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Dirty laundry: The nature and substance of seeking relationship help from strangers online



Interpersonal relationships are vital to our well-being. In recent years, it has become increasingly common to seek relationship help through anonymous online platforms. Accordingly, we conducted a large-scale analysis of real-world relationship help-seeking to create a descriptive overview of the nature and substance of online relationship help-seeking. By analyzing the demographic characteristics and language of relationship help-seekers on Reddit ( N = 184,631), we establish the first-ever big data analysis of relationship help-seeking and relationship problems in situ among the general population. Our analyses highlight real-world relationship struggles found in the general population, extending beyond past work that is typically limited to counseling/intervention settings. We find that relationship problem estimates from our sample are closer to those found in the general population, providing a more generalized insight into the distribution and prevalence of relationship problems as compared with past work. Further, we find several meaningful associations between relationship help-seeking behavior, gender, and attachment. Notably, numerous gender differences in help-seeking and romantic attachment emerged. Our findings suggest that, contrary to more traditional contexts, men are more likely to seek help with their relationships online, are more expressive of their emotions (e.g., discussing the topic of “heartache”), and show language patterns generally consistent with more secure attachment. Our analyses highlight pathways for further exploration, providing even deeper insights into the timing, lifecycle, and moderating factors that influence who, what, why, and how people seek help for their interpersonal relationships.
Ongoing Relationships
Journal of Social and
Personal Relationships
2021, Vol. 38(12) 34723496
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/02654075211046635
Dirty laundry: The nature and
substance of seeking
relationship help from
strangers online
Charlotte Entwistle
, Andrea B. Horn
, Tabea Meier
Ryan L. Boyd
Interpersonal relationships are vital to our well-being. In recent years, it has become
increasingly common to seek relationship help through anonymous online platforms.
Accordingly, we conducted a large-scale analysis of real-world relationship help-seeking
to create a descriptive overview of the nature and substance of online relationship
help-seeking. By analyzing the demographic characteristics and language of relationship
help-seekers on Reddit (N= 184,631), we establish the rst-ever big data analysis of
relationship help-seeking and relationship problems in situ among the general population.
Our analyses highlight real-world relationship struggles found in the general population,
extending beyond past work that is typically limited to counseling/intervention settings.
We nd that relationship problem estimates from our sample are closer to those found in
the general population, providing a more generalized insight into the distribution and
prevalence of relationship problems as compared with past work. Further, we nd several
meaningful associations between relationship help-seeking behavior, gender, and at-
tachment. Notably, numerous gender differences in help-seeking and romantic attach-
ment emerged. Our ndings suggest that, contrary to more traditional contexts, men are
more likely to seek help with their relationships online, are more expressive of their
emotions (e.g., discussing the topic of heartache), and show language patterns generally
Department of Psychology, Lancaster University, UK
Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Switzerland
University Research Priority Program: Dynamics of Healthy Aging, University of Zurich, Switzerland
Security Lancaster, Lancaster University, UK
Data Science Institute, Lancaster University, UK
Corresponding author:
Charlotte Entwistle, Department of Psychology, Lancaster University, D26 Fylde College, Lancaster LA1 4YF,
consistent with more secure attachment. Our analyses highlight pathways for further
exploration, providing even deeper insights into the timing, lifecycle, and moderating
factors that inuence who, what, why, and how people seek help for their interpersonal
Relationship help-seeking, natural language analysis, relationship problems, attachment,
social media
Interpersonal relationships are vital to our well-being, yet they are complex and often
difcult to navigate. The centrality of relationships to our lives is underscored by the
consequences that emerge from relationship problems. People going through relationship
difculties report higher rates of sleep disorders (Chen et al., 2015), worse academic
performance (Field et al., 2012), and mental health issues (McShall & Johnson, 2015).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, romantic breakups are ranked as one of lifes most distressing
events (LeFebvre et al., 2015).
When facing relationship problems, we often engage in relationship help-seeking as a
means to improve our relational well-being, using other people as a resource to bring
alignment between our own expectations and reality (Holmberg & MacKenzie, 2002).
Today, however, we increasingly seek help for life stressors in online spaces, ranging from
traditional support forums to social networking sites such as Facebook (Pan et al., 2020).
This shift to online platforms provides new opportunities to study the underlying drivers
of relationship help-seeking behavior at large scale in real-world contexts. Using modern
natural language processing methods, we can begin to seefor the rst timea high-
resolution, naturalistic view of relationship problems and relationship help-seeking
behavior in the general population. In doing so, we seek to gain a big pictureper-
spective on the everyday prevalence of relationship problems as they are experienced by
the general public (rather than, for example, clinical/counseling samples), as well as a
better understanding of who experiences those problems. In this article, we:
1. Provide a brief overview of the changing nature of relationship help-seeking;
2. Identify new opportunities to leverage naturalistic, online data sources to better
understand people and their romantic relationships;
3. Empirically examine the characteristics, substance, and nature of relationship
problems and relationship help-seeking behavior through big data analytics.
A brief overview of the history of relationship help-seeking
Throughout history, humans have turned to others for relationship help, ranging from
close acquaintances to relying on impersonal, generic truisms, and cultural normsand
each with its own benets and drawbacks (see Figure 1). In pre-literary history, humans
were necessarily limited to seeking help from those to whom they had physical access,
Entwistle et al. 3473
such as members of ones family, tribe, or geographic region. One of the benets of help-
seeking from close others surrounds shared knowledge and context, which can lead to
more effective and meaningful advice-giving and receiving (Guntzviller et al., 2017).
However, relationship help-seeking in personal contexts can have drawbacks as well,
including a lack of objectivity or impartiality.
Historically, professional or expertsources have acted as a source of relationship
support during times of difculty; such support gures have often included religious
authorities (e.g., Onedera, 2007), self-styled relationship gurus, and well-trained pro-
fessionals. In the early 20th century, professional marriage counseling emerged from the
eugenics movement (see Stone, 1949), later transforming into a fully-edged, empirical
practice (Gurman & Fraenkel, 2002). A strength of professional sources of relationship
support is their often minimal personal involvement, providing a balance of objectivity
and impartiality, yet affording the opportunity for some degree of personalized and
context-aware feedback.
At the most impersonal extreme, people have commonly sought relationship help from
static, one-size-ts-allresources, such as newspaper articles and books published in the
popular press. The 1990s were virtually awash in relationship self-help books publi-
cations, with Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Gray, 1992) selling over 15
million copies to date (Beaumont-Thomas, 2017). While affording anonymity and some
potential for objectivity, boilerplate relationship help sources are often too impersonal to
be effective (Rosen et al., 2015).
Figure 1. The personalimpersonal dimension in relation to sources of relationship help. Note.
Sources by which relationship help-seeking occurs, varying in degrees of personal knowledge and
connectedness to help-seekers.
3474 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
Relationship help-seeking in an online world
Relationship help-seeking has continued to evolve in the digital age. Online social media
help us connect, create, and collaborate with people whom we have never met, making the
internet a particularly appealing medium for social and informational support. For the rst
time in history, individuals can leverage massive communities of complete strangers for
relationship help, receiving support that is personalized, information-rich, and free from
the immediate social pressures created by in-person support networks. Indeed, discussing
relationship problems online has become a common feature of modern relationships (Kim
et al., 2017).
