UT researchers solve 400-year mystery of debated authorship using new psychological-language analysis

Kevin Dural

No researcher could say for certain whether 17-century playwright Aphra Behn wrote five plays considered to be scandalous and revolutionary for women at that time. The authorship of “The Woman Turned Bully,” “The Counterfeit Bridegroom,” “The Debauchee,” “The Younger Brother” and “The Revenge” were all contested — until recently.

UT psychology professors Ryan Boyd and Jamie Pennebaker, along with researchers from Loughborough University, have developed a new mental-profiling method to analyze the words used by an individual to develop a personal psychological profile. Using this technique, the group was able to determine the most probable scenario is that three of the debated plays were not written by Aphra Behn.

“Decades of research have shown that the words people write and say can be deeply revealing of their underlying psychology,” Boyd said. “The things that generally occupy a person’s mind typically spill over into their language, sometimes nonconsciously.”

Boyd said since an extrovert will tend to enjoy being around people more than an introvert, he or she will spend more time thinking about people than an introvert and will use more social language in their everyday conversations and works of literature.

“There are several other markers in people’s language that are less obvious, but still reflect their thinking styles,” Boyd said. “People suffering from depression tend to use more self-referential language. People who are more analytic and purposeful in their thinking tend to use more articles and prepositions, and so on.”

The project also utilized Pennebaker’s Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software, which he described as a program that extensively analyzes over 70 types of words. These include, but are not limited to, emotion-related words and those that connote physical issues or current concerns. The analysis of these types of word measurements, he said, can effectively unearth a variety of information regarding the individual.

“Style-related words can signal basic social and demographic categories, such as sex, age and social class,” Boyd said. “Style-related words can also reveal basic social and personality processes, including lying versus telling the truth, dominance in a conversation, depression and suicide-proneness.”

Boyd said the researchers applied this logical framework to pieces known to have been written by Aphra Behn. Ultimately, they “unmasked” Behn’s psychological profile and compared this characterization to the five disputed plays. Ultimately, they figured that only two of the plays fit Behn’s “psychological fingerprint.”

As for its potential applications, Boyd said mental profiling is relevant to any field that desires to quantify and analyze psychological consistency over time.

“This could be particularly helpful for monitoring mental health, whether that be to help people who are in distress or even ensuring that someone is recovering or responding to treatment,” Boyd said.