Kayla N. Jordan, UT Austin

The 2020 Democratic candidates for president met again on the debate stage this week for the third time. Unlike the previous debates, this debate was a single night with just the top 10 candidates. As the field has begun to be winnowed, now seems like a good time to talk about the candidate’s confidence. Here I am going to consider two facets of confidence: clout and certainty.

Clout and Status

Clout gives a sense of how candidates may be feeling about their status and power in the party. The linguistic metric for clout was developed from both experimental and real-world studies of leaders. When someone is a leader or high status, they tend to use we-words and social words (like ally, friend, group). Followers or those with lower status tend to use I-words more along with negations (like no, not, never) and swear words. Of the 10 front-runners, O’Rourke and Yang have been highest in clout with Warren a close third. Sanders, Castro, and Buttigieg were lowest in clout.

Consider the differences in how O’Rourke and Castro answered a question about the racial divide in the country. O’Rourke responded decisively and confidently framing the solution as a collective responsibility, “We have to be able to answer this challenge…But we will also call out the fact that we have a white supremacist in the White House and he poses a mortal threat to people of color all across this country.” Alternatively, Castro was less confident and more self-focused in his response, “I’m proud that I put forward a plan to disarm hate … We need to root out racism, and I believe that we can do that.” These examples show a difference in a leader bringing a group together to solve a problem and a leader who is thinking what they can do themselves. One caveat to note here is that being low in clout in the primaries is not necessarily bad for a candidate. Evidence from other recent primaries suggest that being somewhat humble may be more attractive to primary voters.

Note. Clout scores range from 0 (least confident) to 100 (most confident). In a political context where everyone is relatively high status, the effective range is generally 60 – 100. Individual scores in this graph are averages across the three debates so far.

Certainty and Processing

Certainty gives a sense of how sure candidates are about their ideas and positions. It is clear that some candidates are still processing their thoughts and positions about issues using words like should, could, think, know, and believe. Other candidates know exactly where they stand on issues and clearly state what their positions and plans are. The graph below shows where the front-runners stand on this metric. The most certain candidates are Harris and O’Rourke (note low scores are more certain in this case). The least certain is Buttigieg with Biden and Castro right behind.

Consider how Harris versus Buttigieg handled questions about trade. Harris very clearly and confidently laid out her policy, “My trade policy, under a Harris administration, is always going to be about saying, we need to export American products, not American jobs…Look, we need to sell our stuff…That means we need trade policies that allow that to happen.” Buttigieg hedged more providing a less than clear alternative to current policy, “I would have a strategy that would include the tariffs as leverage, but it’s not about the tariffs…when what we know is that the tariffs are coming down on us more than anybody else and there’s a lack of a bigger strategy.” Candidates still have time to iron out their ideas, but some, like Harris, already stand out as having clear, decisive positions.

Note. High scores in this case indicate greater processing and uncertainty while low scores indicate more certainty. Scores represent the percent of words in the text indicative of cognitive processing average across the three debates.

Final Thoughts

It is still very earlier in the primary season. Buttigieg and Castro may be struggling with confidence in their status and ideas now, but they still have time to change. Likewise, O’Rourke and Yang are confident now, but if they fail to improve in the polls, they may lose that confidence. As the primary season progresses and we get closer to the Iowa caucus, we will check back in to see how the candidates’ confidence changes as they try to win the nomination.


Kayla N. Jordan, UT Austin

This week the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates met for the second round of primary debates. In this post, I turn to a different psychological process: motivation. One of the most well-known theories of human motivation was proposed David McClelland, who posited three main drives of human behavior: power, affiliation, and achievement. Importantly, McClelland’s motivation theory has been extensively applied to the political realm by David Winter and others. These motivations not only describe how individuals (including political leaders) orient to the world around them, but also predict a variety of outcomes including presidential greatness ratings and behavior during international crises.

It is important to note that these motivations are not independent (a candidate can be both power motivated and affiliation motivated). For this reason, I will go through the motivations one at a time explaining what each motivation means, the implications of each motivation for leadership, and what debate language of the 2020 front-runners (note Andrew Yang has replaced Kirsten Gillibrand as a front-runner for this post) reveals about their potential motivations.

