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Commentary on Pennebaker's Secret Life of Pronouns
  Sitan Chen On the Cognitive Complexity and Specificity of Honesty in Lying In his Secret Life of Pronouns , Pennebaker (2011) argues that the problem of understanding the underlying emotional and social content of human communication can be reduced to one of simply determining the frequency with which different classes of words occur. One of the main tools with which he has carried out his scheme is the LIWC program, a piece of software that classifies text along a wide spectrum of dimensions by the frequency of words in categories ranging from first-person pronouns to positive emotion words. In chapter six of his  book, he applies this program to the domain of deception, arguing that one of the universal  properties of deception is the use of words rich in cognitive complexity and detail, which could take the form of big words, precise references to time, place, and motion, or insight words like understand, think, conclude . Such indicators will form the focus of our discussion. Specifically, we suggest the following possible extension to Pennebaker's theory, namely that while the detail/ complexity of false statements liars make may be low, that of the truthful statements they use to buttress these lies may actually be higher than that of statements they make when completely telling the truth. The intuition is that while speaking at length about the truth is admittedly much easier than fashioning elaborate falsehoods, it's not necessarily easier than obfuscating vague falsehoods with particularly specific, sophisticated truths. Our first motivation comes from Hancock's work (2008) on analyzing the rhetoric US officials used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Hancock finds that in interviews with these officials, the use of motion verbs (indicating specificity) and exclusives (indicating cognitive complexity) in objectively untrue parts of these interviews was markedly less than in the truthful   parts. Pennebaker cites this study and points to a prime example of such an interview to illustrate, in which Dick Cheney claimed vaguely that Iraq was amassing nuclear weapons and  backed this with a detailed (truthful) account of Hussein's chemical attacks on Kurdish towns in 1988, referencing the locations of these attacks and even estimates of casualties. While this certainly makes a strong case for Pennebaker's theory, we are left with the natural question: would Cheney have gone into such detail had he presented the situation in Iraq honestly to begin with? According to one study that Pennebaker conducted, the answer seems to be no. He and a collaborator conducted a mock-crime experiment in which the non-control participants were told to steal something from a journal and then lie to the experimenter when asked about it. Beyond concluding that the subjects' language was key to determining deception, the researchers noted that whereas the innocent subjects commonly answered with a simple no , the guilty ones went off on a tangent, coming up with cognitively intricate denials involving references to time and motion by claiming I don't believe   in stealing…I did it once a long time ago   and I would never even think to look in the book to look for a dollar  … was just writing in my journal for my freshman seminar (Pennebaker 243-244). The point is that the guilty subjects' detailed, nuanced explanations seem to be just as big a giveaway as their avoidance of the question. In search of more such evidence, we turned to the phenomenon of academic fraud, reasoning that fraudulent papers probably exhibit just as much, if not more, detail/complexity as legitimate ones in order to distract from any untruths that they gloss over (e.g. fudged data, logical holes). Going through a sheaf of retracted papers by the wildly infamous Diederik Stapel, we ran the openly available demo of LIWC on these articles and determined an average cognition words valuation (indicating cognitive complexity) of 7.19 and an average big  words valuation (indicating specificity) of 31.55, both significantly higher than Pennebaker's  benchmarks of 5.4 and 19.6, respectively. While running LIWC on entire articles at a time is a  bit too crude, this does support our notion that liars do not lack the ability to incorporate complex words and logical constructs into their arguments so much as they choose to allocate these things away from their lies and towards the truths concealing them. One experiment that could help verify our hypothesis would be a modification of another study Pennebaker cites: there, half the subjects were instructed to write about a real trauma they experienced; the other half were instructed to write about a certain imaginary one. One of their conclusions was actually that the imaginary trauma group used more cognitive words, but as usual they found they also mentioned fewer specifics. The main issue with this study in our setting is that unlike in the real world where the set of personal experiences that a liar could craft into coherent details is usually nonempty, most subjects in the imaginary trauma group have no material to work with whatsoever. The workaround we propose is to have the imaginary trauma group instead write about a trauma very similar to one they've actually experienced, modulo enough key points that writing about it still feels like lying, but not enough that any specific fact they mention would have to come completely out of the blue. Now that it's reasonable to expect details from both experimental groups, we could try running Pennebaker's language analysis and ideally conclude that liars not only use more cognitive words but also include more specifics in their truthful statements. Overall, Pennebaker's thesis on the universal power of frequency-based language analysis is a compellingly robust one, especially with regards to deception. That said, if we can extend Hancock's result that true statements told by liars are more specific and nuanced than their false  counterparts to one that they are more complex and detailed even compared to true statements told by honest people, this would have interesting ramifications in better understanding a variety of problems ranging from how academic frauds try to fool their referees, to what government leaders say that can tame public opinion so effectively. Title Cognition Words Big Words The Influence of Mood on Attribution 6.6 31.07 Moods as Spotlights: The Influence of Mood on Accessibility 7.99 29.70 The Three Selves Model of Social Comparison Assimilation and Contrast 7.32 31.05 Information to Go: Fluency Enhances the Usability of Primed Information 6.90 29.24 When Different is Better: Performance Following Upward Comparison 6.57 38.50 Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination 6.95 28.67 The Downside of Feeling Better: Self-Regard Repair Harms Performance 6.13 29.94 The Secret Life of Emotions 6.38 31.07 How to Heat Up From the Cold: Examining the Preconditions for (Unconscious) Mood Effects 9.52 33.26 When Nothing Compares to Me: How Defensive Motivations and Similarity Shape Social Comparison Effects 7.54 32.96 Table 1: LIWC results on some fraudulent papers by Diederik Stapel

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Jul 23, 2017
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