New research suggests that your friend who talks about him- or herself all the time is not necessarily a narcissist, but someone prone to emotional distress.

In a follow-up to a 2015 study, University of Arizona researchers expanded their prior research which established frequent use of first-person singular pronouns — I, me, and my — is not, in fact, an indicator of narcissism.

In the new research, investigators discovered the so-called “I-talk” may signal that someone is prone to emotional distress. Research at other institutions has suggested that I-talk, though not an indicator of narcissism, may be a marker for depression.

While the new study confirms that link, University of Arizona researchers found an even greater connection between high levels of I-talk and a psychological disposition of negative emotionality in general.

The study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Negative emotionality refers to a tendency to easily become upset or emotionally distressed. This distress may take the form of experiencing depression, anxiety, worry, tension, anger, or other negative emotions, said Allison Tackman, lead author of the new study.

Tackman and her co-authors found that when people talk a lot about themselves, it could point to depression, but it could just as easily indicate that they are prone to anxiety or any number of other negative emotions.

Therefore, I-talk shouldn’t be considered a marker for depression alone.

“The question of whether I-talk reflects depression more specifically, or negative affect more broadly, was a really important question because if you’re thinking of using I-talk as a screening tool, you want to know if it screens specifically for a risk for depression or if it screens more broadly for a tendency to experience negative affect,” said University of Arizona psychology professor and study co-author Dr. Matthias Mehl.

If I-talk does reflect the tendency to experience negative effect, then the expressions may suggest a broader risk factor for a variety of mental health concerns.

The researchers’ findings are based on a large dataset of more than 4,700 individuals from six labs in two countries, the U.S. and Germany. The data included measures of individuals’ use of I-talk — either in written or spoken tasks — as well as measures of depression and negative emotionality.

“Previous research had found the one link, between I-talk and depression, but it hadn’t examined moderators in great detail in a large sample. That was the next step,” Tackman said. “Our results suggest that I-talk may not be very good at assessing depression in particular. It may be better at assessing a proneness not just to depression but to negative emotionality more broadly.”

So how much I-talk is considered a lot? The average person speaks about 16,000 words a day, about 1,400 of which are, on average, first-person singular pronouns, Mehl said. Those prone to distress may say “I, me and my” up to 2,000 times a day.

Researchers also looked at whether gender and communication context affected the relationship between I-talk and negative emotionality. They found that gender does not play an important role but communication context does.

“If you are speaking in a personal context — so you’re speaking about something that’s of relevance to you, like a recent breakup — then we see the relationship between I-talk and negative emotionality emerge,” Tackman said.

“But if you’re communicating in a context that’s more impersonal, such as describing a picture, we did not see the relationship emerge.”

In addition, the researchers found that the specific type of first-person singular pronoun made a difference.

Frequent use of the subjective first-person pronoun “I” and the objective first-person pronoun “me” was linked to negative emotionality, but frequent use of the first-person possessive pronoun “my” was not. That may be because “my” connects a person to another individual or object on the “outside,” effectively taking the “psychological spotlight” off the self, Tackman and Mehl said.

To better understand why I-talk may indicate distress, researchers suggest thinking back to your last “woe-as-me” moment.

“We’ve all gone through negative life events when we’re feeling down or we’re feeling anxious, and when you think back to being in those places, when you’re just so focused on yourself, you may say things like ‘Why can’t I get better?’” Tackman said.

The relationship between I-talk and negative emotionality, while present, is relatively small. However, researchers found that it’s not that much smaller than the relationship between negative emotionality and negative emotion words, such as “sad,” “unhappy,” “hate” and “dislike,” which are key linguistic markers for traits such as depression.

That indicates that the relationship between I-talk and negative emotionality is a meaningful one. And, as Mehl reflects: “Stress can make you be caught in the metaphorical ‘I’ of the storm.”

Source: University of Arizona/EurekAlert