Anyone looking to size someone up—whether it’s a first date, a job candidate, or a networking contact—has probably balked when a person uses “I” or “me” too often. After all, conventional wisdom has long held that too many “I”s are a sure sign of a narcissist.
Except it’s not true.
When researchers tested 4,800 people from four locations in the U.S. and two in Germany, “we could find no association between pronoun use and narcissism,” says Angela Carey, a third-year doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study. “We were surprised by how consistent this near-null finding was.” The new results effectively debunk the source of the myth, a study of just 48 people dating back to the 1980s.
Still, Carey admits it’s a hard myth to shake, “because it seems so intuitive, given that narcissism is characterized by a grandiose view of the self and extreme self-absorption.”
Besides, she says, people want to read people. “It’s a natural process when we want to determine whether someone is trustworthy.”
This is good news for people who lean heavily on “I” and “me” in their speech, and are now off the hook. But it’s bad news for life-changers who want to weed narcissists out early when developing a new life plan—they’re pretty toxic people.
And if “I-talk” isn't the way to sniff out a narcissist, what is? The team is currently working on a follow-up study to address that question. “In the meantime, and this is speculative, some possible ways to identify a narcissist might be to pay attention to the amount of bragging they do, any effort to draw attention to themselves by comparing down to others, as well as attempts to draw attention to oneself," Carey says.
Meanwhile, Carey thinks it’s still smart to limit how freely you say “I” or “me” when trying to make a good impression. “Accurate or not, people may still judge one as narcissistic based on one's use of I-talk,” she says. But feel free to use other ways to show you’re not overly wrapped up in yourself: “Eye contact, a warm tone, and active engagement in the conversation could potentially be ways to still demonstrate concern for others.”