What he does
Pennebaker is a social psychologist, professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin. His research looks at how people's use of pronouns and prepositions — so-called "low-level words" — reflects their personalities, as well as their mental and physical health. For example, Pennebaker and his colleagues found that people who are depressed use the word "I" in their writing more than those who are not depressed.
He's also studying how computer-based language analysis can improve communication. He and his colleagues are analyzing how members of small groups talk with one another and studying whether changing the words they use improves collaboration. Pennebaker hopes to apply this understanding to learning in large, live, online classes, like the one he and his colleague, Sam Gosling, PhD, taught for the first time last fall. In the class, students work online with other students, ask questions, participate in surveys and experiments, and watch the professors interview distinguished colleagues, including Dan McAdams, PhD, and David Buss, PhD. Such online live classes are causing "a minor earthquake in education" because they are bringing together cutting-edge technology with a "new way to teach," he says.
Texas born and bred
Pennebaker grew up in Midland, Texas, a town with no natural water sources, no hills or trees, but plenty of desert scrub. The austere landscape made the people more intriguing, he says. "Social psychology does assume that the environment shapes who we are."
Pennebaker began studying psychology in the late 1960s and earned his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977.
A family of writers
Pennebaker's wife and children take a more applied approach to communication. Their daughter Teal is a speechwriter and blogger in Washington, D.C., and son Nick is in marketing in Austin. Pennebaker's wife, Ruth, is a writer who just wrote her first novel for adults, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough," published in 2011. She writes the blog "The Fabulous Geezersisters," where she reflects on family, politics, aging, feminism and more.
"My wife has taught me more about social psychology and personality than anything I ever learned in school," he says. "And the narcissist in me can't help but love to see her write about me. Usually."
— Robin Tricoles
Each month, "Random Sample" profiles an APA member. You may be next.
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