Study Summary — Expressive Writing in Psychological Science

  • This overview of several studies discusses the effects that expressive writing exercises can have on physical health.
  • The lead researcher of the studies, Dr. James Pennebaker, has found that writing about traumatic experiences can lead to significant quantifiable improvements in physical health.
  • Metrics used to measure these improvements include number of yearly visits to the doctor, and strength of immune function as measured by blood tests.
  • “About 15% of the students answered “yes” (That they had experienced sexual trauma in the past). Those responding in the affirmative also reported much higher rates of all symptoms and also reported going to the doctor more than those answering “no.” Interviews and subsequent studies revealed that the issue was not having a sexual trauma per se; rather, people who had had any kind of trauma but who had kept it secret were those most likely to have a variety of health problems.” (Emphasis added)
  • “…we discovered that students randomly assigned to write about traumas for 4 days, 15 minutes a day, ended up going to the student health center over the next 6 months at about half the rate of students in the control condition (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986).”
  • Dr. Pennebaker has also done some very fascinating research on text analysis. He and his colleagues have developed computer programs that can analyze writing samples and use word choice as a predictive indicator. With these programs, it is possible to predict which therapeutic writing subjects will enjoy improvements in health, based on the types of words they use when writing about their traumas.
  • Using these computer programs, it is also possible to predict with great accuracy whether speed daters will want to contact one another again after their initial date, and whether established couples will stay together long term. These prediction are made by looking at the degree to which the daters and couples linguistic styles begin to mirror one another while they are speaking face to face (The program analyses a transcript of this communication), and texting. If you don’t believe it, I’d highly recommend checking out the following study:
  • “Language style matching” refers to the degree to which two people’s language (as measured by the types of words they use) begins to mirror each other’s during a conversation.
  • Speed dating study - “Relationship initiation, operationalized as whether speed- dating partners subsequently matched with each other, was regressed on LSM (language style matching) z scores in a logistic regression (Table 3). As hypothesized, LSM significantly predicted relationship initiation, odds ratio (OR) = 3.05, p = .039. For every standard- deviation increase in LSM, speed daters’ likelihood of romantically matching more than tripled.”
  • Analysis of text messages between established couples - “Relationship stability, operationalized as whether couples were still dating at the 3-month follow-up, was regressed on mean LSM z scores (Table 3). LSM significantly predicted relationship stability, OR = 1.95, p = .012. For every standard-deviation increase in LSM, couples were approximately twice as likely to be together 3 months later.”



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