In his famous book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman points out how our present use of language can be a fairly accurate predictor of future success. Seligman explains how he was able to predict outcomes of sporting events with reasonable accuracy by comparing the language used by the coaches and players in interviews before the event. Basically what he did was count all the positive words and the negative words in published pre-game quotes from the players and coaches, and then he calculated the ratio of positive words to negative. The team with the higher ratio was the one picked to win. There is some subjectivity in deciding whether a word is positive, negative, or neutral, but if you try it yourself, I think you’ll find that most of the time it’s fairly easy to classify words. Seligman also explains using a similar process to predict the winners of political elections.

Try this for yourself. Here’s a sentence I grabbed from Yahoo News on Feb 23:

Scientists fear the avian flu that has killed 46 people in Asia could be the strain that will cause the next global pandemic but said more evidence is needed about how infectious it is in humans.

How many positive and negative words do you count? I count zero positive and four negative (fear, killed, pandemic, infectious). So this sentence has a ratio of 0/4 = 0.

Let’s try the same process on all of the headlines from Yahoo News (I’m using the Feb 23 version). I count 6 positive words (eases, adds, new, found, right, wealthy) and 15 negative words (denounce, fight, die, soak, death, somber, slain, fears, concerns, dismissed, defiant, avoids, risk, pandemic, handouts) for an overall ratio of 6/15 = 0.4.

My picks are subjective of course, so yours may be different, but try it for yourself on any news site. If you find one with a ratio above 1.0, please tell me about it!

Try this on yourself as well. Go over some text you wrote recently — emails, forums posts, whatever. What’s your ratio of positive/negative words? Seligman would argue that this is a powerful predictor of future success. Some personal development experts believe that by intentionally choosing more optimistic words in the language you use, you’ll start to become more optimistic in your thinking, which will in turn lead to better results. Anthony Robbins has a whole chapter about it in one of his books; he refers to it as “transformational vocabulary.”

Have some fun and try this on your friends and co-workers. Grab something they wrote, and compute their ratio. Is their language predominantly optimistic (>1.0) or pessimistic (<1.0)? Who has the highest score? The lowest score? Any interesting patterns?