The 2010 UK Election: The First Prime Minister Debate

April 15, 2010

by James W. Pennebaker

For the first time, the UK is trying out an American-style televised debate as part of its 2010 elections.  Thursday night, April 15, the three party leaders, the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Conservative Party’s David Cameron, and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, met in Manchester for their first 90 minute debate.  By all accounts, it followed the American script nicely – polite, uninspired, and rather forgettable.

The good news is that all three candidates used a lot of words – which was all I was hoping for.  For the last several years, my colleagues and I have been intrigued how the words people use in natural conversation reflects their social and psychological states.  Debates are fertile testing grounds because they are not completely scripted and the speakers are public figures who are used to being scrutinized.

As with the American presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, I was able to analyze the word use of the three candidates in order to get a sense of their personality, social, and thinking styles.  Unlike most language analytic methods, the strategy that my colleagues and I rely on focuses on the almost-invisible function or “junk” words that are common in speech – pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs.  Junk words can be distinguished from the more familiar content words made up of nouns and regular verbs.  Whereas content words tell us what the person is talking about, junk words convey people’s linguistic styles.

Over the last several years, we have found that junk words are powerful correlates of personality, emotional state, and social styles.  For example, we can often tell if people are depressed, honest, arrogant, socially connected, and how they think by looking at their use of junk words.  Interestingly, junk words are processed in the brain differently than most content words and are very difficult to detect in natural conversation.  Consequently, all of our analyses are based on transcripts which are run through our computer program, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC (pronounced “Luke” – for more information, go to www.LIWC.net).

The 15 April debate was remarkably tame and all three men tended to talk in similar ways.  The most striking differences emerged between Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg, with David Cameron somewhere in between.

Brown, who talked more than the others, used language that was emotionally and psychologically distant.  He was by far the least personal as indicated by his low use of 1st person singular pronouns, or I-words.  Instead of using “I”, he tended to use “we” – a sign of distancing we often see in less adept politicians (John Kerry and Al Gore were both big “we” users).  Consistent with this, Brown also used negative emotion words, especially words that signaled anxiety, at the highest rates.

In comparison, Nick Clegg was far more personal (more I-words), used the most positive emotion words, and tended to talk in the present tense at the highest rates.  All of these language dimensions are markers of psychological immediacy.  That is, Clegg, unlike the other two candidates, presented his arguments in the here-and-now.  It is also interesting that Clegg’s style the one that is most consistent with telling the truth.  People who are honest and not trying to hide anything use more I-words.

Cameron’s style was the least distinctive.  Like Brown, he was high in negative emotion words, but more angry than anxious.  He tended to be a bit more moralistic (using words like would, should, and could), less specific, with a greater focus on money-related issues.

In terms of thinking styles, Brown’s language was the most complex and interesting.  In comparison with the other two men, Brown was more concrete, focusing on particular objects and things (as indicated by his use of articles such as “a” and “the” – words that are needed with concrete nouns).  Like Obama, he also used more verbs than the other candidates, often a sign of more dynamic thinking.  Compared to Brown, both Cameron and Clegg used relatively more cognitive or thinking words – words such as think, realize, understand, because.  People generally use cognitive words when they are still trying to construct a story.  In other words, Cameron and Clegg are still trying to come up with ways to frame their thinking compared to Brown who already has a story in his head.

These language analyses should not be taken too seriously.  As the debates unfold, we will get a much better sense of the stability of the language use of the three men.  The first debate was a unique setting for all three politicians and, once they become accustom to the setting, their natural ways of speaking will leak out more.

Examples Brown Cameron Clegg
Word count 7212.00 6712.00 6379.00
Pronouns 16.53 17.24 18.03
I-words I, me, my 2.37 2.62 2.99
We-words We, us 4.73 4.16 3.15
Articles A, an, the 7.57 7.05 6.82
Verbs Is, ran 18.66 18.19 16.95
Past tense Was, ran 4.44 3.37 2.57
Present tense Am, feel 11.69 12.44 12.60
Future tense Will, shall 1.41 1.00 0.88
Adverbs Very, so 3.81 4.81 5.78
Prepositions On, to 14.86 13.47 13.39
Conjunctions And, but 6.28 5.66 4.94
Positive emotions Love, nice 2.69 2.59 3.04
Negative emotions Cry, hate 1.83 1.85 1.35
Anxiety worry 0.53 0.30 0.16
Anger kill 0.58 0.82 0.56
Cognitive words think 17.30 19.04 17.87
Insight Realize 1.91 2.06 2.85
Causal thinking Cause 2.02 1.85 1.76
Discrepancy Would. should 2.09 2.83 1.94

To learn more about the text analysis work, go to my website, www.psy.utexas.edu/Pennebaker an click on the “Explorations into Language” link.

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3 Responses to “The 2010 UK Election: The First Prime Minister Debate”


  1. I liked the Debate…This is what all nations should start doing not just going about the street insulting each other without facing the problems at hand…

  2. Bobby Says:

    This is interesting!

    I’d like to know who told the most “I went to a school the other day…” or “I met a man called…” anecdotes.

    Immigration was quite brief. I’d like to here more on that. I wrote a blog about my aussie housemate being blocked from coming back to the UK, which made me reflect on how I view immigrants:

    http://www.bobversus.com/2010/04/16/bob-versus-immigration/

    Check it out

  3. Midge Hamid Says:

    I’m not really into politics and happened to watch the debate without knowing who these guys were (I’m sorry). My point is, I was really drawn into what Nick Clegg was arguing during the debate and you are right. Your analysis of him as somewhat psychologically connecting with the viewers and first time listening to him I feel there were certain degrees of truthfulness in what he was saying. Thank you for clearing that up.


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