An upcoming study shows that warning signs of a breakup might exist in the small words we use in everyday conversations. In fact, lanaguge-analysis tools can predict the breakup months before either partner realizes it’s on the way.
The full study will appear in February in the journal PNAS. Its authors, from the University of Texas at Austin, say their study is the first to examine breakups using natural language data.
The researchers analyzed more than a million posts written by 6,800 Reddit users. They looked at all of these users’ posts from one year before and one year after they shared news about their breakup in the r/BreakUps subreddit. The r/Breakups subreddit is one of thousands of communities within Reddit, and currently has about 143,000 users.
The researchers found that these users’ language began to change a full three months before the breakup. It did not revert to normal until about six months after the breakup.
“It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives,” said lead author Sarah Seraj.
“We don’t really notice how many times we are using prepositions, articles or pronouns,” she said, “but these function words get altered in a way when you’re going through a personal upheaval that can tell us a lot about our emotional and psychological state.”
Warning signs of a breakup: more use of “I” and “we”
The language markers of the imminent breakup were notable up to three months before the event. Their language became more personal and informal, which indicates a drop in analytic thinking. Users also used the words “I” and “we” more frequently.
“These are signs that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load,” said Seraj. “They’re thinking or working through something, and are becoming more self-focused.”
“Sometimes the use of the word ‘I’ is correlated with depression and sadness,” she said. “When people are depressed, they tend to focus on themselves and are not able to relate to others as much.”
These patterns peaked on the day of the breakup, and remained visible up to six months later. This applied even when people were discussing other topics in different subreddits.
Breaking up is hard to do, but easier to predict
For some users, it took a year after the breakup before their language returned to normal. These users were characterized by a tendency to keep posting in the r/BreakUps subreddit for months. They continually rehashed their breakup story, which the researchers say makes it harder for them to heal.
The researchers also found similar language patterns when people are going through a divorce or other emotional upheavals.
“What makes this project so fascinating is that for the first time, through technology, we can see the way people experience a breakup in real time,” said the study’s co-author, Kate Blackburn.
“Implications for this research are far reaching. At the most basic level, it gives you, me, and everyday people insight into how loved ones may respond over time to the end of a romantic relationship.”
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Study: Language left behind on social media exposes the emotional and cognitive costs of a romantic breakup
Authors: Sarah Seraj, Kate G. Blackburn, and James W. Pennebaker
Publication date: February 16, 2021
Photo: by Vera Arsic from Pexels