Man of his words: Inspired by fun, UT’s star psychologist is a font of discoveries that matter to average people
April 13, 2008, Austin American-Statesman
James Pennebaker is so mild-mannered, so placid and easy-going, so preposterously twinkly, you wonder just what it would take to ruffle the chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas.
How do you flap the chronically unflappable, a world-renowned intellectual who multitasks with the energy of a whirligig, yet chirps such philosophical fillips as “It just doesn’t matter” with a shrug and a smile?
But it does matter, we remind him.
He’s not buying it. Shrug. Smile. Next.
Such nonchalance can be maddening for we brooders who exist in a Pigpen cloud of fret and furrow. Pennebaker is a skipping Winnie the Pooh to our shuffling Eeyore, and if these childlike analogies ring fatuous (and they do), understand that Pennebaker, 58, is radiantly boyish.
To friends and family he’s not James or Jim but, kind of cutely, “Jamie.” He loves the Texas State Fair, board games and fireworks. He likes to fish.
“I like fish you can eat,” he says with a mild Texas twang born of his native Midland.
And, my, he’s crazy about Popeyes fried chicken.
“Their red beans and rice is brilliant, but their fried chicken is primo,” Pennebaker says, his face going dreamy.
We are discussing the yumminess of fast food with UT’s chair of psychology, an eminent scientist and professor. He lights up, nearly swoons.
“Number two is Church’s,” he says. “They have superb chicken, and their fried okra is quite good. You’ve got to try that.”
Compact, with elfin features, his clothes rumpled with oblivious disregard, Pennebaker’s byword for his very serious work is “play.” Again and again, he says that what he loves about his research is that he gets to, like an outsize kid, play.
“Jamie’s a great deal of fun as a colleague,” David Beaver, associate professor of linguistics at UT, says. “He’s very playful in conversation and always has 10 different ideas and a sparkle in his eye. I don’t know how he simultaneously manages to run a department and a rather large laboratory of (graduate) students while still finding time for thinking and playing.”
That’s some weighty playing. Pennebaker has authored a passel of groundbreaking studies, most importantly in social psychology with emphases in health, language and personality, that have seismically altered the field. Beyond an ocean of scientific journals, the mainstream media persistently cites his work and solicits him for insights.
“He is fantastically famous,” Sam Gosling, a close colleague and associate professor of psychology at UT, says.
Some have called him a scientific rock star. Colleagues we spoke to agree. (Pennebaker’s wife of 35 years, Ruth, snorted at the description, but that’s what spouses are for.)
“In the field of health psychology – psychology as it relates to physical health, such as psychosomatic and stress-related illness – he is one of the top 10 people,” Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University, says. Wegner and Pennebaker were research partners in the 1990s and together edited “The Handbook of Mental Control.”
It helps that Pennebaker’s best known studies are grounded in tangible, talked-about issues. They boast sex appeal, a pop-psych shininess. They are accessible to the rest of us.
“A lot of our field is rather humorless,” Gosling says. “People wrongly think that in order to be rigorous and serious you have to suck the life out of things, so that the problems they’re studying no longer resemble the phenomena in the real world. Jamie’s the opposite. He keeps it real and lively and interesting.”
Take the study he published last summer in the prestigious journal Science, “Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?” The research – a scientific stunner – was gobbled up by a giddy media and the general public.
Using 396 college students equipped with voice recorders, Pennebaker and his co-researchers obliterated the received notion that women talk more than men.
In a decisive swoop, he disproved the old data, which stated that women speak 20,000 words a day to a man’s 7,000 words. Pennebaker proved that both men and women use about 16,000 words a day.
The response was explosive. Reporters called questioning the results. People in tizzies e-mailed Pennebaker: “That can’t possibly be true! You’re not married to my wife!”
Criticism always trails startling discovery. The professor, as usual, shrugs.
“It didn’t fit with people’s worldviews,” he says. “But not one academic, to my knowledge, knocked it. You can take this study to the bank. We simply have the data.”
Not even the glamor and glory of media flattery can disquiet his even-keeled mien.
“It was a kick, but you can’t take this ” seriously at all,” says Pennebaker, who earned his doctorate at UT in 1977.
By now it’s routine. And anyway, “It just doesn’t matter to me.”
What matters to Pennebaker, right now, this instant, is getting to class on time.
The bells in the UT Tower clang. Pennebaker twists his wrist, checks his watch and accelerates his stride.
He’s off to teach the final session in a series of five lectures about words and language and what they reveal about their owners, the basis of his next book. It’s part of an adult education program, and he’s running 20 seconds late. An animated and witty lecturer, Pennebaker says he is rarely tardy to class. His pace quickens.
Words and language have dominated Pennebaker’s studies since the ’80s, really taking off during his 14 years as a professor and eventually chair of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. (He came to UT in 1997.) His early research proved that writing about traumatic experiences can sharply improve a person’s health, leading to fewer visits to the doctor for an array of illnesses.
Freudian psychoanalysis popularized this idea, but “there wasn’t much research to back it up,” Harvard’s Wegner says. “No one until (Pennebaker) had done that in a systematic way. It’s a unique scientific approach to this problem, because everybody before thought of it almost in a voodoo sense, in which you let out the spirits by speaking. He’s brought the benefits of a scientific approach to this old problem.”
The findings were monumental. The New York Times published an expansive article about it in its weekly Science section.
