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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “‘It’s not you, it’s me'”

    Breaking up is a bummer … and according to the research of one UA professor, language use is an indicator of a person’s ability to cope with the change.

    David Sbarra, an assistant professor of psychology, is working on an ongoing study that analyzes the ways in which young adults recover from the calamitous end of a romance.

    “”The main thrust of our research program in my lab is to understand how people deal with difficult life experiences and, in particular, how people recover from major upheavals in their life,”” Sbarra said.

    The UA researcher and his colleagues in the Laboratory for Social Connectedness and Health recruited 166 subjects between the ages of 18-22 who had experienced a stressful breakup within the past six months.

    They recorded interviews in which the subjects discussed their breakups and ran them through a computer program to evaluate the language use, counting the percentage of each subject’s speech comprised of words from 11 separate categories including, “”emotion words,”” “”family words”” and first person pronouns.

    The data was then divided into four categories – women who were adjusting well, men adjusting well, women adjusting poorly and men adjusting poorly – a determination that was made based on the frequency with which a given subject experienced sleeplessness, dreams or intrusive thoughts stemming from the breakup.

    Sbarra then looked for similarities in the word usage profiles of the subjects in each category and identified key differences in the words used by the subjects.

    “”We’ve tried to tease apart differences that characterize each group,”” he said.

    For example, women who were adjusting poorly tended to use more third person references, like “”him,”” “”her”” and “”them,”” indicating that the subject is still preoccupied with another person.

    Women who were adjusting well didn’t use those words as frequently, and they also spoke with more certainty and referred to their social networks more often than women in the other category.

    Women in both groups spoke about their experience more readily than the men in either group, Sbarra said.

    “”For men in this situation, it’s a lot harder for them to verbalize themselves,”” he added.

    That result did not come as a surprise to Sbarra.

    “”There’s a very strong context for understanding that men and women express themselves in language quite differently,”” he said. “”Talking about social context and social experience is not for men a natural or normative experience.””

    Men in both categories used far more verbal non-fluencies, like “”um”” and “”uh.””

    The word counting software does have some limitations: it can’t identify sarcasm or account for double negatives like the phrase, “”I don’t hate you,”” as a use of the negative emotion word, “”hate,”” said Matthias Mehl, a UA professor of psychology.

    An individual’s word usage signature is a clear signal, Mehl said, so that the occasional misidentification by the software doesn’t significantly change the data.

    “”Despite misclassifications,”” Mehl said, “”the way people use words is psychologically important.””

    Sbarra said he hopes his research will eventually result in useful interventions to help people who have endured stressful losses and other traumatic life events, he said.

    The results of the study suggest that language use is in fact an indicator of a person’s level of adjustment after a breakup, which presents the possibility of identifying individuals who are prone to depression, Sbarra said.

    According to a 1999 paper in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, “”Life Events and Depression in Adolescence,”” an adolescent’s response to a first romantic breakup is the single best predictor of a future major depressive episode, Sbarra said.

    “”What do we know about depressive episodes?”” he said. “”They’re recurring and chronic.””

    Having researched relationship upheavals since his days as a graduate student, Sbarra said he has observed one particularly stirring human trait many times.

    “”To me, the most heartening kind of thing is people’s huge amount of resiliency to recover from these kinds of things.””

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