The Power Motive

Individuals motivated by power are highly attuned to status and influence. The power-motivated individual wants to know who’s in control and how their status compares to the status of others. Linguistically, those motivated by power tend to use words like leader, follower, demand, and weak. Politically, research on American presidents has shown that power motivation has both strengths and weaknesses. Power-motivated presidents are more likely to be judged by historians to be great, effective presidents, but they are also more likely to enter a war (e.g. LBJ and FDR).

The figure below shows how power-motivated each candidate is compared to the others based on their language in the debates so far. The most power-motivated candidates are Harris, Sanders, and O’Rourke while Biden, Yang, Buttigieg, and Warren are least power-motivated. One interesting way the power-motivation was seen was in how candidates referred to one another. For example, Harris nearly always referred to other candidates by their titles (e.g. “Senator Bennet’s plan”, “When Vice President Biden…”, “agree with Governor Inslee”). Biden, on the other hand, often addressed other candidates directly and used their first names (e.g. “Bernie acknowledges it”, “I found that Julian”).

Note. Y-axis represents average percentage (across the two debates) of words used that are related to power.

The Affiliation Motive

Individuals motivated by affiliation are highly attuned to social relationships. The affiliation-motivated are looking for friends and allies and want to develop close relationships. Linguistically, those motivated by affiliation tend to use words like help, family, ally, and we. Politically, researchers have found affiliation-motivated presidents can be better negotiators. However, they also seem more susceptible to scandal and corruption. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush are two recent affiliation-motivated presidents who cared greatly about personal relationship even if they weren’t always good at them.

The most affiliation-motivated candidates were O’Rourke and Yang as shown below. Both of these men used the word ‘we’ liberally throughout the debate often focusing on unity and coalition building (e.g. “Whatever our differences, we know that, before we are anything else, we are Americans first, and we will ensure that each one of us is well enough and educated enough and paid enough to realize our full potential [O’Rourke].”; “I’m building a coalition of disaffected Trump voters…conservatives, as well as democrats and progressives [Yang].”).

The candidates least motivated by affiliation were Harris, Castro, Klobuchar, and Sanders (potentially because unlike relatively newcomers, O’Rourke and Yang, they already have a base of supporters). Of these four, Harris stands out. Whereas other front-runners often focused on their policies and finding common ground, Harris directly clashed with other candidates at several points (e.g. “Vice President Biden, you’re just simply inaccurate”, “with all due respect”, “I’m done with the conversation.”).

Note. Y-axis represents average percentage (across the two debates) of words used that are related to affiliation.

The Achievement Motive

Individual motivated by achievement are highly attuned to success and failure. The achievement-motivated are ambitious and driven, striving for accomplishment and success. Linguistically, those motivated by achievement tend to use words like win, lose, excellence, and earn. Researchers have found that achievement-motivated presidents are often highly idealistic, but at the same time, often end up being ineffective lacking political skill and emotional maturity. While usually not useful in a presidential context, achievement-motivation has been found to be effective in many business settings (which may make achievement-motivated candidates seem attractive to voters).

The candidates highest in achievement motivation were Klobuchar, Booker, and O’Rourke while Sanders, Buttigieg, and Yang were relatively low in achievement motivation. Consider when the debate turned to the topic of electability. Where Sanders had an abstract, philosophical answer (e.g. “we need to have a campaign of energy and excitement and of vision”), Klobuchar focused on success (e.g. “I think how we win an election is to bring everyone with us. And, yes, I have won in a state every single time statewide. I have won those congressional districts that Donald Trump won by over 20 points.).


Note. Y-axis represents average percentage (across the two debates) of words used that are related to achievement.

Trends and Takeaways

So what does this all mean? Well, there are a few key trends worth noting. First, some candidates like Biden and Castro didn’t score highly on any motivation. They, along with Buttigieg and Warren, are low to average for each motivation. Unlike others, these candidates seem to have more balanced motives rather than a single, strong motivation. A balance between two or more motivations can be useful. Some past work suggests that a balance between affiliation and power motivations can mitigate the downsides that individuals of high in one or the other can struggle with.

