2831 Using Computerized Text Analysis Methods To Assess Threats

Friday, February 18, 2011: 3:30 PM
145B (Washington Convention Center )
James W. Pennebaker , University of Texas, Austin, TX
The ways people use words can reveal a great deal about their personalities, intentions, and social relationships.  Rather than focusing on the content of speech, our text analysis methods examine the style of language use through people’s use of function words.  Function words, which include pronouns, prepositions, articles, and auxiliary verbs, have been linked to basic social and psychological processes.  By calculating the degree to which individuals and groups use function words across a wide variety of texts, it is possible to determine when groups are most prone to engage in violence.

            The current project analyzed almost 300 speeches, interviews, and articles from members of four extremist groups, two of which have a history of violent attacks and two non-violent groups.  Using a computerized text analysis program that calculated the percentage of total words that reflected different function word categories, it was possible to analyze the linguistic style of the groups themselves.  In addition, temporal analyses allowed for ways to determine which language features predicted violent behaviors among the violent groups. 

            Overall, each group had its own distinctive language style that reflected, in essence, its own personality.  The violent groups, for example, used language that was more personal, emotional, simple, and understandable to a large audience.  Despite this, the violent groups also had telltale linguistic styles of dishonesty in their word usage.  Over time, both violent groups changed in their language use in ways that predicted violent behaviors to a modest degree.

            The findings generalize beyond extremist or terrorist organizations.  Comparable results have emerged from language analyses of leaders from both totalitarian and democratic countries in the weeks and months before their initiating significant attacks on others.  Implications for the analysis of function words to better understand psychological processes are discussed.