Often compared favorably to traditional sources of support, online spaces provide
help-seekers with insights from ever-growing numbers of diverse individuals, with the
added benet of anonymity (Walther & Boyd, 2002;Wright, 2016; cf. Yip, 2020). The
benets of internet-facilitated support, and the anonymity that it provides, become
particularly visible when coping with topics that are often hard to share with real-life
acquaintances, such as highly intimate or stigmatized topics (Davison et al., 2000;
Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017). For example, the internet is commonly used to solicit
mental health support (DeAndrea, 2015). Groups who experience greater difculties and
stigma with help-seeking across domains (mental health, relationships, etc.) may be more
likely to seek help through online platforms due to the anonymity that they provide (see
Hammer et al., 2013;Watkins & Jefferson, 2013).
Current study
Although past research has explored traditional relationship help-seeking among close
others and within professional contexts (e.g., Doss et al., 2009;Stewart et al., 2016), there
is limited research into the online relationship help-seeking process, including which
types of relationship problems motivate anonymous help-seeking online in the rst place.
Using modern data sources and analytic methods, we can begin to explore questions
surrounding the who,what,why, and how of relationship help-seeking in situthat is, the
real-world lived experiences of the general public.
To date, we are not aware of any research that has conducted a naturalistic, large-scale
exploration of relationship problems in the general population. Accordingly, the present
study aims to broadly understand the characteristics of help-seeking in the digital sphere.
We additionally seek to explore how the analysis of rich, real-world language data might
provide insights into the prevalence of relationship problems, as well as individual
characteristics related to those problems. In particular, we aim to address three broad
research questions with our work:
RQ1: What is the demographic prole of individuals who seek relationship help
RQ2: What are the central relationship problems faced today?
RQ3: Does online help-seeking behavior provide real-world evidence for gender
differences in attachment states?
Entwistle et al. 3475
RQ1: What is the demographic prole of individuals who seek relationship
help online?
The bulk of what we understand today about the psychosocial and demographic char-
acteristics of people who seek help for relationship problems originates from research
conducted in professional contexts (e.g., couples therapy). In such contexts, female
partners tend to recognize their relationship problems and actively seek professional
relationship help more than male partners (for a review, see Stewart et al., 2016). The
decision to seek professional relationship help is additionally inuenced by age, with
middle-adulthood couples being more likely to actively seek professional relationship
help (Doss et al., 2003). Specically, average age ranges are usually in the realm of 38
41 years for those couples that typically seek professional help (Duncan et al., 2020;
Schoeld et al., 2015).
Whether the demographics of individuals who anonymously crowdsource relationship
help in online spaces match those of people who typically seek professional relationship
help is unknown. Valuably, this knowledge should allow for greater understanding of the
facilitators and barriers to seeking help for relationship problems. If online help-seekers
are primarily middle-aged women, as in professional contexts, we may speculate that
online platforms simply provide an alternative, less resource-consuming option. Should
online relationship help-seekers show divergent demographics, however, we may suggest
that online spaces provide a support platform for individuals who traditionally would not
have sought relationship help from others due to well-established treatment barriers, such
as stigma, time, and nancial cost (see, e.g., Hall & Sandberg, 2012;Werner-Wilson &
Winter, 2010;Williamson et al., 2019). In our study, we create an initial, descriptive
understanding of online relationship help-seekers through basic demographic charac-
teristics to which we have immediate access, namely, age and gender.
RQ2: What are the central relationship problems faced today?
As with the question of who seeks help for their relationship problems, our understanding
of what relationship problems motivate people to seek help are largely based on research
in professional contexts. For example, communication difculties are often cited as the
most common motivator for seeking professional relationship help. Other leading reasons
typically include issues with physical and emotional intimacy, trust, nances, and
housework, to name a few (see: Doss et al., 2004;Duncan et al., 2020;Roddy et al., 2019;
Schoeld et al., 2015). Given the extreme differences in prequisites for seeking rela-
tionship help professionally versus online, it could be expected that the main motivations
for seeking relationship help differ between these support contexts. Put another way, past
research on relationship problems in the context of formal interventions (both online and
in-person; e.g., Roddy et al., 2019) are critical, but likely reect skewed representations of
relationship problem distributions and prevalence in the general public, and in everyday
life. For example, 1% of couples raise abuseas a relationship problem in intervention
settings (Roddy et al., 2019), whereas the CDC reports between 56% of the general US
population has experienced some form of intimate partner abuse or violence within the
3476 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
past 12 months (Basile et al., 2011). Such discrepancies highlight serious under-
representation of prevalent relationship problems in professional settings.
Similarly, discrepancies in gender distributions of relationship problems may be re-
ected differently in the general public relative to intervention settings. Many problems
are reported fairly equally by both men and women (Duncan et al., 2020), however, some
gender differences do exist. Relative to men, women are more likely to report partner-
specic traits and behaviors as problematic, and men report problems with physical
intimacy more than women (e.g., Roddy et al., 2019). As noted earlier, it could reasonably
be argued that such differences may result, in part, from social pressures arising from
stereotypes and gender norm expectations. Put another way, if existing gender differences
are (at least partially) a product of stigmatization and pressure to conform to gender
stereotypes (e.g., Cheng et al., 2015), we may expect diminished, or at least different,
gender differences in relationship problems shared in anonymous contexts.
Accordingly, in the present study, we explore the psychosocial topography of rela-
tionship problems as they are discussed by online help-seekers. We employ modern text
analysis methodsnamely, the Meaning Extraction Method (MEM; Chung &
Pennebaker, 2008)as a way to create a high-level map of the most common rela-
tionship problems discussed online. Briey described, the MEM is a topic modeling
technique that extracts psychologically meaningful themes from natural languagethis
process works by identifying clusters of words that frequently co-occur across a text
corpus. The MEM has demonstrated value for understanding the psychosocial dynamics
of online communities (Blackburn et al., 2018;Currin-McCulloch et al., 2021). We
investigate potential gender differences in the topics raised by the online help-seekers
insofar as individuals from each gender divulge various relationship problems.
RQ3: Does online help-seeking behavior provide real-world evidence for gender
differences in attachment states?
There is clear consensus that a persons attachment stylecharacterized by the mental
models of the self and social bonds over the lifespanis essential to close relationships,
manifesting in the form of discrete attachment states and relationship behaviors and
cognitions (Hazan & Shaver, 1987;Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016). Importantly, gender
differences in attachment have been reported (Scharfe & Bartholomew, 1994;Schmitt,
2003), with recent work suggesting that, in general, men are more prone to dismissive
attachment and are less emotionally invested, whereas women are more emotionally
invested and prone to preoccupied attachment (Haydon et al., 2014) and/or secure at-
tachment (Grabill & Kerns, 2000). However, the question of whether persistent gender
differences exist in attachment is far from resolved (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van IJ-
zendoorn, 2009), particularly in real-world and everyday life. In our goal to better un-
derstand the whyand howof relationship help-seeking, we were motivated to explore
gender differences through the lens of romantic attachment in the real-world.
