Following The Telltale Email Linguistic Trail: How The Boss Might Be Able To Tell You're Going Rogue

 @rpalmerscience on February 18 2014 5:19 PM

If you’re considering going rogue at work, be forewarned – your boss may soon be able to read your intentions in your emails. (If he's keeping up on all the latest psychology research, that is.)

Changes in language can be an important “tell” in written communication, just as they can wave a red flag in in-person interviews. But just how much can Big Brother (or Big Boss) tell from seemingly innocuous phrasing in your everyday work emails?

Lancaster University psychologist Paul Taylor and colleagues conducted a workplace simulation with 54 participants. The subjects examined databases for six hours as part of an investigation into organized crime. Near the start of the experiment, facilitators approached some volunteers during coffee breaks and offered them money to sneak information out of the system for them. As they day wore on, they offered the moles more and more money for more and more information.

“Once they agreed to be an insider, workers showed distinct changes in their email behavior,” Taylor wrote on The Conversation on Tuesday. “They used singular rather than plural pronouns, reflecting a greater focus inwards on themselves. They also showed greater negative affect, as their negativity toward the organization and its representatives leaked into their outward presentation. Finally, their language became more nuanced and error-prone, reflecting the cognitive impact of having to juggle the double identity of being a colleague and an insider.”

Meanwhile, the co-workers who weren’t selling information tended to mimic each other’s language to some degree, a typical marker of cooperative interactions among people. The rogues, however, didn’t display this trait as much as their co-workers on the straight and narrow. Eventually, their lack of language mimicry increased to a point where this characteristic alone could help the researchers identify the moles in the simulated company.

“Our findings demonstrate how language may provide an indirect way of identifying employees who are undertaking an insider attack,” the authors wrote in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

Examining a person’s linguistic footprint has its uses outside of the office, as well, Taylor says – for good and for ill.

If you look for the right cues, you could possibly detect an adult pretending to be a child in a chatroom. One particular flag is an overuse of “txt speak,” which is “not as ubiquitous in child’s writing as adults expect,” Taylor says. “Once identified, these distinctions can be used to drive an early warning system that either alerts the children to the presence of an adult or acts [discreetly] by alerting the police.”

Linguistic cues could also help trace writing to a person’s identity. That’s useful if you’re a writer trying to prove that you’ve been plagiarized, but not so great if you’re a political activist trying to keep a low profile.

SOURCE: Taylor et al. “Detecting insider threats through language change.” Law and Human Behavior 37: 267-275, August 2013.

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