Talking about one’s self predicts worsened symptom in depressed patients

Excessively talking about yourself is rarely a desirable personal trait, but recent research suggests that it may be a sign of something even worse.

One of the linguistic hallmarks of a self-centered perspective is an abundance of first-person pronouns (like “I” and “me”). While evidence exists to link depression symptoms to self-attention, there remains a deficit in the literature. Most experiments rely on subjective self-reporting methods instead of using an objectively measurable behavior like first-person pronoun frequency in spoken language.

An investigation by Johannes Zimmermann and his colleagues, published online in January 2016 in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, bridges the gap by examining the usage of first-person pronouns among clinically depressed inpatients.

Twenty-nine subjects took part in the study, all of whom were previously admitted to an inpatient psychotherapy program. The sample was predominantly female, by a ratio of 20 to 9. All participants initially completed a video interview that was later analyzed for pronoun frequencies. Depressive symptoms were assessed using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), which all subjects finished to establish a baseline at the beginning of the study. They also completed the inventory at discharge and again 8 months after the initial testing.

Potential correlations between BDI scores and the relative frequency of first-person pronouns were examined with a multiple regression model. The prospective longitudinal nature of this experiment provided researchers with some intriguing information about the relationship that may have otherwise remained hidden. At baseline, the usage of personal pronouns was not associated with the severity of depression symptoms, but this relationship was significantly observable at both discharge and follow-up.

It was concluded that a high frequency of first-person pronoun use in spoken English is a predictor of degraded symptoms in patients diagnosed with clinical depression. While the relationship between depression and self-attention had already been validated in previous studies, this is the first to demonstrate a prognostic quality.

It also introduces a behavioral approach to the study of self-attention and further strengthens the methodology by utilizing information from clinical trials. Of the many interesting applications of this finding, that with the most benefit may be the potential improvement of diagnostic strategies by identifying linguistic markers that predict the worsening of depressive symptoms. The authors acknowledge that this theory is currently limited by the fact that the study included only patients who had already been diagnosed with the disorder, so further research will be required.