The internet has given psychologists new opportunities to study subtle differences in the way people use language, and whether those differences can predict which people are most at risk for mental health conditions.
Last year, for example, researchers found that the language in people’s Facebook posts could predict their depression risk. In that study, language indicating sadness, loneliness, hostility, rumination and self-focused thoughts was a potential red flag.
Another recent study suggests an interesting new angle on the question of how writing style and mental health are linked. It turns out that people on support forums for anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation are more likely to use language associated with an absolutist, black-and-white style of thinking.
In the study, researchers collected posts from 63 online forums covering topics ranging from mental health to physical health to parenting. The researchers then used a computer program to score how frequently posts from each forum made use of absolutist phrases or words (for example, “completely,” “definitely” or “nothing”).
They found that this language was more common on forums dealing with anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation than with other mental health conditions, physical health conditions, or general topics like parenting.
Interestingly, looking for absolutist language was a better way of distinguishing these forums than looking for language with a negative emotional charge. In fact, on recovery forums for these conditions, which tended to have a positive tone, absolutist language was still used disproportionately.
The idea that a black-and-white thinking style might go hand-in-hand with being at risk for anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation fits with previous research. A 2017 study found that depression was associated with a dichotomous, either-or thinking style. And certain types of therapy seem to work in part by making people less prone to see events in absolutist terms.
Of course, these findings don’t mean that everyone who ever uses this type of language is definitely going to develop a mental health condition. (See what I did there?) But they provide more evidence for a correlation between certain conditions and black-and-white thinking, and show that this thinking style can show up in the way people use language online.