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Graham Reilly
0466 465 908

Department: 
Media

Do you use words like “happy” and “family” in your social media posts? Or are you more likely to use words like “angry” and “death”?

Why does it matter? Because the words you use may be a clue to your religious beliefs, among other characteristics, according to a new study co-authored by Dr Peggy Kern from the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne.   

The study of 12,815 Facebook users in the United States and Great Britain found that use of positive emotion and social words was associated with religious affiliation, whereas use of negative emotion, swearing and references to drugs and death was more common among people who are not religious.

“The specific words and patterns may apply to Americans and Brits and not to Aussies”, Dr Kern says. “But the findings do suggest that the groups that we identify with might have an impact on our online behaviour.”

Dr Kern and lead researcher David Yaden from the University of Pennsylvania collected data from the Facebook MyPersonality application, which asked users to report their religious affiliation (among other things), and with the users’ consent they analysed their written online posts.

They investigated what words religious and non-religious users wrote more than the other. Unsurprisingly, religious people used more religious words, like “devil” “blessing” and “praying” than did non-religious people. They also showed greater use of positive words like “love”, “grateful” and “smile” and social words such as “family” and “friends”.

Non-religious people expressed more negative emotion, and used more words from an anger category like “hate”. They also used more words reflecting analytical thinking, such as “noticed”, “expected” and “figured”.

Other areas where the non-religious dominated included swear words (have a guess), and body-related words such as “head”, “neck” and “arse”. They also used more words related to death, referring to death across a range of topics, including jokes, hyperbole, societal problems related to mortality, technology and dying. 

Different linguistic behaviour between religious and non-religious people may reflect the psychological states of those in the group, social norms of being part of that group, or other cultural factors.

“Religion is associated with longer lives, good social relationships and well-being, but can also be associated with higher rates of obesity and racism,” Dr Kern says. 

 

For the researchers, analysing online language use is part of the bigger picture of understanding everyday actions that might have an effect on these life outcomes over time.