Got friends who only talk about themselves? They could be mentally ill, study shows

Those who use the words “I,” “me” or “my” the most are more likely to be emotionally distressed than to be narcisists, a new study has found.
Those who use the words “I,” “me” or “my” the most are more likely to be emotionally distressed than to be narcisists, a new study has found. Wikimedia Commons

Eyes catch other sets of eyes in the social circle as “that one friend” dominates the conversation — and makes it all about himself or herself.

They start every conversation with “I,” and, famously, it all revolves around “me” and “my.”

“What a narcissist,” someone says to clear the air when they leave.

But that’s not really what’s happening, according to a study from the University of Arizona. They’re actually more likely to be emotionally distressed than completely self-absorbed.

Allison Tackman, a research scientist in the university’s psychology department, said that the link this updated study found between the level of “I-talk” someone conducts and “negative emotionality” is even greater than the one her team found in their 2015 study that pointed to a possible connection between a focus on “me” and depression. Now they say that “negative emotionality” can manifest itself in heavy “I-talkers” as depression, anxiety, worry, tension or even anger.

“The question of whether I-talk reflects depression more specifically, or negative affect more broadly, was a really important question,” said psychology professor and study co-author Matthias Mehl. “Because if you’re thinking of using I-talk as a screening tool, you want to know if it screens specifically for a risk of depression or if it screens more broadly for a tendency to experience a negative affect, which is a broader risk factor for a suite of mental health concerns.”

To better understand why the focus on the self may indicate emotional distress, the researchers suggest thinking back to your last “woe-as-me” moment.

“We’ve all gone through those negative life events when we’re feeling down or we’re feeling anxious, and when you think back to being in those places, when you’re just so focused on yourself, you may say things like ‘Why can’t I get better?’” Tackman said. “You’re so focused on yourself that not only in your head are you using these first-person singular pronouns but when you’re talking to other people or writing, it spills into your language — the self-focus that negative affectivity brings about.”

The research took into account data from 4,700 individuals from six different labs in two countries — the U.S. and Germany. The data included measures of those individuals’ use of “I-talk” in both written and spoken tasks.

But just how much “I-talk” is too much?

According to the study, the average person speaks about 16,000 words per day, and about 1,400 of those are first-person singular pronouns. Those prone to distress may say “I, me, or my” up to 2,000 times a day.

Yes, that’s up to one-eighth of the normal allotment of words spoken per day.

They also said that elevated use of “I” and “me” in conversation are more indicative of a negative affect than the use of “my,” because the first-person possessive is often attached to subjects and objects that are outside the self.

The self-focus study points to the same tendency that researchers in the UK focused on in a study there that found those who take more than six selfie photos per day may have a genuine mental illness.