Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin
People differ in the ways they think. When approaching an issue such as immigration, some analyze the problem logically, relying on facts and theories. Others draw on their personal experiences and stories they have heard. Presidential candidates are no different. By identifying how the current round of presidential hopefuls think, we can predict how they will go about making decisions if they are elected.
One way to identify thinking styles is to use computer-based text analysis methods to analyze everyday language. Based on earlier research, we have found that analytical thinking is revealed though the high use of nouns, articles, and prepositions. The use of these parts of speech indicates that the speaker is identifying conceptual categories and organizing them in hierarchical ways. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who are more narrative or dynamic thinkers. Narrative thinking is linked to low use of nouns, articles, and prepositions and high use of pronouns (such as I, she, they, it), auxiliary verbs (is, have), common adverbs (so, really), and related small common words called function words. Interestingly, the more a person is an analytical thinker, the less he or she is a narrative thinker and vice versa.
Across multiple studies, analytic thinking has been linked related to intelligence (as measured by standardized tests such as the SAT), better performance in classes across the college curriculum, and better education in high school. Analytic thinking is also more common among leaders, older (as opposed to younger) age, and people with better health habits. Narrative thinking is more common among younger, more impulsive, and sociable people. Whereas analytical thinkers like to break down and analyze a problem, narrative thinkers prefer to relay their own experiences and tell stories to understand the problem. Analytical thinkers weigh more facts; narrative thinks rely more on intuition and snap judgement. Using Daniel Kahneman’s language, analytic thinkers would think slow and the narrative thinkers would think fast.
Across this season’s debates, we have been analyzing analytic/narrative thinking to identify how each candidate naturally thinks about the world. As the Iowa caucus grows closer, it is revealing to see how the candidates from both parties are adjusting their thinking to appeal to their audiences.
Before looking at the individual candidates, it is interesting to see how the thinking styles within the Republican and Democratic debates have differed. Note that numbers above 50 are generally considered to reflect more analytical and logical thinking. Numbers below 50 are tend to be more narrative, personal, and immediate.
Overall, the Democratic debates are associated with more formal and logical thinking than the Republican debates. More interesting are the trends. Whereas the Democrats are becoming more logical and formal over time, the Republicans are becoming less formal and more narrative and personal.
Why? Very likely the two groups are becoming increasingly familiar with their base — especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. When the Democratic candidates show up to a town hall, a disproportionate number of their supporters know the issues, listen to NPR, and expect reasoned answers. The Republican candidates are trying to appeal to Tea Party supporters who rely more on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh for information. For many, hard data is less persuasive than compelling stories.
Another explanation can be attributed to a phenomenon called language style matching. Social psychologists have long known that people naturally mimic one another in the ways they behave, use nonverbal behaviors, and the ways they talk. Daniel Romero and his colleagues find that people who match others in a debate or negotiation are seen more positively than those whose speaking styles are unrelated to others. Other studies suggest that lower status people tend to mimic people with higher status — often unconsciously. Among the candidates, one might expect that the frontrunners would set the linguistic tone and that the followers would match them. As depicted in the graphs below, the patterns support the language style matching and status predictions — especially for the Republicans (the Democratic candidates are strikingly similar across all the debates).
So how do the Republicans compare to each other and how have they changed as individual candidates? As the graph below demonstrates, the candidates’ thinking styles relative to each other have remained largely the same. Although the Republicans overall have become more informal across debates, there are some interesting differences between the candidates worth noting.
- Donald Trump has become more and more informal since the second debate in September. While Trump started the debates similar to fellow candidate, Ben Carson, his language has drifted further and further away from the other candidates as the debates have progressed. Trump remains an intuitive rather than an analytical thinker far more than his fellow candidates. Research suggest that someone with this type of narrative thinking style may be more impulsive when making decisions.
- Ben Carson hasn’t changed much over time. Since the first debate, Carson had been relatively informal and narrative focused. Carson is concerned with his political story without thinking too much about the logic or rationale behind his ideas. Carson’s language style has become somewhat more like Trump’s (whose top spot in the polls likely gives him the more status) over the across the debates. Also like Trump, his thinking style may be associated with more rash decision making.