One candidate stands out as being high on all three motivations: Beto O’Rourke. Throughout the debate, O’Rourke relied on different motivations often depending on what the topic was. He seemed to be motivated by affiliation when discussing electability, power when discussing race issues (e.g. the wealth that we have built, the way we became the greatest country … on the backs of those who were kidnapped and brought here by force”), and achievement when discussing education (e.g. “earn that associate’s degree, realize your full potential…of being able to better yourself so that you can better this country”). O’Rourke demonstrates that, for some, their motivation can shift depending on the context.

Finally there are the candidates that primarily show a single motivation. For Sanders and Harris, that motivation is power. Both candidates through their words demonstrate a focus on who has power, who doesn’t, and how they can change it. For Sanders, that’s Wall Street and the 1%; for Harris, it’s Trump and the Republicans. For Yang, his motivation is affiliation. As a political outsider, he is focused on making a base for himself by gathering friends and allies to further his cause. For Booker and Klobuchar, the motivation achievement. They just want to get things done and rack up the successes. The more singular focus of these five candidates might be useful in understanding how they would approach the office of the presidency.

For those of you in a hurry, here are the bullet points:

• Sanders and Harris are power-motivated. They are ambitious and concerned with influence and prestige.
• Yang is affiliation-motivated. He is looking for friends and is concerned with social relationships.
• Booker and Klobuchar are achievement-motivated. They want to get things done and are concerned with success.
• Everyone else (Biden, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Castro, and Warren) show some combinations of motives. They balance concerns simultaneously or switch between, depending on the context.

Hopefully, the above analysis has helped understand the 2020 front-runners just a bit better. It is still early in the primary season. Candidates still have time to grow and change how they are thinking about and communicating their political messages, and I will continue tracking them as the election progress to see how they develop. Check in after the next round of debates (Sep. 12 & 13) for another look at the presidential hopeful through their words.

Contact Info: kaylajordan@utexas.edu

Kayla N. Jordan
University of Texas at Austin

While candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have already been campaigning for months, the primary season hit a new phase this week with the first debates between the candidates. Here, in the first of several blog posts about the 2020 election, I use computer-based text analysis methods to start to get a sense of the psychology of the candidates. Rather than their positions or policies, the goal of these posts will be to understand the candidates as people by considering questions like how are they thinking, how are they relating to other people, and how are they communicating their ideas.

The system the majority of the analyses will rely on is a program developed in the Pennebaker Lab at UT Austin called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC2015 (available for academic research at liwc.net or for commercial application at Receptivit.com). LIWC can analyze any text to determine the percentage of words in the text indicative of negative emotion and cognitive processing and 80+ other dimensions. LIWC has been used in hundreds of studies in multiple disciplines ranging from psychology to business to medicine to political science to computer science. To learn more about some of these studies, check out this link.

So what can LIWC tell us about the 2020 presidential candidates? As the election season unfolds I will be looking at many dimensions including motivations, confidence, and time orientation, but for now I want to look at three central psychological dimensions: thinking style, emotional tone, and authenticity. Also, rather than cramming in all 20 candidates, I am going to focus on the ten candidates who, at the moment at least, seem to have the best chances of securing the nomination: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Kristen Gillibrand.

Thinking Style

People naturally differ in the ways that they think and communicate ideas. On one end of the spectrum, there are people who are very analytic, logical thinkers. Analytic thinkers organize their ideas in formal, hierarchical ways focusing on concepts and ideas. On the other end of the spectrum are people who think in narrative, intuitive ways. Narrative thinkers organize their ideas more informally, often telling stories and focusing on people and actions. Linguistically, analytic thinkers use more articles and prepositions while narrative thinkers use more pronouns, auxiliary verbs, adverbs, negations, and conjunctions. Check out this link or this link to learn more about the research on analytic thinking. So where do the Democratic candidates fall on this spectrum?