Relationship help-seeking is a salient and emergent process of attachment states, and
the ability to passively examine gender differences in romantic attachment via digital
traces helps to shed light on the nature and development of gender-differentiated behavior
Entwistle et al. 3477
in the context of romantic relationshipsa key domain with often contentious and
conicting ndings. As with the previous research questions, we note that other social
factors, such as real or perceived pressure to conform to gender stereotypes, may be a
driving force in shaping how attachment states manifest (see Pauletti et al., 2016). Here
too, a real-world analysis of attachment states should provide insight into whether
stereotypic attachment states are largely a reection of immediate social pressures or,
alternatively, that attachment states are consistent with more general ndings of long-term
attachment styles (see Del Giudice, 2019).
Importantly, attachment itself is observable in verbal behavior when discussing ones
relationships (Horn & Meier, in press). Using an established language analysis program,
Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC; Pennebaker et al., 2015), we quantify relevant
language variables from relationship help solicitations. Briey described, LIWC is a text
analysis program that relies on an internal dictionary to map words to psychologically
meaningful categories. The psychometric validity of LIWC been extensively demon-
strated across thousands of studies in disciplines as diverse as psychology, computer
science, and communication (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010).
To date, very few studies have explicitly explored gender differences in verbal be-
havioral markers of attachment. In the current study, we signicantly expand on past work
both in terms of sample size and variable scope by examining a number of additional
language categories that can be reasonably expected to reect attachment states, including
a wider range of emotions (rather than solely focusing on anger), cognitive processes, and
afliation (see Table 1). Additional categories were selected on the basis of their the-
oretical relevance to expand the limited nomological network of associations between
attachment, gender, and verbal behavior.
Here, we briey highlight our rationale for the inclusion of each of the additional
language variables. First, afliation reects positive engagement/connectedness with
others; individuals who are more securely attached have been found to attach high
importance to afliation goals in friendship (Mikulincer & Selinger, 2001) and can be
expected to likely think to a greater degree along an afliative dimension when discussing
relationships (for an in-depth discussion on the relationship between psychological di-
mensions and verbal behavior, see Boyd & Pennebaker, 2017;Boyd & Schwartz, 2021).
Relatedly, one might anticipate that the broad expression of negative emotions in the
context of relationship discussions would be associated with preoccupied attachment,
based on the denition and characteristics of such attachment state (i.e., being anxiously
attached), whereas dismissive individuals tend to rely on less emotionally immediate
language (Borelli et al., 2013). Conversely, it could be intuitively presumed that people
who are securely attached would express more positive emotion and less negative
emotion when discussing relationships.
More broadly, cognitive processinglanguage reects greater cognitive load,
working througha problem, or preoccupation, such as is seen following a traumatic
event or relationship difculty (e.g., DAndrea et al., 2012). Individuals with a preoc-
cupied attachment style should therefore use relatively greater cognitive processing
language when discussing their romantic relationships.
Last, a greater all or nothing
type of thinking may be indicative of preoccupied attachment, given that high rates of
3478 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
absolutist language have also been associated with problematic patterns of affect (see Al-
Mosaiwi & Johnstone, 2018).
Table 1. Language measures included in the current study and their previously reported
relationships to attachment states.
measure Example words Attachment state Reference(s)
Word count N/A () Dismissive
(+) Preoccupied
Waters et al. (2016)
Cassidy et al. (2012)
OHara (2007; cited from
Waters et al., 2016)
I-words I, me, my (+) Preoccupied Dunlop et al. (2020)
We-words We, us, our (+) Secure
() Insecure
Dunlop et al. (2020)
Borelli et al. (2019)
Negations No, not, didnt() Secure
(+) Insecure
Waters et al. (2016)
Cassidy et al. (2012)
Prepositions After, near, close () Dismissive Waters et al. (2016)
Conjunctions But, also, and () Dismissive Waters et al. (2016)
Might, could, maybe (+) Dismissive Waters et al. (2016)
Filler words Like, so, erm () Dismissive Waters et al. (2016)
Anger words Angry, furious, mad (+) Preoccupied Borelli et al. (2013)
Cassidy et al. (2012)
Waters et al. (2016)
Sad, angry, anxious (+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Positive emotion Happy, excited, joy (+) Secure
Novel prediction
Sadness Depressed, tearful,
(+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Anxiety Anxious, scared,
(+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Think, puzzle, solve (+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Afliation Together, social,
(+) Secure
Novel prediction
Absolutism Always, never,
(+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Entwistle et al. 3479
Data collection
For all research questions, we analyzed a large collection of submissions to Reddit, one of
the most frequently visited websites on the planet (Alexa, 2020). Briey described, Reddit
is a massive, anonymous online discussion forum composed of thousands of sub-forums
(i.e., subreddits), each founded around specic topics (e.g., musicians, cooking, etc.).
Within each subreddit, users can create threads (i.e., submissions) about a particular
topic or respond to one another through hierarchically structured comments.As Reddit
is anonymous, publicly accessible, and content rich, it poses as a rich source of social
psychological natural language data.
We explored data from the r/relationships subreddit, one of the largest online com-
munities for relationship help-seeking, comprising over three million members. r/rela-
tionships is self-described as:
...a community built around helping people and the goal of providing a platform for in-
terpersonal relationship advice between redditors. We seek posts from users who have
specic and personal relationship quandaries that other redditors can help them try to solve.
Data were extracted from the larger PushShift database (Baumgartner et al., 2020)
using a custom-made Python pipeline. Given that the focus of the present research is on
relationship help-seeking (as opposed to the provision of relationship help), we collected
only submissions made by users and not comments in response to submissions. Only
users with a single submission to the r/relationships subreddit were collected, ensuring
data independence and preventing over-representation of high-activity users. Submis-
sions were collected across the full lifetime of the subreddit, spanning approximately
12 years (N= 521,536).
Data pre-processing and preparation
Data collected from the r/relationships subreddit were cleaned and prepared for analysis
according to standard guidelines (Boyd, 2017): formatting errors were corrected, HTML
entities converted to American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), and
texts containing fewer than 25 words were omitted. Given our interest in exploring
explicitly romantic relationships, we only retained submissions that were categorized by
users (through airsattached to posts; see Supplementary Materials A) as related to
romantic relationships, which included the relationships,”“dating,”“break-ups,and
indelitycategories. Pre-processing resulted in 184,631 submissions being retained
from the same number of unique users.
Reddit is an anonymous platform, and demographic data is not usually available for
individual users. In the r/relationships subreddit, however, submitters typically disclose
their age and gender, as well as the age and gender of their relationship partner(s), within
the title of their submission. For example, a 36-year-old man discussing a relationship
3480 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
problem they are having with their 34-year-old female spouse may provide contextual
clues by writing I [36/M] and my wife [34/F]....This unique feature allowed us to
automatically extract age and gender data for a majority sample users via regular ex-
pressions tailored specically to the current dataset (for a recent, similar example, see
Jagfeld et al., 2021).
In total, we were able to extract demographic data for 80.05% (N=
147,796) of the users within our sample. Note that for the sake of simplicity, we use the
term romantic partnerto refer to the relationship partner(s) being discussed, including
current, past, or speculative partners.
RQ1: What is the demographic prole of individuals who seek relationship
help online?
To understand the demographic composition of individuals seeking relationship help
online, we examined age and gender compositions of r/relationships users who provided
such information, along with their romantic partnersage/gender composition (see Table
2). Additional analyses of user gender by submission air frequencies are presented in
Supplementary Materials A.