- Marco Rubio is in the middle of the pack suggesting he is relying on both analytical and narrative thinking. While Rubio is working on his political narrative, he also is looking at the rationale behind it. Rubio’s thinking style has remained relatively stable across debates suggesting he may not perceive any of the other candidates as necessarily having higher status.
- Jeb Bush is quite similar to Rubio though Bush falls more on the analytical side. Bush tends to focus on the logic behind his plans. Like Rubio and Carson, Bush’s linguistic style has been mostly consistent through the debates.
- Ted Cruz has become less analytic in the debates since September, but he is still the most logical thinkers on the Republican side. His analytic language reveals a deliberative, though not necessarily better, decision making style. As Cruz has climbed in the polls, his thinking style is getting more in line with the other Republican frontrunners. At first, Cruz stood apart from the others but over time has become more similar to them.
What about the Democrats? Both Democratic candidates are more analytic thinkers. Throughout the debates, their thinking styles have been similar suggesting they are on the same page and approach problems similarly with only minor differences across the debates.
- Bernie Sanders is an analytic thinker and has been relatively consistent across debates with only small increases since the first debate. Sanders is focused on his plans for the future and on the logic behind those plans.
- Hillary Clinton has become more analytic since the first debate catching up to Sanders in the last debate. In the first debates, Clinton had more balance between logical and informal thinking, but as the race has become slightly more competitive, she has become slightly more analytic.
The current analyses suggest that both parties may be modifying their strategies to better appeal to the voters in the upcoming caucuses. Within the Republican party, the race has changed substantially since the first debate with all the frontrunners gaining or losing ground. In order to gain or regain support, candidates may have needed to change their approaches. Cruz and Trump have changed thinking styles the most and are the current leaders in most polls suggesting they may be the most responsive to these changes in circumstances. Rubio, Bush, and Carson, on the other hand, have changed less indicating that they might be less flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. Within the Democratic party, while Sanders has gained some ground, the race has not changed substantially. The mostly stable competition could indicate that neither candidate have felt compelled to really change the way they are approaching their campaigns.
After the Iowa Caucus, the candidates have six more opportunities to face each other in debates. We will continue to examine how these candidates compare to each other and how they may approach the presidency as voters begin deciding which two candidates will battle for that office.
Ireland, M. E., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2010). Language style matching in writing: Synchrony in essays, correspondence, and poetry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,99(3), 549-571. doi:10.1037/a0020386
Niederhoffer, K. G., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2002). Linguistic style matching in social interaction. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 21(4), 337-360. doi:10.1177/026192702237953
Romero, D. M., Swaab, R. I., Uzzi, B., & Galinsky, A. D. (2015). Mimicry is presidential: Linguistic style matching in presidential debates and improved polling numbers. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(10), 1311-1319. doi:10.1177/0146167215591168
Seeking Rewards, Avoiding Risks, and Taking the Middle Ground: A Language-Based Approach to Identifying Reward- vs Risk-Oriented Thinking
December 20, 2015
by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin
In making an important decision, most of us weigh the potential payoffs against the possible costs. We are essentially trying to balance the relative rewards and risks of that decision. The problem of assessing risks versus rewards is at the heart of psychology because there are large personality differences between people who naturally focus more on rewards compared with those who automatically focus on risks.
Psychologists have long explored the meaning of being reward- versus risk-focused. Tory Higgins and his colleagues at Columbia University have proposed a regulatory focus theory that explains how people approach their worlds if they are naturally more promotion-oriented versus more prevention-thinking. People who pay attention to rewards tend to make riskier decisions without analyzing the downsides. More risk-oriented people carefully consider the dangers and costs of moving forward and tend to approach life in a more defensive manner. A reward-oriented leader, for example, would be more likely to initiate aggressive action in order to gain territory, status, or goods; a risk-oriented leader might work to build a strong defense to protect against the aggressive actions of others.
The presidential debates provide rich data on how the candidates differ in being reward- versus risk-sensitive. People who are more reward-focused use words such as achieve, optimistic, wager, and better at high rates. More risk-oriented people tend to overuse words such as avoid, defense, danger, and disadvantage. Indeed, our computer program LIWC2015 includes very large and comprehensive dictionaries of words that capture the language of both reward-focus and risk-focus. By tracking the language of the candidates across multiple debates, we are starting to get a reliable sense of each person’s natural degree of reward- versus risk-orientation.