The Analytic Thinkers: Of the 10 candidates, 3 stand-out as the most analytic: Buttigieg, Gillibrand, and Sanders. These candidates talked about their policies and ideas in logical ways. They relied more on facts and figures focusing on concepts and details rather than stories and anecdotes. For example, take Bernie Sanders. When talking about his health care plans, he laid out the problem, gave statistics, and stated his proposals rarely making his positions personal.

The Narrative Thinkers: On the narrative end of the spectrum, Klobuchar, Biden, and Castro stand out. Unlike their analytic counterparts, they tell stories and anecdotes focusing on people and actions more than concepts and abstractions. Rather than making structured arguments, these candidates communicates their ideas in looser, more informal ways. Compare Biden’s discussion of health care to Sanders’. Where Sanders gave impersonal arguments, Biden connected his policy plans to his families’ personal experiences with cancer.

The In-Between Thinkers: Rather than falling on either end of the spectrum, four candidates fall somewhere in the middle: Harris, Booker, O’Rourke, and Warren. Drawing on both styles, these four candidates use both formal, logical structures as well as stories and personal experience. For example, when Elizabeth Warren talked about gun violence she used not only statistics and structured policy proposals but also anecdotes from her time on the campaign trail talking to voters.


Note. Analytic thinking scores are standardized composite scores ranging from 0 (most narrative) to 100 (most analytic).

Emotional Tone

Emotion has become a central feature of political campaigns and has been studied in a variety of ways such as fear appeals and negative advertising. Here, however, I focus on what the use of emotional language might say about a person’s general outlook. A more optimistic, upbeat outlook is indicated by positive emotional words such as love, respect, and happy. A more pessimistic outlook is indicated by the use of negative emotional words such as anger, death, and hurt. What were the candidates’ emotional outlooks in the first debates?

The Optimists: Three candidates were high in positivity: Gillibrand, Harris, and Klobuchar. These three women candidates all presented optimistic, upbeat messages. Gillibrand and Klobuchar, in particular, come across as affable during the debates occasionally mixing in humor and provide hopeful views of the future.

The Pessimists: Four candidates were on the negative side: Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden, and Booker. These candidates presented less positive images painting more pessimistic views of the future. Bernie Sanders was the clearest representation of negativity. For Sanders, there are many serious problems that must be addressed immediately and decisively to avoid a future filled with doom and gloom.

The Realists: The three remaining candidates fell in the middle: Warren, Castro, and O’Rourke. For these three candidates, their outlook is mixed with serious, urgent problems needing solutions, but with a hopeful outlook that such problems are solvable.


Note. Tone scores are standardized scores ranging from 0 (most negative) to 100 (most positive).


Politicians are often portrayed as less than honest, hence a final important dimension to consider is authenticity. Individual high on authenticity come across as honest and straightforward while those low on authenticity come across as evasive and impersonal. Linguistically, studies have found that authentic individuals tend to use more I-words, present-tense verbs, and relativity words (e.g. old, far, here) and fewer she-he words and discrepancy words (e.g. could, should). How authentic are the Democratic candidates?

The Most Authentic: The most authentic candidate was Pete Buttigieg closely followed Sanders and Castro with Booker is a somewhat distant fourth. In their debates, Buttigieg and Castro, in particular, came across open and personal giving straightforward, clear answers to questions. Warren, Klobuchar, Biden, and Gillibrand fall in the middle of pack, but were slightly closer to the authentic candidates than to the inauthentic candidates. These four generally came across as straight-forward and personal but with moments of distance and evasion.

The Least Authentic: The least authentic candidate was Beto O’Rourke with Kamala Harris in a close second. O’Rourke was particularly striking in the debates. Despite the large amount of attention he received in his 2018 Senate Run, O’Rourke during the first debate came across as distant and impersonal often giving responses seeming robotic and rehearsed.


Note. Authenticity scores are composite standardized scores ranging from 0 (least authentic) to 100 (most authentic). In political contexts, the range is generally limited with scores effectively ranging from 0 to 50.

