse uses in a patient’s presence may help determine the patient’s long-term health.

    Arizona Heart Patient Study suggests that when spouses use the plural pronouns “”us,”” “”we”” and “”our”” – as opposed to singular alternatives such as “”me,”” “”I”” and “”my”” – when talking about their partners’ conditions, patients tend to have better health in the long run, regardless of the initial severity of their conditions.

    “”The frequency with which at least the (healthy) spouse uses the pronoun ‘we’ relative to other pronouns or relative to anything – that seems to predict how things go over the next six months with patients’ health,”” Rohrbaugh said.

    In his Michigan study, Rohrbaugh interviewed 189 heart patients and their spouses to assess the quality of their marriages based on a number of factors.

    Eight years later, Rohrbaugh followed up with those patients and found that marital quality was, at least for female heart patients, a good predictive factor of future health. At the eight-year follow up, seven of the eight patients in strained marriages had died, he said.

    After seeing the correlation between marital quality and patient health in the Michigan study, Rohrbaugh hypothesized that more than just marital quality, something called “”communal coping,”” was having an impact on patients, prompting the latest Study.

    Communal coping is “”sharing the burden, but also literally defining it as ‘our problem,’ not just your problem or my problem,”” Rohrbaugh said.

    In order to quantify communal coping, the researchers used text analysis software to count the number of times particular words were used in recorded interviews with patients and their spouses, said Matthias Mehl, a psychology professor.

    While a healthy spouse’s use of so-called “”we-talk”” is correlated with positive patient outcome, Mehl said, the words themselves do not have a direct effect on patient health but rather are indicative of a person’s psychology.

    “”Personal pronouns reflect the way a person construes his or her social world, with ‘I’ being suggestive of ‘I’m an individual. I’m by myself and I’m the subject of my actions,’ “” Mehl said.

    On the other hand, “”the use of ‘we’ correlates with communal coping,”” he said.

    Another study is being conducted at the UA to investigate the effect of pronoun use in patients with breast cancer, Mehl said.

    Research on pronoun use could lead to pronoun therapy as a new treatment for certain diseases, he added.

    Other researchers have established connections between immune function – like wound-healing – and marital discord. Couples who are consistently hostile to each other heal from physical wounds at 60 percent the rate of less hostile couples, according to a 2005 paper published in the Archives of General Psychology.

    “”We have lots of research that we find, for example, that the use of ‘I’ is related with depression, with low self-esteem, with low social status, with all those things where psychological attention is focused on the self,”” Mehl said.

    “”The way we use pronouns seems very closely aligned with the way people think about their social world.””

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