In these analyses, we examine how candidates are speaking across all the debates so far. While there is some variation, the candidates are remarkably consistent in the language they use across debates suggesting reward and risk orientation are relatively stable personality traits that indicate how the candidates may approach their campaigns and possible the office of the presidency. Scores on these dimensions were standardized such that a score of 50 is average.
Three Personality Types: The Reward Seekers, the Risk Avoiders, the Middle Grounders
As can be seen in the first graph, each candidate has two scores — reward-orientated and risk-oriented language. By comparing the relative height of the two bars, you can determine the degree that each candidate naturally approaches opportunities or avoids dangers.
Overall, there are three candidates who would be classified as strongly reward-seeking: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Bernie Sanders. All three focus on potential positive outcomes and are concerned with gains and benefits. They make far fewer references to risks and losses. Interestingly, the risk-focused dimension is particularly low for Carson and Sanders. While more open to change, this reward focus suggests these candidates will push for their plans and policies to be implemented as quickly as possible without fully considering possible downsides.
The one strong risk-oriented candidate is Ted Cruz. Cruz cares about safety and security. When the debates, he is thinking about things that can go wrong. His foreign policies involve strengthening America’s defenses and responding to perceived threats — both external to and within the U.S. His consistent use of risk-oriented language suggests a decision making style that is defensive and based on maintaining the status quo.
The remaining three candidates, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio, use language that suggests a more balanced orientation between risk and reward. Overall, Bush, Clinton, and Rubio may make risky decisions that are, however, more carefully considered. This balanced approach tends to depend on the type of policy with a security-minded foreign focus and a riskier domestic focus as can be seen in the graph below.
Digging deeper: Risk and reward when talking about foreign versus domestic issues
Across the board, Carson, Trump, and Sanders use reward-related more than risk-related language whether talking about foreign or domestic topics. As can be seen in the second graph below, the remaining candidates are more nuanced depending on the questions they are addressing.
Bush, Cruz, Rubio, and Clinton tend to be moderately high in reward orientation when dealing with domestic issues and lower in reward language when dealing with foreign policy issues. (It should be noted that “foreign policy” has really been restricted to discussions of terrorism and little else in all the debates.) These same four candidates are also very high in risk orientation language when addressing foreign but not domestic policies.
It is important to note that the two outliers in the discussion are Cruz and Carson. Cruz is disproportionate to the other candidates in his extraordinarily high risk-focused language when talking about foreign policy and is strikingly low rate of reward language on the same topic. Carson is similarly over the top in his reward language when talking about domestic topics compared to his language on any other topics.
Like our previous posts, these analyses reveal how these candidates are approaching their campaigns and how they may behave if elected. In particular, risk versus reward focus can provide insight into how each candidate approaches decision making.
Seeking Power, Finding Friends, and Making the Grade: Drive Orientations of the Primary Frontrunners
November 16, 2015
by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin
Last week both the Republicans and Democrats once again hit the debate stage. In this post, we discuss how the frontrunners in both parties compare in the ways they orient to power, achievement, and affiliation. Similar approaches were studied by David McClelland in the 1950s which resulted in his theory of human motivation which proposed three central needs that drive people’s lives:
- Need for power — driven by prestige, control, status, and influence over others
- Need for achievement — driven by succeeding, accomplishing goals and overcoming challenges
- Need for affiliation — motivated by close relationships with others
Whereas McClelland viewed power, achievement, and affiliation as basic motives that could drive people to behave, we think of them more as orientations. That is, people differ in the degree to which they pay attention to these dimensions in their everyday actions. By understanding how political candidates are naturally orienting to these dimensions, we can discern what is important to them.
Consider power orientation. Those who attend to power automatically assess others by how much status or influence they have. In debates, for example, candidates high in power orientation will use words such as leader or follower, demand, weak, or powerful. When they walk into a room, power-oriented people naturally pick out who has the most and the least power. Interestingly, people with high power orientation could be people who themselves are powerful or weak. Their own level of power can be independent of how closely they are monitoring others’ power. David Winter, a student of David McClelland, studied power motivation of presidential speeches using a content analytic strategy. He found Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to be particularly high in power which he argued was related to their political effectiveness and aggression.
