Psychology papers often make make sweeping generalizations based on weak observational studies and that has led to an alarming overuse of the term 'narcissist'. 

Some people are self-centered, to be sure, but colloquial over-diagnosis of narcissism has led to poor distinction between actual narcissism and people who like to talk about themselves. All cows are animals but not all animals are cows, etc. but ever since a small paper came out of U.C. Berkeley in 1988, the psychology field has been over-using the diagnosis. An examination of 48 participants found that excessive use of first-person singular pronouns such as "I" and "me" indicated a narcissistic tendency.

Psychology does not lend itself to replication the way science does so it went unnoticed that the findings could not be replicated but because this notion of narcissism is now a common belief in modern society and psychology, a group of psychologists felt it was important to give the hypothesis a more rigorous look. 

"There is a widely assumed association between use of first-person singular pronouns, what we call I-talk, and narcissism, among laypeople and scientists despite the fact that the empirical support for this relation is surprisingly sparse and generally inconsistent," said Angela Carey, MA, a third-year doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The authors used five U.S. and two German universities to recruit participants. Since it is psychology, this meant overwhelmingly undergraduates taking psychology classes, 67 percent female. The over 4,800 participants were asked to engage in one of six communications tasks in which they wrote or talked about themselves or an unrelated topic. Researchers also scored the participants for narcissism using five different narcissism measures, including the common 40-item Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Their narcissism scores were then compared with their use of first-person singular pronouns in the communication tasks.

They found no association between pronoun use and narcissism. When they analyzed data by gender, they found men had a slightly higher correlation than women but neither was statistically significant nor practically meaningful.

"The most interesting finding is that the results did not vary much across two different countries, multiple labs, five different narcissism measures and 12 different samples," said co-author Matthias Mehl, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona. "We were surprised by how consistent of a near-null finding it was."

"The next question, of course, is how else, if not through I-talk, narcissism is revealed through language," said Carey. "We are working on this question in a follow-up study using the same data." 

Citation: Angela Carey, MA, and Matthias Mehl, PhD, University of Arizona; Melanie Brucks, BS, Stanford University; Albrecht Küfner, PhD, and Mitja Back, PhD, University of Münster; Nicholas Holzman, PhD, Georgia Southern University; Fenne groβe Deters, Dipl. Psych., Free University of Berlin; M. Brent Donnellan, PhD, Texas A&M University; and James Pennebaker, PhD, University of Texas at Austin, "Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Mar. 31, 2015.