One striking pattern in gender distributions is that, contrary to what is commonly found
in professional settings, more men solicited relationship help through r/relationships than
women, with 54.62% of the users being men, and only 45.38% being women. Among
usersromantic partners, the relative gender composition is almost directly reversed, with
45.01% being men and 54.99% being women, reecting that the majority of the sample
consisted of mixed-gender relationships (95.53%).
The mean age of online relationship help-seekers (24.04 years) was considerably
younger than average age ranges typically found in professional contexts (i.e., 38
41 years; Duncan et al., 2020;Schoeld et al., 2015), with the majority of users falling in
the 1824 age bracket (54.95%). There was a small, statistically signicant difference in
the age of men and women seeking relationship help online, with women being slightly
older (t=12.17; p< .001; d= .06).
There were interesting and distinctive trends in gender-by-age composition in our
sample, such as there being considerably more adolescent boys (N= 5447) than girls (N=
1828) seeking help. Although our exploration of demographic characteristics provides a
novel glance into who seeks relationship help online, we note that these ndings may also
simply mirror the more general composition of Reddit, which skews toward young males
(Duggan & Smith, 2013).
RQ2: What are the central relationship problems faced today?
To explore the topography of relationship problems within our sampleboth in terms of
content and distributionwe analyzed r/relationships users solicitations for relationship
help using the MEM (Chung & Pennebaker, 2008; for additional discussions of the MEM,
see also: Boyd & Pennebaker, 2016;Markowitz, 2020). For MEM analyses, we used
Entwistle et al. 3481
Table 2. Age and gender composition of r/relationships users and their romantic partners.
r/relationships users Romantic partners
Total N(%) Men N(%) Women N(%) Total N(%) Men N(%) Women N(%)
Gender 147,796 80,722 (54.62%) 67,074 (45.38%) 130,404 58,692 (45.01%) 71,712 (54.99%)
Age 147,795 80,722 (54.62%) 67,073 (45.38%) 130,398 58,689 (45.01%) 71,709 (54.99%)
<12 years old 1 (0.00%) 1 (0.00%) 0 (0.00%) 9 (0.01%) 5 (0.01%) 4 (0.01%)
1217 years old 7275 (4.92%) 5447 (6.75%) 1828 (2.73%) 6762 (5.19%) 1186 (2.02%) 5576 (7.78%)
1824 years old 81,208 (54.95%) 43,387 (53.75%) 37,821 (56.39%) 66,150 (50.73%) 23,998 (40.89%) 42,152 (58.78%)
2534 years old 53,928 (36.49%) 28,741 (35.60%) 25,187 (37.55%) 49,760 (38.16%) 28,470 (48.51%) 21,290 (29.69%)
3544 years old 4765 (3.22%) 2776 (3.44%) 1989 (2.97%) 6386 (4.90%) 4198 (7.15%) 2188 (3.05%)
4554 years old 562 (0.38%) 340 (0.42%) 222 (0.33%) 1022 (0.78%) 645 (1.10%) 377 (0.53%)
5564 years old 51 (0.03%) 28 (0.03%) 23 (0.03%) 268 (0.21%) 167 (0.28%) 101 (0.14%)
65 years or older 5 (0.00%) 2 (0.00%) 3 (0.00%) 41 (0.03%) 20 (0.03%) 21 (0.03%)
Mean (SD) 24.04 (5.00) 23.90 (5.25) 24.22 (4.68) 24.66 (5.87) 26.28 (5.99) 23.33 (5.41)
3482 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
BUTTER (Boyd, 2020), an open-source text analysis application for social scientists. The
MEM conducted on r/relationships submissions resulted in 25 themes that reected the
most prevalent relationship problems. Table 3 presents both the content and distribution of
each MEM theme. Briey described: when considering the Mean column, we see the
relative importance of each theme insofar as the typical amount that it is discussed in any
given submission. More importantly, however, is the Frequency column, which describes
the number of submissions that invoked each theme (for examples and information on
themes and theme extraction, see Supplementary Materials C). Note that any particular
submission may contain multiple themes, for example, sexual problems and
Table 3. Content and distribution of themes extracted by the MEM on r/relationships submissions,
in order of mean percentage of discussions (N= 184,631).
Theme Example words Mean (SD) Frequency (% of sample)
Heartache Heart, break, hurt 14.59 (2.96) 37836 (20.13%)
Communication Discuss, express, conversation 11.37 (2.64) 34026 (18.10%)
Shared feelings Told, upset, feeling 10.62 (2.43) 35709 (19.00%)
Time Morning, Friday, hour 6.68 (2.50) 27435 (14.60%)
Dating Date, casual, hook-up 6.00 (2.60) 28619 (15.23%)
Personal qualities Cool, nice, funny 5.20 (1.98) 25255 (13.44%)
Trust issues Trust, snoop, cheat 4.55 (2.34) 23201 (12.34%)
Intimacy Smile, cuddle, touch 3.93 (1.92) 22671 (12.06%)
Partying Party, drunk, Invite 3.49 (1.77) 23145 (12.31%)
Abuse Abusive, threaten, control 3.34 (1.67) 22822 (12.14%)
Distance Move, travel, long-Distance 3.00 (1.83) 19828 (10.55%)
Wedding Marriage, marry, wedding 2.78 (1.41) 22767 (12.11%)
Career Job, career, company 1.78 (1.51) 14337 (7.63%)
Finances Money, pay, debt 1.63 (1.61) 9994 (5.32%)
Family/Parenting Child, pregnancy, parent 1.58 (1.51) 13391 (7.12%)
Mental health issues Depression, diagnose, therapy 1.29 (1.10) 14950 (7.95%)
School School, college, semester 1.08 (1.56) 24665 (13.12%)
Hobbies Video game, music, sport 0.85 (1.34) 28763 (15.30%)
Religion Religious, belief, church 0.67 (0.94) 8442 (4.49%)
Housework Cleaning, laundry, cooking 0.60 (0.84) 6142 (3.27%)
Sex Sex, masturbate, porn 0.56 (1.22) 10117 (5.38%)
Language English, native, language 0.55 (1.00) 21122 (11.24%)
Body weight Lose-weight, overweight, diet 0.40 (0.68) 2259 (1.20%)
Substance use Drinking, drug, addict 0.18 (0.44) 2459 (1.31%)
Romantic gestures Thoughtful, gift, celebrate 0.01 (0.81) 48767 (25.95%)
Note. MEM = Meaning Extraction Method
Note. This table describes the content and distribution of the 25 themes generated from the MEM on r/rela-
tionships submissions. The mean values represent the mean percentage by which each theme was discussed
relative to the entirety of r/relationships discussions. The frequency values represent the number and percentage
of submissions that mentioned each theme (i.e., whereby the theme was present).
Entwistle et al. 3483
communication issues. Tellingly, the mean number of themes present in any given r/
relationships submission was 2.81 (median = 3; SD = 1.92), highlighting that the majority
of submissions (>50%) were made by users who were motivated to seek help not for a
single relationship problem, but rather larger constellations of problems.
Consistent with past studies of professional relationship help-seeking, communication
was a central motivator for help-seeking in our sample, with the second and third most
commonly discussed topics relating to communication. Notably, heartachewas the
most commonly discussed theme, indicating the psychological distress caused by the
relationship problems being discussed. Other frequently discussed themes included: focus
on time, casual dating, personal qualities, trust issues, intimacy, partying, and abuse.
