The Third UK Debate: Assessing Optimism, Honesty, and Thinking Styles

April 29, 2010

By James W. Pennebaker and Raj Persaud

With the final debate on Thursday night, people have heard each of the three candidates spew over 17,000 words – that’s more than the average human says in a full day.  Using computerized text analysis methods, we now have a fairly good picture of how each of the candidates uses language within the debate setting.

Recall that the words people use in everyday speech reflects who they are. Of particular relevance are a group of words called function or junk words.  These almost-invisible words include pronouns (such as you, me, they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (for, with, to), etc.  The ways people use these words can tell us about speakers’ emotional states, formality, honesty, thinking styles, and other dimensions of how they approach their worlds.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg all have distinctive speaking styles that highlight different parts of their personality.  Some of these differences are obvious; others are not.

Optimism.  People who are upbeat and optimistic tend to use present and future tense verbs, first person plural pronouns (we, our, us), simple words, and words that denote positive feelings and, at the same time, tend to avoid words that express negative feelings.  Although the first debate found Clegg and Cameron to be quite high in optimism, Clegg’s upbeat language has moderated whereas Cameron’s has increased ever since.  For last night’s debate, David Cameron was by the most upbeat and optimistic followed by Clegg with Brown far behind.

Want an upbeat, optimistic PM?  Vote David Cameron.

Language Markers of Optimism

Brown Cameron Clegg Direction
Present tense verbs 11.53 12.55 11.62 High
Future tense 1.26 1.63 1.42 High
We-words 2.98 4.28 2.70 High
Positive emotions 3.08 2.75 3.15 High
Negative emotions 2.20 1.85 1.47 Low
Big words 18.90 16.26 16.69 Low

Note that numbers refer to percentage of total words used by each of the candidates.  So 11.53 percent of all of Brown’s words were present tense verbs.  The Direction column indicates what numbers are associated with high optimism.  That is, optimism is associated with high use of present tense verbs and low rates of negative emotion words.

Honesty.  Over the last 10 years, more than a dozen studies of all kinds have analyzed the language of honesty and deception.  At least five language dimensions are reliably linked with honesty and another 3-4 are associated with lying.  People are more likely to be telling the truth if a) their sentences are longer and more complex, b) they use I-words more (e.g., I, me, my), c) they use bigger words, d) the make more references to time and motion, and e) they use more self-reflective words such realize, understand, and think.  The best markers of deception are would-should-could verbs, positive emotion words, and you-words.  Averaging across all these dimensions, Gordon Brown comes across as having the most honest language profile.   Clegg comes in a distant second with Cameron close behind Clegg.

Want an honest PM?  Vote for Gordon Brown.

Language Markers of Honesty

Brown Cameron Clegg Direction
Words per sentence 20.66 17.38 18.98 high
Big words 18.90 16.26 16.69 high
Conjunctions 6.98 5.52 4.99 high
I-words 1.93 2.18 2.70 high
Motion 2.18 2.32 1.45 high
Time 4.84 4.16 4.34 high
Insight 1.53 2.02 2.20 high
Would-should 2.14 3.04 2.96 low
Positive emotions 3.08 2.75 3.15 low
You-words 1.66 1.87 2.44 low

Except for average number of words per sentence, all numbers refer to percentage of total words used by each of the candidates. The Direction column indicates what numbers are associated with high honesty.  That is, honesty is associated with high rate of words per sentence and low rates of would-should-could words.

Thinking style.  The various text analysis methods find that all three candidates are quite bright.  They do, however, think differently.  One interesting difference in thinking is how people break down a complex problem.  For example, if confronted with a new challenge, one strategy is to reduce the problem into its component parts.  To do this, people generally use concrete nouns (which are reflected in the use of articles) and, the more specific they become, they will need prepositions and other linguistic devices (such as relativity words) that reflect specific concepts, objects, and things.  We refer to this as analytic thinking.  Another approach is to trace the evolution of problems and project how they will change in the future.  Looking at how events unfold over time requires more verbs, especially past and future tense.  This is often called dynamic thinking.

Gordon Brown is quite analytic in his approach whereas David Cameron is strongly dynamic.  Nick Clegg is midway between the other two on both of these dimensions.  If you would like to see examples of these differences in thinking, read how the three responded to a question about what their party would do to help families pay for housing:

Gordon Brown: …there is a pent-up demand for housing in our country. There are one million more home owners than there were just over ten years ago, so more people are buying their homes. …Shared equity is something that might be considered because that’s a chance to buy up a part of your house, and it’s become a more popular way of doing things and we are able to help finance that and work with the building societies and banks.

David Cameron: I have every sympathy with you because, frankly, today in our country, people who try and work hard and save, and obey the rules, and do the right thing. All too often, they just find hurdle after hurdle put in their way, whereas people who actually don’t play by the rules, who don’t think about saving and don’t think about their behaviour often get rewarded and that’s not right.

Nick Clegg: … this is one of the things that I, along with immigration, actually, that I probably hear about more than anything else as I travel around the country, a lack of affordable housing as I travel round the country. The lack of affordable housing. The people in your situation, but then there are, I think, 1.8 million families, that’s five million people, who are still on the waiting list for an affordable home.

As you can see, Brown is coolly analytic about the problem, evaluating what aspects of the economy may be contributing to the problem.  Cameron traces what people have done and are doing.  He sees the problem more of the action of others in the past and the present.  Clegg actually doesn’t think much about the problem at all but, instead, later talks about how he would fix it.

Want an analytic thinker?  Vote Brown.

Want a dynamic thinker? Vote Cameron

Want someone who is somewhere in between?  Vote Clegg.

Caveat: Linking natural language use with social, cognitive, and personality dimensions is a relatively new science.  It’s important to think of it in probabilistic terms.  Our approach is more accurate than flipping a coin but far from 100% accurate.  Also, these analyses are based purely on how the candidates spoke in the debates.  As we’ve seen, once the microphones are thought to be turned off, the candidates may actually talk and think differently from how they might appear on the international stage.  Finally, optimism, honesty, and thinking styles are important qualities of leaders.  Remember that there are dozens of other qualities that contribute to good leadership that we are not measuring here.  Consider these traits just the tip of the iceburg.

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3 Responses to “The Third UK Debate: Assessing Optimism, Honesty, and Thinking Styles”

  1. [...] about the election debates Wordwatchers, interesting on the speaking styles of prominent figures and how it reflects on their [...]

  2. As author of “The Optimism Advantage,” I find your analysis of word usage of optimists interesting. Some of the research on optimism indicates that optimism is not motivation on hype, but comes from a track record of overcoming obstacles. The more obstacles you have overcome in the past, the more you believe you can do it again. Cameron’s emphasis on people who have achieved, worked hard and persevered to earn their success are those whose earned optimism will likely respond to his message. Research also shows that optimists are realists; they want to know the problems they face so they can get busy solving them. Why? Because they believe they can solve them. Victim thinking seems correlated with expecting government to be the source of my solutions. Maybe that is why Brown focuses more on honestly looking at problems.
    One other note, love watching the election process. I wish the US model had shorter campaigns. We’ve also found in the states that presidents who get elected have an optimistic message. Reagan’s optimism was based on confidence in the people. Obama’s optimism and hope is based on an activist government promising to meet the needs of citizens. Thanks for the interesting post.

  3. pragya pant Says:


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