Going Forward

These are just a few initial insights into the 2020 Democratic candidates, and as we gather more data throughout the primary season, we will gradually gain a clearer sense of who these candidates are and how they might behave as leaders. That said, there is one broad takeaway from this first look at the 2020 candidates. While many of the candidates have similar (or even identical) policy positions, the analysis presented here shows the candidates have very different personalities and communication styles. The ideological similarities between candidates in a primary election can make choosing between them difficult, and I hope that the psychological views on the candidates that I will be presenting in these blog posts can provide additional information for voters who want another perspective of the candidates.

Check back later for further insights of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as I analyze the debates and other (linguistically) interesting campaign events this election cycle. For more information on this project, contact Kayla Jordan (kaylajordan@utexas.edu). For more information about LIWC, check out this link.

Kayla N. Jordan
University of Texas at Austin
Kavita Vedhara and Pamela Pepper
The University of Nottingham

Less than 2 months ago the UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, made the unexpected decision to hold a snap election. The elections will take place this week and has ostensibly been called in response to division in Westminster that she believes threaten future Brexit negotiations. As the UK begins the process of leaving the EU, the voters are expected to elect a leader from one of the two main parties in the country: the Conservatives led by Theresa May and the Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. After the surprising Brexit vote and U.S. election of Donald Trump, elections around the world have drawn attention for growing populism and isolationism. So as election day grows closer, we look at what the language of May and Corbyn reveals about them and the types of leaders they may be.

While Theresa May refused to take part in traditional debates, both May and Corbyn participated in three Q&A events interacting with both media figures and regular voters. These took place between May 22 and June 2 and will be the basis for our analysis. Furthermore, to put this in context we compare these Q&A events to pre-election interviews by recent prime ministers, Tony Blair and David Cameron, as well as to the 2016 general election debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Specifically, we look at how these candidates compare on three dimensions: thinking style, clout, and authenticity.

Thinking Style

When trying to better understand political candidates, one interesting facet to consider is their thinking style. Do they approach problems in an analytic, logical way or are they more intuitive and narrative in their style? In recent American politics, Donald Trump has stood out as being an exceptionally intuitive, informal thinker both as a candidate and as a president. So where do the current British candidates stand on this measure?

Between the two candidates, Theresa May is less analytic than Jeremy Corbyn. However, both are more analytic than recent British prime ministers, Tony Blair and David Cameron, as well as recent U.S. presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. While May lays out her ideas in a somewhat simpler fashion compared to Corbyn, no matter who wins the election, the next British prime minister is likely to have a different thinking style than recent UK prime ministers and a vastly different style to the current American president, Donald Trump.

analytic graph

Confidence and Clout

Another interesting facet of political leadership is how confident they are. We know from past research that those who confident and high status tend to use more we-words (e.g. we, our) and social words (e.g. friend, ally, group) while using fewer I-words (e.g. my, mine), negations (e.g. no, not, never), and swear words. Since calling for the election when she had relatively high levels of support, Theresa May has seen the election become very close with some polls suggest that the gap between Labour and Conservative is shrinking. So has the narrowing of the polls impacted either May or Corbyn’s confidence?

Despite the slides in the polls, May has remained more confident than Corbyn. Over time, May’s confidence has remained stable while Corbyn became more confident as election day draws closer (70.6 to 75.5). However, it is interesting to note that compared to previous UK prime ministers, both May and Corbyn are more confident in talking about the issues they face. May, in particular, resembles recent American candidates more than past British PMs.

clout graph


A final dimension worth looking at is authenticity. When confronted with questions, are the candidates sincere and straightforward or evasive and impersonal? Authentic individuals tend to use more I-words, present-tense verbs, and relativity words (e.g. old, far, here) and fewer she-he words and discrepancies (e.g. could, should). So how do May and Corbyn compare?

Both May and Corbyn are relatively inauthentic particularly compared to recent PMs, Blair and Cameron. When faced with difficult questions such as broken promises by May or IRA connections with Corbyn, both candidates have sounded evasive and distant. Interestingly, May and Corbyn are quite similar to Donald Trump when it comes to authenticity.