Romantic gestures, substance use, and body weight were considerably less common (see
Supplementary Materials C for additional notes). Visualizations of the four top- and
bottom-scoring MEM themes, by mean, are illustrated in Figure 2.
We performed additional analyses comparing men and womens use of each MEM by
comparing mean percentages (see Figure 3; full analyses presented in Supplementary
Materials D). Most gender differences found were generally small, but theoretically
meaningful. The largest gender difference was the use of the schooltheme, with men
spending more time discussing things related to school than womena potential by-
product of the age difference within our sample. More pronounced and meaningful gender
differences emerged, with men more commonly discussing themes of heartache, dating,
partying, personal qualities, and language; women spent more time discussing themes
related to nances, abuse, distance, and housework.
Figure 2. The four most-discussed (top row, blue) and least-discussed (bottom row, red)
relationship problem themes.
3484 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
RQ3: Does online help-seeking behavior provide real-world evidence for gender
differences in attachment states?
To examine the relationship between gender and romantic attachment, we conducted
independent-samples t-tests on each LIWC metric presented in Table 1, using user gender
as the predictor. Results are presented in Table 4, with visual presentation in
Supplementary Materials B.
Our results indicated a clear, patterned association between gender and linguistic
markers of attachment. When discussing their relationships, women (relative to men) used
language consistent with more of a preoccupied attachment state (consistent with prior
research ndings and expectations; see Table 1), with greater words overall used, more
self-focused language (i.e., I-words), cognitive processing language, negations, absolutist
language, overall negative emotion, anger, and anxiety words; this pattern was matched
by less couple-focused language (i.e., we-words), afliative language, and positive
emotion words. Contrastingly, men showed language patterns more consistent with a
secure attachment state: greater use of we-words, afliation words, and positive emotion
words, paired with lower rates of I-words, cognitive processing words, negations, ab-
solutist language, and overall negative emotion, anger, and anxiety words. However,
some patterns indicative of dismissive attachment were present among men (relative to
women) including fewer words used overall, fewer prepositions, fewer ller words, and
more tentative language.
Figure 3. Boxplots showing mean percentages of Meaning Extraction Method themes split by
gender of user (N = 147,796). Note. The full table of statistical comparisons for each theme is
presented in Supplementary Materials D.
Entwistle et al. 3485
In the present study, we provide novel insights into the nature and substance of rela-
tionship problemsbased on a sample of Reddit usersusing natural language analysis
methods. To our knowledge, this is the rst study that has provided a large-scale, high-
resolution, naturalistic view of relationship problems and relationship help-seeking in situ
within the general population.
The rst aim of the present study was to describe the demographic composition of
online relationship help-seekers relative to those who typically seek help in more
traditional/professional contexts. We examined the age and gender of individuals seeking
relationship help online via the r/relationships subreddit, nding a greater percentage of
men soliciting relationship help than women. Interestingly, this differs from traditional,
professional contexts, where women are typically more willing and active in seeking help
for their relationship problems compared to male partners (Stewart et al., 2016). This
discrepancy in ndings supports our notion that men may nd anonymous, online re-
lationship help settings preferable to in-person contexts, likely due to stigma attached to
help-seeking behavior in men (Hammer et al., 2013;Vogel et al., 2011). As mentioned
above, these results could also be interpreted as an over-representation of help-seeking by
Table 4. Gender differences in language categories indicative of romantic attachment states (N=
Language category
Mean (SD)
td95% CIMen (N= 80,722)
(N= 67,074)
Word count 524.17 (402.93) 555.74 (375.96) 15.55*** .08 35.54 to 27.59
I-words 8.13 (2.23) 8.44 (2.23) 26.68*** .14 .33 to .29
We-words 1.72 (1.20) 1.64 (1.15) 14.60*** .07 .08.10
Cognitive processes 14.44 (2.91) 14.48 (2.79) 3.02** .01 .07 to .02
Conjunctions 7.93 (1.55) 8.13 (1.47) 26.07*** .13 .22 to .19
Prepositions 13.68 (2.01) 13.33 (1.89) 34.59*** .17 .33.37
Filler words 0.05 (0.14) 0.05 (0.13) 3.04** .02 .00.00
Afliation 4.94 (2.01) 4.80 (2.02) 13.72*** .07 .12.16
Positive emotion 3.00 (1.28) 2.96 (1.29) 5.36*** .03 .02.05
Negative emotion 2.48 (1.30) 2.69 (1.35) 29.39*** .16 .22 to .19
Anger 0.67 (0.69) 0.75 (0.73) 22.00*** .11 .09 to .07
Sadness 0.58 (0.58) 0.57 (0.57) .17 .02 .01.01
Anxiety 0.53 (0.54) 0.61 (0.56) 27.34*** .15 .08 to .07
Negations 2.41 (0.96) 2.53 (0.93) 23.86*** .13 .13 to .11
Tentativeness 3.29 (1.37) 3.20 (1.29) 13.55*** .07 .08.11
Absolutism 0.97 (0.60) 1.03 (0.59) 17.11*** .10 .06 to .05
**p<.01, ***p<.001.
Note. Means refer to percentages of the total words used. CI = condence interval.
3486 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
female users relative to the baseline demographic composition of our sample (Duggan &
Smith, 2013). Given that we do not have access to the demographics of passive users who
do not post to the subreddit, we suggest that our conclusions on the contribution of gender
toward the propensity to seek relationship help online be interpreted tentatively.
Those posting to the r/relationships platform were found to be considerably younger
(average age 24 years) than people who typically seek relationship help in more traditional
contexts (average age range 3841 years; Duncan et al., 2020;Schoeld et al., 2015), with
the majority of r/relationships users falling in the 1824 age bracket. This nding
suggests that the anonymous, convenient, and broadly accessible nature of the online
help-seeking space enables those who traditionally under-represented or less likely to
seek help (e.g., young men) by overcoming barriers related to stigma or resource
availability. These results complement the wider support-seeking literature highlighting
that online spaces provide greater opportunities for support-seeking through the erosion of
barriers associated with traditional contexts (DeAndrea, 2015;Vitak & Ellison, 2013).
Notably, given that online relationship help-seeking is particularly common among
younger age groups, it could be inferred that the informality of the online help-seeking
environment is providing means for people to seek help and advice for more casual and
early-stage relationships (e.g., at the dating stage) compared to the stage at which
people more commonly seek professional relationship help (i.e., after several years of
Our topic modeling approach revealed 25 themes that help to illuminate the topog-
raphy of relationship problems in the general public. Analysis of the distribution of
themes revealed that the most commonly discussed topic on the r/relationships platform
was heartache,supporting the notion that romantic dissolution and breakups are
particularly distressing life events (LeFebvre et al., 2015). Moreover, the frequent dis-
cussion of feeling heartache is interesting given that this is not a specic relationship
problem being discussed. Rather, people appear to simply be using the online platform to
express their distress and seek general emotional support from others, suggesting that the
emotional pain experienced following relationship problems or dissolution is perhaps the
strongest motivator of reaching out for social supportmore so than seeking to resolve
any particular problem in and of itself.
