Researchers have long explored whether using Facebook makes us more full of ourselves. Now a study of Facebook data has found that users actually get less self-obsessed — at least as measured by certain words in their posts — as they get older.
As Mark Liberman writes at Language Log, researchers at the World Well-Being Project at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the pronouns people used in Facebook posts and broke down the results by age. They found that the use of first-person singular pronouns like “I” and “me” was lower among older users. But their use of first-person plural pronouns, like “we” and “our,” tended to be higher.
At The New Republic, Alice Robb investigates why this might be. She talks to the linguist Ben Zimmer, who notes that people may simply start using words like “we” more as they marry and have children. And she quotes the social psychologist James W. Pennebaker, author of “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us”: “When we are in new situations and are trying to establish an identity, we tend to be more self-focused, which comes out through higher rates of ‘I’ words. Almost by definition, younger people are more attentive to their not fitting in and are looking more closely at their own thoughts and feeling.” As we get older, Mr. Pennebaker adds, “we become less concerned with our own shortcomings and can sit back and watch the world a bit more objectively.”
“I think the language patterns reflect two related shifts through life,” H. Andrew Schwartz, the lead research scientist on the World Well-Being Project, told Op-Talk in an email: “from more individual orientation to more group oriented” and “from being ‘new to life’ to higher social status.” Regarding the latter, he explained that Mr. Pennebaker “has found people tend to use I a lot more when they are new to a situation or when speaking to a supervisor.” So as we age and encounter fewer new situations, we may start using the word less. He also noted that his research “did not track any individuals across their own lifespan, but rather gave a snapshot of different people between the ages of 13 and 65” and that “some changes could simply be generational differences.”
Ms. Robb also considers the possibility “that the pattern doesn’t just reflect life-cycle changes, but generational shifts” (i.e., that maybe young people today are just raging narcissists). She cites another study showing that the frequency of first-person singular pronouns went up by 42 percent between 1960 and 2008.
Are we doomed to a Facebook full of egomaniacs as the millennial generation ages? Maybe not. Other research suggests that as we get older, we might become easier to get along with. At The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein writes:
“From the ages of 20 to 65, people report increases in positive traits, such as conscientiousness, and decreases in negative traits, such as neuroticism. Most people tend to become more agreeable, more responsible, more emotionally stable — in other words, their personalities improve. Psychologists call it the Maturity Principle.”
Whether this principle will make today’s youth talk about other people more in their old age remains to be seen. But the finding that older people talk less about themselves is especially interesting in light of research suggesting older people may be happier than the young. According to Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press, a 2008 study found that “the happiest Americans are the oldest.”
“About 33 percent of Americans reported being very happy at age 88,” she writes, “versus about 24 percent of those age 18 to their early 20s.”
Ms. Tanner also cites another study showing that “older adults are more socially active than the stereotype of the lonely senior suggests” — 75 percent of study participants ages 57 to 85 did something social at least once a week. She quotes George O’Hare, an 81-year-old retired Sears manager: “I’m very happy because I’ve made friends that are still living.” He adds, “Happiness is getting out and being with people, and that’s why I recommend it.”
Few would say that happiness is posting about other people on Facebook. But if Mr. Pennebaker is right and older people are less concerned with their own failings, then maybe this outward focus breeds happiness.
In a New York Times Op-Ed article, Oliver Sacks argues that old age brings perspective:
“My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”
And maybe that sense of history makes one’s own personal ups and downs seem less worthy of broadcasting to all of one’s friends.