Talk About Personality *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

If you have taken any personality tests, you probably had to respond to a written questionnaire or filled out some forms. In 1981, psychiatrist Walter Weintraub at the University of Maryland developed a method of assessing personality that requires neither reading nor writing. All you need to do is talk for ten minutes. Let me explain.

For the previous two decades, Weintraub has studied speech samples from almost 250 people. His new assessment method is based on the discovery that the style, content and speed of a person's speech can signal important clues to one's personality. (I'll bet that some of you are already aware of this.) To analyze the speech, subjects were asked to give a ten-minute speech into a tape recorder.

In analyzing a person's verbal style, he has divided speech characteristics into approximately 14 categories. Some of these categories are:

  1. the rate of speech,
  2. the number of times people use references such as "I" or "we,"
  3. indications of uncertainty, such as people qualifying their statements by using phrases like "kind of" and "I think,"
  4. retractor words that, in effect, cancel out what has just been said, such as "but," "however" and "although."

Weintraub compared samples of recorded speech from "normal" volunteers with speech patterns of paranoid, depressed and impulsive patients. He noted that impulsive patients used many retractors, as though they were trying to undo their impulsive statements. In contrast, paranoid patients used many explanatory expressions, beginning many sentences with words like "because," "since" and "as." Weintraub believes that this is due to the paranoid's need to rationalize his outlandish beliefs.

They come up with fanciful explanations of how the world works, and a large part of their conversation is trying to convince people that there really is a plot against them, the Mafia is really trying to destroy them.... These are explanations, and in order to provide explanations, you have to use explanatory conjunctions.

Depressed patients have speech that is characterized by long pauses, many negative words and an increased use of "I" and "me." Weintraub believes this last characteristic reflects their preoccupation with themselves.

Unlike more complex personality assessment instruments, such as the Rorschach (pronounced "ROAR-shock," commonly known as the inkblot test), the person's speech analysis can be conducted successfully by someone who has minimal training. All that is necessary is to count and categorize the kinds of statements and words used.

Analysis of speech style has been conducted with children as well. He reports that children of 5 and 6 years exhibit what psychologist Jean Piaget referred to as egocentrism. They use the pronouns "I" and "me" very often, but they virtually exclude the use of the pronoun "we." After age 7, the use of "we" increases greatly, while less is heard of "I" and "me." However, as the self-consciousness of adolescence approaches, "I" and "me" again predominates and "we" is used less frequently. As you can see, this kind of analysis may be uncovering some interesting developmental changes.

By carefully analyzing speech patterns, we may come to understand why after simply listening to people talk we can have hunches about how they will behave. As Weintraub noted:

We all use syntax a person's grammar to judge people. We just don't know what we do.... It should be interesting for people to find out what's at the basis of their hunches why they say a certain person cannot be trusted or another person appears phony. A lot of it is simply the way we put our words together. This assessment of verbal patterns is an attempt to deal in a more systematic way with those phenomena that we all deal with every day.

However (notice that I'm using a retractor word), Weintraub points out that his procedure cannot be used alone to assess personality. Even so, be believes that it can be a valuable supplement to other personality inventories and measurement instruments. (Don't start analyzing my article; Weintraub's method only applies to talking.)

* Adapted from John Dworetsky's Psychology, West Publishing, 1985, page 416.

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