What is particularly revealing from our analyses is that the main motivators identied
for relationship help-seeking in the digital space were generally consistent with the main
reasons for seeking relationships help identied from previous research in more tradi-
tional, professional contexts. Specically, in line with previous research highlighting
communication difculty as the most common motivator for seeking professional re-
lationship help (Doss et al., 2004;Duncan et al., 2020;Roddy et al., 2019), as well as
being the leading cause for romantic breakups (Morris et al., 2015), communication was
also found to be the most-discussed relationship problem within our sample (discounting
the general topic of heartache). Other core themes captured from the r/relationships
discussions are also consistent with the main reasons for professional relationship help-
seeking, such as issues relating to intimacy, trust, nances, and housework. This con-
sistency in relationship help-seeking motivators between anonymous, online contexts and
Entwistle et al. 3487
more traditional, professional contexts strengthens the idea that many relationship
problems are common and ubiquitous.
Critically, we nd that in many cases, our results reect more realistic real-world
prevalences of relationship problems outside of therapeutic contexts. For example, the
WHO reports that around 13% of surveyed women report some form of intimate partner
abuse in the previous 12 months (World Health Organization, 2021); our analyses found
that 12.14% of submissions contained a non-negligible reference to the abuseMEM
theme, strongly contrasting with only 1.3% in intervention contexts (Roddy et al., 2019).
Similarly, other relationship problems, such as communication difculties and conict,
may be over-represented in traditional contexts (e.g., 27.2% in Roddy et al., 2019; our
sample: 18%). Other themes showed strong convergence with past work. For example, we
found highly similar rates of family/parenting problems being raised as reported in past
work (7.12% in our sample; 6.6% in Roddy et al., 2019).
Our analysis of relationship problems revealed small, consistent gender differences.
Among the more pronounced gender differences, men more commonly discussed themes
of school (the largest gender difference), heartache, dating, partying, personal qualities,
and language; women more commonly discussed themes related to nances, abuse,
physical distance, and housework. Notably, the fact that the heartache theme was more
commonly discussed by men emphasizes how men are at least as equally as affected by
relationship problems as women and feel comfortable to express and seek support for their
distress in online, anonymous settings. We therefore re-emphasize that existing gender
differences identied within traditional contexts may at least partially be a result of
stigmatization and pressure to conform to stereotypes. However, our nding that women
discussed things like abuse, nances, and housework more than men instead indicates
some continuation of gender norms spilling overinto the online platform. Rather than
eliminating or reversing gender norms, the anonymous online platform instead appears to
provide a space where gender norms and stereotypes are relaxed, particularly those that
carry strong stigma (e.g., expression of emotional distress by men).
Last, we explored the use of online relationship help-seeking as a digital trace for
generating novel insights into the relationship between gender and romantic attachment.
We examined gender differences in romantic attachment through the analysis of pre-
selected linguistic markers of attachment states-of-mind, building on limited previous
work in this domain. Overall, the general patterns of language used by men and women
discussing their relationships on the r/relationships platform appears to suggest that
women may be more prone to preoccupied attachment states, whereas men may be more
inclined toward secure attachment states. These ndings align, in part, with those from
previous research suggesting that women are more prone to preoccupied attachment
(Haydon et al., 2014)and, importantly, extends them into everyday life in the real
world. However, our ndings run counter to previous research indicating that men are
more prone to dismissive attachment (Haydon et al., 2014). While several explanations
for such patterns are possible, we suggest that modern, online help-seeking platforms may
allow men to behave in ways that contradict the dismissive stereotype, again highlighting
the powerful role of stereotypes in in-person relationship help-seeking behavior (as
similarly shown when considering cross-cultural differences; (Schmitt, 2003).
3488 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that we did not possess established measures of
attachment style in our study. Moreover, we do not know the extent to which various
attachment styles self-selected into the r/relationships platform, potentially skewing the
representativeness of our sample.
Limitations and future directions
While the current study comprises a large, real-world sample, it is not a globally rep-
resentative sample. Given that our data were collected from a single websitealbeit one
of the most visited websites in the world (Alexa, 2020)our sample may be biased in
ways consistent with its user base, both demographically (e.g., younger, male, American)
and psychosocially. It is therefore possible, for example, that the skew toward men and
younger people within our sample could simply be a product of the demographic
composition of Reddit. Despite such limitations, our sample is large, diverse, and highly
international, creating a strong starting and comparison point for future research in this
We also note the tentative nature of our ndings pending further exploration in samples
with more varied measures. For instance, within our sample, we cannot say whether
gender differences were confounded with the current stageof relationship problems
people were experiencing. Indeed, the choice to seek help online versus professionally is
likely shaped by complex interactions between characteristics of the individual, such as
gender and age, and characteristics of the relationships, including specic relationship
problems and stage of relationship, and the language that partners use to convey and make
sense of those problems. While such intricacies are beyond the scope of the current study,
future research should aspire to disentangle such complexities.
Regarding our ndings involving various gender differences, it is possible that women
are more likely to seek relationship help once their relationship problems are at a more
severe stage (see, e.g., Ansara & Hindin, 2010), whereas men may be more likely to seek
relationship help at a much earlier, less severe stage, for example. Indeed, gender dif-
ferences in the themes discussed do seem to suggest that men may in fact be seeking
support for relatively more casual, early-stage relationship problems compared to women.
For example, men more commonly discussed lighter topics stereotypically associated
with youth and greater immaturity, such as dating and partying, whereas women spent
more time discussing more serious topics, such as abuse and nances. Were there gender
differences in the stage of relationship problems for which people were soliciting help, it
is possible that this may have at least partially driven our associations found between
gender and attachment state. We are unable to determine the presence or absence of such
effects within our current sample.
Last, although the present ndings provide novel insights into relationship help-
seeking in online anonymous contexts, the quality of the help and advice given within
these contexts remains unaddressed. Although the anonymous and effortless nature of the
online space indeed provides numerous benets to help-seekers, we do not know whether
the advice provided in such settings is of sufcient quality to facilitate healthier rela-
tionships. If the advice provided is of poor quality, relationship problems may be
Entwistle et al. 3489
exacerbated, contributing to further interpersonal problems. We anticipate further ana-
lyses of anonymous, online relationship discussion platforms to determine the quality and
subsequent implications of such advice.
The present study is the rst to leverage big data and modern natural language analysis
techniques to better understand relationship help-seeking in naturalistic contexts in the
general population. We are optimistic that future research will be able to further improve
and rene upon our analyses, providing even deeper insights into the timing, lifecycle,
and moderating factors that inuence when, where, why, and how people seek help for
their interpersonal relationships. With the expansion of AI and automated natural lan-
guage generation, we expect that the near future holds high promise for increasingly
useful identication ofand help withrelationship problems in everyday life.
During her work on this project, Tabea Meier was a pre-doctoral fellow of LIFE (International Max
Planck Research School on the Life Course; participating institutions: MPI for Human Devel-
opment, Humboldt-Universit¨
at zu Berlin, Freie Universit¨
at Berlin, University of Michigan, Uni-
versity of Virginia, University of Zurich.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following nancial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article: Preparation of this article was partially funded by a grant from the Swiss
National Science Foundation (#196255). Ms. Entwistles contributions were made as part of a PhD
funded by the EPSRC. Ms. Meiers contributions were made as part of a PhD funded by The Jacobs
Open research statement
As part of IARRs encouragement of open research practices, the authors have provided the
following information: This research was not pre-registered. The data used in the research are
available. The data can be obtained at: by emailing: c.entwistle1@ The materials used in the research are/are not available. The materials can be
obtained at: by emailing:
Charlotte Entwistle
Andrea B. Horn
Tabea Meier
Ryan L. Boyd
3490 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
Supplemental material
Supplemental material for this article is available online.
