Psychology Classics: James Pennebaker’s Expressive Writing Paradigm

This post is part of our ongoing series exploring classic experiments and theories in the history of psychological research.

While research first conducted in the late 1980s may not seem like a “classic,” James Pennebaker’s writing paradigm was an important contribution to the young field of health psychology at the time and continues to be used today to explore connections between disclosure and physical and mental health and to generate hypotheses about other psychological phenomena.

Pennebaker began his research with an interest in the impact of traumatic experiences on physical and mental health. We often think of physical and mental health problems as common consequences of trauma. However, many, or even most, people who experience trauma do not experience such problems. Pennebaker was interested in why not; what is it about these people or their experiences that makes them resilient to the potential consequences of trauma? He had a hunch that expressing their feelings and thoughts about the traumatic event in words enabled people to avoid or improve problems with mental and physical health.

In his original research, Pennebaker assigned healthy undergraduates to one of four groups: three groups wrote about personally traumatic life events for 15 minutes for 4 consecutive nights while the fourth group wrote about trivial topics for the same time (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986)*. In addition, the researchers tracked the undergraduate participants’ visits to the university health center over the next six months. They found that writing about traumatic events was associated with fewer visits to the health center! Since the initial experiment, this paradigm has been utilized in many studies of physical health and biological outcomes. Meta-analyses of such studies with healthy and clinical populations have confirmed Pennebaker’s original finding: expressive writing is generally associated with better health. This work supports a key principle of health psychology which holds that there is an important connection between emotions and health.

Pennebaker’s writing paradigm has also been applied to outcomes other than health including stereotyping, working memory, and school performance. He and his colleagues have developed a computer program called LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) that analyzes the content of expressive writing to help researchers to better understand the linguistic components that are related to specific outcomes.

Dr. Pennebaker will be speaking about his text analysis research at UCLA on Monday, January 14th at 12pm. If you are on UCLA’s campus or in the area, please join us in Haines Hall, room 352.

*Most studies that use this writing paradigm use some variation of these standard writing instructions, “For the next 3 days, I would like for you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie this trauma to your childhood, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives. You may also link this event to your past, your present or your future, or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or about different topics each day. Not everyone has had a single trauma but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors—and you can write about these as well. All of your writing will be completely confidential. Don’t worry about spelling, sentence structure, or grammar. The only rule is that once you begin writing, continue to do so until your time is up.” (Pennebaker & Chung, 2011, p. 419).


Pennebaker, J.W. & Beall, S.K. (1986).  Confronting a traumatic event:  Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease.  Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 274-281.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2011). Expressive writing: Connections to physical and mental health. The Oxford handbook of health psychology, 417-437.