Throughout his campaign and after his election, Trump generally came across as a authentic and personal (even if he was often objectively incorrect). However, during the general election, following the scandal with the leaked Access Hollywood tape, Trump was less authentic in the later debates. While not so extreme, both May and Corbyn also have criticisms they have to endure and these appear to have impacted their authenticity during these events.

authenticity graph

The Big Picture

So what do we know about the two major candidates, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn? May is a more intuitive thinker and more confident in her position but relatively inauthentic. Corbyn is also relatively inauthentic, but is much more of an analytic thinker; and while he is showing less confidence than may, this is growing. While in U.S. elections intuitive and confident individuals tend to do better in elections, the situation and electorate in the UK could favor a different type of candidate so we shall have to wait to see whether the more confident, intuitive May will be victorious or the more analytic, increasingly confident Corbyn will prevail.

No matter which candidate ends up as prime minister it is interesting to note that the next British prime minister will be a departure from other recent PMs. Compared to Blair and Cameron, May and Corbyn are both more analytic, more confident, and less authentic than their predecessors. In fact when it comes to confidence and authenticity, May and Corbyn are more like their recent American counterparts, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, than recent British PMs. While there are obvious difference between May and Corbyn, they both are likely to be different types of leaders than their recent predecessors.

Helpful Resources:

Newman, M. L., Pennebaker, J. W., Berry, D. S., & Richards, J. M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 29(5), 665-675.

Kacewicz, E., Pennebaker, J. W., Davis, M., Jeon, M., & Graesser, A. C. (2014). Pronoun use reflects standings in social hierarchies. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33(2), 125-143.

Pennebaker, J. W. “The secret life of pronouns: How our words reflect who we are.” New York: Bloomsbury (2011).

Pennebaker, J. W., Boyd, R. L., Jordan, K., & Blackburn, K. (2015). The development and psychometric properties of LIWC2015. liwc.net

Pennebaker, J. W., Chung, C. K., Frazee, J., Lavergne, G. M., & Beaver, D. I. (2014). When small words foretell academic success: The case of college admissions essays. PloS one, 9(12), e115844.

Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

After just over a month in office, Donald Trump gave his first address to Congress. The content of Trump’s address was similar to past presidents’ State of the Union (SOTU) addresses with a focus on recent accomplishments and plans for the upcoming year. But what about the style of the speech?

Unlike his inaugural address which was linguistically similar to Trump’s typical language, his recent address was more analytic and less authentic than normal. Similar to his RNC acceptance speech, Trump’s first SOTU was heavily shaped by a speechwriter. Although the content of the address overlapped considerably with Steve Bannon’s recurring themes of fear of outsiders, the linguistic markers were quite similar to the language of Stephen Miller in a recent interview on Face the Nation.  Despite Miller’s probable role in the address, Trump’s latest speech is useful in understanding overall trends in the presidency and where Trump fits in.

Decline in Analytic Thinking

Similar to trends in inaugural addresses, SOTU speeches are generally highly analytic and formal, but have been becoming less so over time. Starting with Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, modern presidents have adopted a more informal, narrative style in their annual addresses to Congress. Trump’s first address continued this trend with his level of analytic thinking on par with the last 5 presidents.

The decline in analytic thinking signals a shift in how presidents are thinking about problems and presenting their ideas. Trump, like other recent presidents, laid out his ideas in a simpler, more straightforward way than past presidents. Going forward, Trump will likely rely more and more on offering simple, intuitive solutions and ideas to the problems he faces.


Rise in Confidence

The language presidents use can show how confident and self-certain they are as leaders. Confidence or clout is indicated by more we-words and social words and fewer I-words, negations (e.g. no, not), and swear words.

Whereas analytic thinking has decreased over the last century, clout has increased. Around the same time presidents began becoming less analytic, they also started to exude more confidence. Presidents have increasingly approached these addresses to Congress with confidence and certainty. Trump is the most confident so far, but is still similar to recent presidents. Trump and other modern presidents are decisive and confident in their plans and proposals.


The Big Picture

In their SOTU addresses, presidents have been becoming more confident and less analytic. These trends show that presidents are changing how they are thinking and interacting with lawmakers and the American people. Administration after administration, the yearly SOTU addresses are laying out simpler and less nuanced world views with bolder more decisive proposals. Faced with complex, hard-to-solve problems, clear and easy solutions are likely more appealing to present to an increasingly polarized Congress (and electorate).