1. Directly relevant to the current study, recent ndings show that increases in cognitive processing
language predict impending romantic breakups (Seraj et al., 2021).
2. See for code and data.
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... Sex differences research consistently reports that males have greater risk for suicidality (suicidal ideation, behaviors, and/or attempts) after a relationship break-up (Evans et al., 2016), with divorced men being 8-times more likely to die by suicide compared to divorced women (Kposowa, 2003). Although men may conceal their distress publicly, they are more likely than women to anonymously seek-help for their relationships online and/or express their emotions (i.e., heartache) (Entwistle et al., 2021). Masculinities theory (Connell, 2005) can provide important insights to the gendered dimensions of these (and other) sex differences pertaining to intimate partner relationships. ...
... There have also been calls to broaden what counts as help beyond the predominance of professional mental health care services as a means to fully account for (and cater to) men's help-seeking (Fletcher & St George, 2010). Herein, men's use of relationship self-help books (Doss et al., 2009) and online mental health resources and forums (Entwistle et al., 2021;Oliffe et al., 2020) emerge as somewhat normative, and perhaps mainstream contemporary masculine practices. Likewise, informal supports including family, friends, and community-based programs meet the mental health needs of many men. ...
... Participants in the current study rallied (and relied on) emotional support from friends and family, purposefully extended new psychosocial resources for objective help, and/or engaged professional care. Men's widespread use of self-help relationship books affirms previous findings (Doss et al., 2009) and their uptake of peer and community-based group programs, e-relationship, and mental health resources (Entwistle et al., 2021;Ogrodniczuk et al., 2021;Oliffe et al., 2020) underscores the expansive nature of men's help beyond the predominance of professional mental health care services. Pre-COVID-19 work by Best and colleagues (2016) indicated that young men's mental health help-seeking relied on connecting with trusted friends online and offline, and these pathways facilitated emotional disclosure, while formal online help was accessed and deeply valued for its anonymity, confidentiality and content. ...
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Deleterious effects of separation and divorce on men’s mental health are well-documented; however, little is known about their help-seeking when adjusting to these all-too-common life transitions. Employing interpretive descriptive methods, interviews with 47 men exploring their mental health help-seeking after a relationship break-up were analyzed in deriving three themes: (1) Solitary work and tapping established connections, (2) Reaching out to make new connections, and (3) Engaging professional mental health care. Men relying on solitary work and established connections accessed relationship-focused self-help books, online resources, and confided in friends and/or family. Some participants supplemented solitary work by reaching out to make new connections including peer-based men’s groups and education and social activities. Comprising first-time, returning, and continuing users, many men responded to relationship break-up crises by engaging professional mental health care. The findings challenge longstanding commentaries that men actively avoid mental health promotion by illuminating wide-ranging help resources.
... We then classified each event description as either containing (1) or not containing (0) each theme by submitting the scored texts for all participants to an At Most One Change (AMOC) changepoints analysis (Killick & Eckley, 2014). This analysis ensured that only texts with scores above threshold were considered to meaningfully evidence each theme (following Entwistle et al., 2021). Based on the themes in Table 1, for example, if a given text included the words "lecture" and "note" but did not include the words "weekend" and "together", then it would receive a 1 for the 'in class' theme, and a 0 for the 'socializing' theme. ...
Emotional granularity is the ability to create differentiated and nuanced emotional experiences and is associated with positive health outcomes. Individual differences in granularity are hypothesized to reflect differences in emotion concepts, which are informed by prior experience and impact current and future experience. Greater variation in experience, then, should be related to the rich and diverse emotion concepts that support higher granularity. Using natural language processing methods, we analyzed descriptions of everyday events to estimate the diversity of contexts and activities encountered by participants. Across three studies varying in language (English, Dutch) and modality (written, spoken), we found that participants who referred to a more varied and balanced set of contexts and activities reported more differentiated and nuanced negative emotions. Experiential diversity was not consistently associated with granularity for positive emotions. We discuss the contents of daily life as a potential source and outcome of individual differences in emotion.
... For this task, we employed the Meaning Extraction Method (MEM; Chung & Pennebaker, 2008), a topic modelling technique which statistically identifies, from a list of high frequency words, those that tend to co-occur into psychologically meaningful themes. This method is well suited to addressing social scientific research questions and has been used to understand the content of discourse in a wide range of topics, including relationship problems (Entwistle et al., 2021), food cognition , dehumanization (Markowitz & Slovic, 2021), and climate change denialism (Shah et al., 2021), to name a few. ...
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Despite the established health and ecological benefits of a plant-based diet, the decision to eschew meat and other animal-derived food products remains controversial. So polarising is this topic that anti-vegan communities - groups of individuals who stand vehemently against veganism - have sprung up across the internet. Much scholarship on veganism characterizes anti-vegans in passing, painting them as ill-informed, uneducated, or simply obstinate. However, little empirical work has investigated these communities and the individuals within them. Accordingly, we conducted a study using social media data from the popular platform, Reddit. Specifically, we collected all available submissions (∼3523) and comments (∼45,528) from r/AntiVegan subreddit users (N = 3819) over a five-year period. Using a battery of computerized text analytic tools, we examined the psychosocial characteristics of Reddit users who publicly identify as anti-vegan, how r/AntiVegan users discuss their beliefs, and how the individual user changes as a function of community membership. Results from our analyses suggest several individual differences that align r/AntiVegan users with the community, including dark entertainment, ex-veganism and science denial. Several topics were extensively discussed by r/AntiVegan members, including nuanced discourse on the ethicality and health implications of vegan diets, and the naturalness of animal death, which ran counter to our expectations and lay stereotypes of r/AntiVegan users. Finally, several longitudinal changes in language use were observed within the community, reflecting enhanced group commitment over time, including an increase in group-focused language and a decrease in cognitive processing. Implications for vegan-nonvegan relations are discussed.
Technical Report
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The words that people use in everyday life tell us about their psychological states: their beliefs, emotions, thinking habits, lived experiences, social relationships, and personalities. From the time of Freud’s writings about “slips of the tongue” to the early days of computer-based text analysis, researchers across the social sciences have amassed an extensive body of evidence showing that people’s words have tremendous psychological value. To appreciate some of the truly great pioneers, check out (Allport, 1942), Gottschalk and Gleser (1969), Stone et al., (1966), and Weintraub (1989). Although promising, the early computer methods floundered because of the sheer complexity of the task. In order to provide a better method for studying verbal and written speech samples, we originally developed a text analysis application called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC (pronounced “Luke”). The first LIWC application was developed as part of an exploratory study of language and disclosure (Francis & Pennebaker, 1992). The second (LIWC2001), third (LIWC2007), fourth (2015), and now fifth (LIWC-22) versions updated the original application with increasingly expanded dictionaries and sophisticated software design (Pennebaker et al., 2001, 2007, 2015). The most recent evolution, LIWC-22 (Pennebaker et al., 2022), has significantly altered both the dictionary and the software options to reflect new directions in text analysis. As with previous versions, the program is designed to analyze individual or multiple language files quickly and efficiently. At the same time, the program attempts to be transparent and flexible in its operation, allowing the user to explore word use in multiple ways.
