A breakup rarely occurs out of the blue but is rather the result of building tension across time. This tension can manifest itself in the conversations we have online with random strangers. According to a new study, people make apparently subtle but noticeable shifts in how they use words in day to day conversations months before either partners realize their relationship is about to come to an end.
There’s no “I” in “We” anymore
One fascinating thing about the internet is that it has become a repository of all sorts of human behaviors. And using modern analytical tools, such as machine learning and other AI techniques, it is possible to make sense of all this wealth of data we generate on a daily basis to uncover the patterns that collectively make us human.
In such an endeavor, scientists have for the first time analyzed how people experience a breakup in real-time. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin combed through over 1 million posts made by 6,800 users one year before and after they had posted on the Reddit message board /r/BreakUps.
Three months before the breakup, people’s language began to change, in the sense that it became more informal and personal, and did not return to normal until six months later. This was true for both the person getting dumped and the dumpee.
One of the defining features of an impending breakup seems to be the increase in the frequency of 1st person pronouns such as “I” and “we”, as well as increasing signs of cognitive processing.
“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, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. “We don’t really notice how many times we are using prepositions, articles or pronouns, 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.”
According to the researchers, these shifts in language are signs that a person is carrying a heavy cognitive load. They also add that self-focused language tends to be associated with symptoms of depression.
“When people are depressed, they tend to focus on themselves and are not able to relate to others as much,” Seraj said.
The pronounced patterns in abnormal language peaked on the very day of the breakup and stayed elevated for up to six months later, despite the fact that the people included in the study were engaged in discussions that had nothing to do with their breakup in different subreddits.
In some cases, the language did not return to normal even a year after the breakup. These reddit users, the researchers wrote in their study, had the tendency to linger in the /r/BreakUps subreddit for months on end. Each time, they would rehash their breakup story, thus making it harder to move on.
The findings appeared in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.