While Trump is often seen as a significant departure from presidential norms, in many ways, he isn’t all that different than other modern presidents. Rather than being an extreme outlier, Trump is part of long-term trends. He is a more confident, intuitive thinker, but Obama and Bush were as well. The content of what Trump is saying may be abnormal, but the style is typical of recent presidents.

Trump’s Inaugural Address

January 21, 2017

Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

After an unconventional campaign, Trump gave an equally unique inaugural address. In keeping with his populist connection with the voters, Trump spoke in a direct, nuance-free style against the Washington elites and promising to “Make America Great Again.”

Unlike his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention which was clearly not written by him, Trump (or a speechwriter with a good grasp of Trump’s language style) was the primary author of his inaugural address.  Linguistically, it was quite similar to the ways he spoke in his stump speeches, interviews, and debates.  Consequently, the conclusions we have reached about his personality and thinking styles in the past are only reinforced after his ascension to the presidency.

Trump is Intuitive and not at all Analytical

In their inaugural addresses, presidents tend to show an analytic thinking style. They generally lay out their ideas in a formal, logical manner. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt, modern presidents have adopted increasingly informal and narrative styles than their predecessors. Trump, however, has broken new ground in simple and intuitive thinking.  As depicted in the graph below, no American president has been so low in analytic thinking.

Consistent with all of his debates, Trump is not capable of more logical and hierarchical thinking. He has rarely made an if-then statement. As evidenced through his tweeting, he is a fast decision maker driven by intuition and hunches.  Because of this, scholars must pay particularly close attention to the values that are guiding him — nationalism, isolationism, wealth, security, hard work, and deal-making. When confronted with a difficult decision, he will likely be guided by advisors or the core values that are salient to him at the moment.


Trump is Authentic

Several studies have identified a set of word categories that are associated with people telling the truth.  For example, I-words (e.g., I, me, my) often signal that the person is speaking from the heart.  Interestingly, when we listen to a person who uses authenticity language, we are more likely to believe them.  They come across as more personal and understanding.

From the first debate over 18 months ago, Trump has consistently used words associated with authenticity at very high rates.  Indeed, this is his appeal.  He shoots from the hip and many people feel he is talking directly to them.  Presidents have differed widely in the authenticity of their inaugural addresses. Presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, surprisingly, gave straightforward addresses clearly laying out their thoughts. Other presidents such as Eisenhower and Truman were more distant and impersonal in their speeches. As shown in the figure below, Trump rivals George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington in his use of authentic language.

Warning:  Authentic language does not always mean honest or truthful.  LBJ and Nixon may have spoken in authentic ways in their inaugural addresses but history has judged both men as wily and devious in their attempts to get legislation passed. Trump has a long history of making up often-outlandish facts and talking about them with complete sincerity.  His language suggests that he actually believes them.  In fact, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has done a beautiful analysis of deception arguing that the most deceptive people (and other animals) are successful because they are self-deceptive.

Trump, then, may be objectively deceptive but his language reveals that he is generally an authentic individual. He says what he believes without trying to be evasive. He is quick to respond with his open and honest opinion be it during a press conference or on Twitter. For Trump, there is no hiding behind rhetoric.


The Big Picture

Trump’s inaugural address reflects his unorthodox campaign and likely signals the beginning of a different approach to the presidency. Trump continues to buck conventions and differentiate himself from the prototypical politician. His language in the campaign was a stunning departure from the political norms.  It is unsurprising that his first speech as president veered so far from the norms.

The language in Trump’s inaugural address matches his language from the election debates suggesting how he approached the campaign is likely to be how he approaches the presidency. Trump likely won’t change his style to appease critics or garner support; he simply is who he is: a straightforward individual who speaks his mind and relies on his gut instincts. Given this remarkable consistency of Trump’s language, the president will likely continue to be an unique political figure.

Helpful References

Ho, S. M., Hancock, J. T., Booth, C., Liu, X., Timmarajus, S. S., & Burmester, M. (2015, May). Liar, Liar, IM on Fire: Deceptive language-action cues in spontaneous online communication. In Intelligence and Security Informatics (ISI), 2015 IEEE International Conference on (pp. 157-159). IEEE.