“To me, good research is research where you have the potential to change the world, change the way we think,” Pennebaker says. “I’d done lots of studies that I thought were interesting, but this one was different.
“I still remember as though it was yesterday, walking back from the (SMU) student health center with all the records. I was looking at the data and I realized that the study worked. People who were asked to write about a traumatic experience for only 15 minutes a day were going to the student health center for illness at half the rates of people in the other condition. It was phenomenal. It told me I was onto something big here. I was thrilled.”
Since then, Pennebaker has published dozens of studies about language, how we use it and what our use of specific words tells us about ourselves. During the recent lecture, he careens from parsing the words used by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in his resignation speech and what they mean (that he was truthfully baring his soul) to deconstructing the patterns of Beatles lyrics (Paul was a far more sophisticated and diverse lyricist than John. Who knew?).
This is playful stuff, exactly the kind of things that keep Pennebaker bouncing, his curiosity crackling.
But is it serious enough? Beatles lyrics? The frequency with which Hillary Clinton uses pronouns and prepositions during debates? For real?
Pennebaker knows who his critics are, mostly linguists and theoreticians, and he’s unperturbed.
“Linguists will say, ‘How dare you talk about language without appreciating the nature of context?'” Pennebaker says. “The fact that I am making these sweeping statements about pronouns, prepositions and so forth and completely ignoring the sentence or paragraph in which it’s spoken, they don’t like that.
“I’m a problem for a lot of people, because I’m not a true believer,” he says. “True believers have a theory and a worldview and their academic job is to validate their worldview. I’ll sell out my research in a minute if you show me that it doesn’t work or has a problem. I’ll dump it and walk in the other direction. What’s exciting about all this is that I want to know how the world works. I don’t know how it works, so anything’s fine with me.
“I’m criticized because I don’t have a particular theory that explains everything. My approach is much more practical.”
“One might ask if (his work) is superficial,” Beaver says. “Jamie would say, ‘Yes, it’s superficial. That’s what’s great about it, the fact that you can tell something deep just by looking at the surface, if you look carefully enough.'”
But Pennebaker’s studies have proved rock solid, Beaver says. “It’s an incontrovertible fact that (they’re) worthwhile and interesting even if the way he gets the results is somewhat surprising.”
Psychology found Pennebaker, not the other way around.
In grade school and high school, Pennebaker says, “I was every academic’s nightmare. I liked to play. I was kind of a screw-off. I feel certain that every person who I took a class from in high school is completely mystified how I ended up where I am.”
He was rudderless through most of college. He assumed he’d be a lawyer like his father. On a whim one summer, while passing through Austin, he bought a used introductory psychology text at the University Co-op on Guadalupe Street.
“I read it and thought, ‘Boy, this is just the field for me,'” he recalls. “It takes advantage of all my strengths. I’m pretty good at math and I like the TV show ‘Candid Camera’ and the idea of observing and sometimes playing tricks on people. It just looked like fun.”
Pennebaker initially went to the University of Arizona on a music scholarship. He and future wife Ruth both played in the Midland High School Band. He played clarinet; she played marimba and bells.
They never made music together; theirs was a relationship of quiet disharmony.
“He was this arrogant guy,” Ruth, a journalist, novelist and radio commentator, says. “I didn’t like him at all.”
Nevertheless, they started dating after high school graduation. They went to separate schools before she joined him at Eckerd College in Florida, then called Florida Presbyterian College. They married in 1973. (They have a daughter, Teal, 26, and a son, Nick, 22.)
The couple plays Scrabble, goes to the movies and travels extensively. With no hobbies to speak of, except catching fish, Pennebaker thrives on observing the world. This is both his work and recreation.
What transfixes him at the Texas State Fair are “the competitions for canned peas, canned carrots, canned okra, with names and blue ribbons laid out,” he says. “I could sit there for an hour or two, and I do, looking at the names and imagining the lives of the person who is competing for the pickles and beets this year.”
It’s a healthy switch of environment, marvelous and eye-opening.
“We usually hang around our own kind,” says Pennebaker, who lives in Tarrytown and drives a red Prius. “So I hang around upper-middle-class liberals who all have similar worldviews, and I really like to jump into these very different worlds.”
“He really is endlessly curious,” Ruth says. “He dragged me to the State Fair last year, so I was forced to ogle the okra and the blue ribbons. And the barnyard animals. He loves that.”
In three years as chair of psychology at UT, Pennebaker can take or leave the administrative post. Though he calls it a “fun” and relatively peaceful time in the department by academy standards, “Chair is nothing that I aspired to. The problem with being chair is that you don’t get to play as much. You have to be a grown-up.”
Pennebaker, his brain awhirl, his outlook stubbornly chipper, is at that time of life when he arrives at seemingly glib philosophical answers to life’s big questions.
On death, this “skeptical agnostic” says, “I see it as just another adventure.”
Dr. Phil-sized fame? Whatever.
“As I’m older, I realize how empty that is,” Pennebaker says. “In my narrow little world I’m reasonably well known. Fame is completely irrelevant now. The thing is, if I became an M. Scott Peck (author of the self-help manual “The Road Less Traveled”) or one of those guys, I wouldn’t want to be taken away from the joy of my life. The joy is discovery. I love playing. When you’re playing, whether you’re putting together okra in the state fair or you’re doing something here, there’s a decent chance you’re going to discover something new and of value.
“That’s my job. I have a job in which I get paid to play. You can’t beat that.”