How can language reveal insecurity?

I just read an interesting Slate post by Katy Waldman on the linguistic nuances that can reveal insecurity. It was an enjoyable read, but also induced some eyebrow raising. The article is based on studies that use sentiment analysis, a natural language processing technique that aims to extract subjective information about a writer from a piece of text. Sentiment analysis is based on extensive correlations and machine learning. For example, an algorithm might be derived by analyzing hundreds of thousands of texts written by men and hundreds of thousands written by women in order to identify systematic differences between the two groups of texts. This approach reveals that elements of a text like use of specific pronouns can determine much about an author or a text as a whole.

The study highlighted by the post pointed to linguistic overcompensation as an indicator of insecurity. One study (not yet published but discussed here) focused on insecurity at the level of an entire university. The rationale was that since it’s more prestigious to be a university (defined as an institution conferring at least one graduate degree) than a college, universities that are on the outer edge of the university group (i.e., ones that don’t offer Ph.Ds) might feel more insecure about their university standing.

UPenn. Image:

The researchers collected a sample of websites for top universities and top Master’s programs. The dependent variable was how often the institution mentioned its own name or used the word “university.” They found that Master’s universities were much more likely to emphasize the word “university” (using it in 60% of self-references) than Ph.D.-granting institutions (which used it in less than half of self-references).

Next, they looked at a similar phenomenon in a different domain: airports. They assumed that those offering international flights were higher status than those only offering domestic ones, so they compared use of the word “international” in big airports and smaller airports (that are still international). They predicted that the smaller ones would feel more of a need to emphasize their international status and would consequently use the word more, and this is exactly what they found.

Returning to academia, experiment 3 examined a similar effect in students at different universities. Specifically, they were interested in students at Harvard (a university that everyone knows very well is a part of the Ivy League) and students at Penn, often overlooked as an Ivy League institution. They asked the students to enumerate “things you think of” when you think about your school or describe it to people. They found that students at Penn were significantly more likely to use the phrase “Ivy League,” consistent with the previous two experiments.

The idea that members on the border of a prestigious group emphasize their membership more is an interesting possibility, and I don’t doubt that it’s true in many cases. However, it doesn’t seem to be the only explanation for the findings. It seems extremely likely, for example, that small international airports emphasize that they service international flights because many people might actually be unsure, whereas LAX might not need to highlight this feature nearly as much. The same could be said for Master’s universities and students at Penn. The Slate author acknowledges this concern, but doesn’t do much to rule it out (I’m not convinced enough by her statement that “the researchers’ interpretation of their findings feels at least partially correct to me,” and her description of being an avid cheerer on her swim team because she was one of the worst swimmers). Projecting insecurity onto Master’s universities, small airports, and Penn students might not be a fair assumption. This type of research necessarily overlooks individual differences, which might be problematic for a topic as individualized as insecurity, and it will be cool to see more examples that either follow or refute this pattern.

Higher ed in America

I spend a lot of time trying to wrap my head around various aspects of the university system in America. I wonder why it’s so expensive compared to universities in other parts of the world, and why amassing huge debt to go to college has become mainstream. I wonder what it is that makes a college education so crucial for success in our society, and whether the one-size-fits-all mentality is misguided. I also wonder what it is about academia that motivates many more people to aspire to a coveted academic position, despite intense competition and dismal forecasts for the future.

There are a number of reasons that the current higher education system in America could use some revamping. One problem that Caitlin Flanagan points out the Atlantic (The Dark Power of Fraternities) is that people expect college to be fun, perhaps the greatest 4 years of their lives. Universities cater to students’ (and parents’) demands for fancy dining and athletic facilities, superb landscaping, and cushy dorms in order to attract more students. In turn, they use those students’ tuitions to enhance their colleges even more, which feeds into a vicious cycle. Although American universities began as places for people devoted to learning, they’re increasingly becoming places for those devoted to partying.


Many college-goers aren’t only serious about partying, though. I suspect that most people who go to a traditional college would say that they’re there so they can get a good-paying job after. Isn’t it ironic, then, that those who are most committed to academia and pursue their field most intensely are increasingly finding themselves under- and unemployed? It’s not news to me that landing a tenured faculty position is a feat. However, I recently read an article from Inside Higher Ed by Patrick Iber, (Probably) Refusing to Quit, that really struck me. Iber had a PhD and plenty of accolades in his field, but his academic job-hunting saga suggests that luck and timing might be as important as merit in attaining a faculty position. It’s a bummer that colleges can continue to revamp athletic fields that are fine and build luxury dorms to house more and more students (after all, these are the amenities that convince students to attend), but they don’t seem to be able to spend enough of their budget on hiring people who will contribute expertise and passion to the intellectual environment. These people, it seems, should be the core of the university. Have we lost sight of the purpose of college?