Newman, M. L., Pennebaker, J. W., Berry, D. S., & Richards, J. M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 29(5), 665-675.

Pennebaker, J. W. “The secret life of pronouns: How our words reflect who we are.” New York: Bloomsbury (2011).

Pennebaker, J. W., Chung, C. K., Frazee, J., Lavergne, G. M., & Beaver, D. I. (2014). When small words foretell academic success: The case of college admissions essays. PloS one, 9(12), e115844.

Trivers, Robert. The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. Basic Books, 2011.

Kayla N. Jordan
University of Texas at Austin

Last night Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debated for the final time before election day. Since the first debate of the general election, Clinton has been steadily gaining ground while Trump has been bogged down in scandals and conflict. Have their changes in circumstance influenced their language? Has Trump become less authentic? Has Clinton become even more positive? Here we analyze the candidates’ authenticity, emotional tone, and analytic thinking one last time as the election comes to a close.


As we discussed in the post on the first presidential debate, people who are authentic tend to use I-words, present-tense verbs, and relativity words more and she-he words and discrepancies less. In the primary debates, both Clinton and Trump spoke relatively straightforward manner. In the general election debates, the candidates have changed direction.

As shown in the graph below, Clinton has been consistently inauthentic in the general election debates. In the midst of multiple recurrent scandals and criticisms of her aloof personality, Clinton can sound evasive and inauthentic as she tries sidestep attacks and appeal to a wider range of voters.  On the other hand, Trump remained straightforward and authentic in the first debate. However, after the major scandal with the leaked audio and sexual assault allegations, Trump’s authenticity in the last two debates has been markedly lower. The latest scandals seem to have hurt Trump’s ability to “tell it like it is.”


Emotional Tone

Since the general election debates have begun, Clinton and Trump have differed widely in their emotional tone. Clinton has maintained her upbeat, positive outlook from the primaries while Trump has developed an increasingly dark, pessimistic tone. Did the candidates change at all in the final debate?

Looking at the graph below, both candidates are consistent with their past trends. No amount of personal attacks or scandal can shake Clinton’s sense of optimism. She stays on her message that America is already great and she can help make it better. Trump, on the other hand, continued his pessimistic decline. Trump paints a much darker view of America and aggressively meets challenges and criticisms.


Analytic Thinking

We have examined the candidates’ thinking styles at several points throughout the election cycle showing how some candidates are analytic, logical thinkers whereas others are more intuitive, narrative thinkers. Throughout the debates, Clinton and Trump have demonstrated strikingly different styles.

As seen in the graph below, Clinton has generally been a formal, logical thinker focused on issues and policy positions. She deviated slightly in the beginning of the general election debates speaking in a more intuitive manner possibly to come across as more personable. In the final debate, she returned a more analytic way of speaking. Trump, conversely, has consistently had an intuitive style. Trump throws out ideas in an unstructured, informal manner relying more on anecdotes and stories than facts and figures.


The Big Picture

The debates are officially over and the candidates only have a couple more weeks to gather support. As the long election season draws to a close, the language through these debates have shown stark differences between the candidates. Furthermore, throughout the twists and turns of the campaigns, the candidates have remained largely consistent in their debate language. So what do we know about the candidates?

Clinton. Clinton’s language suggests an optimistic and analytic candidate. For her, things are good and can be made better by policies and proposals developed through careful, logical planning.  While Clinton’s language stays relatively stable, her language shifts in the general election debates could indicate an ability to change in order to address problems she faces. Like many politicians, she can come across as inauthentic and evasive particularly in the face of scandal.

Trump. Trump’s language, conversely, suggests a pessimistic, intuitive candidate. For him, the nation is a broken place with much to fix with intuitive solutions and straight talk. Like Clinton, Trump’s language is quite consistent with shifts in tone seeming to highlight differences between himself and his opponent’s worldviews. Also like Clinton, Trump is not immune to the effects of scandals with the latest charges bringing out an evasiveness in Trump which was not seen in the primaries or early general election.