This introduction to a special Technology and Relationships issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships introduces the collection of articles. It describes the editorial development of the issue, identifies how the articles are organized into three clusters reflecting the developmental arc of relationships, provides a precis of each article, and ends with reflections on a question (is technology beneficial or detrimental?) and two noteworthy aspects of the collection (theory and methodology).
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Throughout history, scholars and laypeople alike have believed that our words contain subtle clues about what we are like as people, psychologically speaking. However, the ways in which language has been used to infer psychological processes has seen dramatic shifts over time and, with modern computational technologies and digital data sources, we are on the verge of a massive revolution in language analysis research. In this article, we discuss the past and current states of research at the intersection of language analysis and psychology, summarizing the central successes and shortcomings of psychological text analysis to date. We additionally outline and discuss a critical need for language analysis practitioners in the social sciences to expand their view of verbal behavior. Lastly, we discuss the trajectory of interdisciplinary research on language and the challenges of integrating analysis methods across paradigms, recommending promising future directions for the field along the way.
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Objective: Using two different analysis techniques, this study explored differences and similarities in information-seeking discourse and overall breast cancer experiences between posters to a Reddit board and breast cancer survivor focus groups. Design: This study incorporates two qualitative methods for determining themes in breast cancer survivors’ information-seeking behaviours and overall cancer experiences. First, posts from a breast cancer-specific Reddit community were extracted and analysed using the meaning extraction method (MEM) to determine core themes. Then, investigators performed a thematic analysis of two focus groups of breast cancer survivors (N = 18). Finally, themes derived from each analysis method were compared. Main Outcome Measures: Outcome measures include themes extracted from Reddit posts and themes generated from breast cancer survivor focus groups. Results: Findings between qualitative methodologies represent similar yet nuanced themes in survivors’ discourse. The MEM resulted in seven themes: diagnosis, treatment process, social support, existentialism, risk, information-seeking and surgery. Focus groups revealed the same initial four MEM themes plus the following: disclosure, coping and fears. Conclusions: The MEM is a cost-effective research mechanism for informing common themes of experiences of cancer patients and survivors and may offer initial data to guide psychosocial oncology research design and recruitment.
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The current study examined the effect of exposure to online support-seeking posts containing different levels of depth self-disclosure (baseline, peripheral, core) affecting the quality (person-centeredness and politeness) of participants’ support-provision messages. Participants of the study were assigned to the role of a support-provider. Compared to participants who read support-seeking posts with baseline and core self-disclosure, participants who read support-seeking posts with peripheral self-disclosure rated the support-seekers as less anonymous. Compared to participants who read support-seeking posts in the baseline condition, participants who read the support-seeking posts with peripheral self-disclosure wrote support-provision messages with higher level of person-centeredness and politeness. Participants’ perceived anonymity of the support-seekers mediated the effect of the depth of self-disclosure on the politeness of the response messages.
Social media data has become crucial to the advancement of scientific understanding. However, even though it has become ubiquitous, just collecting large-scale social media data involves a high degree of engineering skill set and computational resources. In fact, research is often times gated by data engineering problems that must be overcome before analysis can proceed. This has resulted recognition of datasets as meaningful research contributions in and of themselves.Reddit, the so called “front page of the Internet,” in particular has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. Although Reddit is relatively open to data acquisition compared to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the technical barriers to acquisition still remain. Thus, Reddit's millions of subreddits, hundreds of millions of users, and billions of comments are at the same time relatively accessible, but time consuming to collect and analyze systematically.In this paper, we present the Pushshift Reddit dataset. Pushshift is a social media data collection, analysis, and archiving platform that since 2015 has collected Reddit data and made it available to researchers. Pushshift's Reddit dataset is updated in real-time, and includes historical data back to Reddit's inception. In addition to monthly dumps, Pushshift provides computational tools to aid in searching, aggregating, and performing exploratory analysis on the entirety of the dataset. The Pushshift Reddit dataset makes it possible for social media researchers to reduce time spent in the data collection, cleaning, and storage phases of their projects.
This article reviews literature on online support groups/communities for individuals facing health concerns. Specifically, the article focuses on predictors of online support group/community participation, major theoretical frameworks that have been applied to the study of online support groups/communities, and coping strategies and health outcomes for individuals facing health concerns. Finally, the article discusses the strengths and limitations of existing empirical studies in this area; presents a critique of the relative merits and limitations of a number of theoretical frameworks that have been applied to the study of online support groups/communities for people facing health concerns; and it provides an agenda for future communication research on health-related online support groups/communities.
Significance By analyzing language on the social media platform Reddit, we tracked people’s social, cognitive, and emotional lives as they dealt with the breakup of a close intimate relationship. Language markers can detect impending relationship breakups up to 3 mo before they occur, with continued psychological aftereffects lasting 6 mo after the breakup. Because the language shifts are also apparent in subreddits (forums) unrelated to relationships, the research points to the pervasive impact personal upheavals have across people’s social worlds. Comparable cognitive and social effects are apparent among people undergoing divorce or dealing with major life secrets. The analysis of subtle shifts in pronouns, articles, and other almost-invisible words can reveal the psychological effects of life experiences.
Qualitative content analyses often rely on a top-down approach to understand themes in a collection of texts. A codebook prescribes how humans should qualitatively judge whether a text fits a theme based on rules and judgment criteria. Qualitative approaches are challenging because they require many resources (e.g., coders, training, rounds of coding), can be affected by researcher or coder bias, and may miss meaningful patterns that deviate from the codebook. A complementary, bottom-up approach — the Meaning Extraction Method — has been popular in social psychology but rarely applied to communication research. This paper outlines the value of qualitative content analysis and the Meaning Extraction Method, concluding with a guide to conduct analyses of content and themes from massive datasets, quantitatively. The Meaning Extraction Method is performed on a public and published archive of pet adoption profiles to demonstrate the approach. Considerations for communication research are offered.
In England, publicly funded couples therapy is reserved for couples where one or both partners present with psychological disorders, rather than relationship distress, despite evidence of a bidirectional relationship between the two. Demographics and presenting issues for 14,726 couples who received counseling through a third-sector counseling organization in England and Wales were investigated. Clients were often White, aged 25-54, and presented with interpersonal issues. "Mental health problems" were identified as an issue by about a quarter of all clients. This suggests that many couples seeking relationship counseling wish to address relational versus psychological distress, which has implications for publicly funded services.
The current project brings together over 1,400 observations drawn from seven studies to examine relations between adult romantic attachment styles and pronoun use. In each study, participants provided autobiographical narratives from the romantic domain and completed measures assessing their attachment styles. Pronoun use in the resulting narrative material was quantified using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. Across studies, anxious and avoidant attachment styles were found to relate positively with I-talk and negatively with we-talk, respectively. Furthermore, after accounting for a range of demographic (e.g., age) and psychological (e.g., neuroticism) covariates, the negative relation between avoidant attachment and we-talk remained significant. Thus, the pronouns individuals use when describing their romantic experiences provide indication of their attachment styles. As such, this project carries implications for the detection and diagnosis of romantic domain functioning.