Achievement orientation works in a similar way. People who are concerned with other people’s or their own achievement are constantly measuring success, failure, and ambition. To get a sense of the degree to which candidates are paying attention to achievement issues, listen to how frequently they use words such as win, lose, excellence, and earn. Very often, those high in achievement orientation measure themselves by the relative success of themselves compared to others. Winter has found that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were quite high in achievement orientation. Both were highly competitive in school and were known to be hard driving and ambitious from an early age.
People with a high affiliation orientation are scanning their environments for friends, close relationships, and trustworthy allies. Candidates who naturally orient to affiliation use words like help, friend, ally, family, and we. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were found by Winter to be high in affiliation orientation. Although friendship was important to both of them, not all were socially successful. Nixon, for example, wanted to be close to others but had great difficulty succeeding. He was introverted and, by most historical accounts, one of the most lonely presidents in recent time. Bush prized close friendships and used social compatibility as a central measure of other leaders’ character (his remarks about Putin, Tony Blair, and Dick Cheney are notable examples).
As noted in earlier blog posts, we analyzed the debate language of the top candidates using the computer text analysis program LIWC2015 (www.LIWC.net). The program calculates the percentage of words used by each candidate that reflected power, achievement, and affiliation. To compare the candidates on these dimensions, we have adjusted the scores across all the debates so that a score of 50 is average, a score greater than 60 is above average, and a score less than 40 is below average.
Comparing the Republican frontrunners: Trump, Carson, Rubio, Cruz, and Bush
Jeb! Bush stands out among all of the candidates in both parties as being the highest in achievement orientation. In this last debate and in the previous ones, Bush repeatedly mentioned his own successes — “we’ve had a great American success story” (referring to his time as governor of Florida) — as well as the failures of others — “We lose a fortune on trade.” (referring to policies of the current administration). Given that he is the third member of his immediate family to run for president, Bush is likely measuring his own political legacy with that of his father and brother.
Ben Carson scores in the average range on affiliation and achievement but somewhat below average on power. Being low on power orientation could reflect his being a surgeon — someone who has always had a great deal of professional power and prestige. He may feel that he has no need to check the levels of other people’s power because he is secure in his own powerful status.
Ted Cruz uses language that indicates that he is far more oriented to power and status than any other candidate in either party. In the last debate, Cruz focused on the power of others and himself by invoking militarist language with phrases such as — “armies of accountants”, “enforcing the law and defending the Constitution”, and “building a grassroots army”. In the first three Republican debates, Cruz emerged as the most power-oriented candidate no matter what the debate topic. There is a sense that in any given interaction, he first sizes up the other person’s status before deciding to pursue a conversation with them.
Marco Rubio distinguishes himself by, well, not being distinctive along any of the three dimensions. A deeper analysis, however, suggests that he bounces around in his orientation from debate-to-debate. For example, in the last debate, when discussing domestic and economic issues, Rubio used more power and achievement words. When discussing foreign policy, he used more affiliation words. In the first debate across topics, he was almost as power-oriented as Cruz across all topics but in the CNBC debate, he was nearly as low in power orientation as Trump and Carson.
Donald Trump has a similar profile to Carson. The one difference is that he is by far the lowest of any of the candidates in power orientation. This suggests that Trump is quite secure in his sense of power based on his success in business. His language hints that he does not make big distinctions in the relative status of others.
Comparing the Democratic frontrunners: Clinton and Sanders
Hillary Clinton is somewhat above average in achievement orientation and, perhaps surprisingly, somewhat below average in power orientation. Similar to Jeb Bush’s situation, Hillary’s high drive for achievement could reflect an implicit comparison with her husband’s presidency. The somewhat low power drive indicates she is not overly concerned with paying attention to the status of others. Like Carson and Trump, she comes to the debates with a very strong track record and likely feels relatively secure in her own power.
Bernie Sanders is below average on achievement orientation and above average in power. He is far less concerned with winning or losing points within the traditional political arena. Rather, he seeks to bring about a fundamental change in the culture. He is not conforming with the status quo but rather trying to overthrow it, or, as he said in the last debate, “What my campaign is about is a political revolution.”
Trends and Takeaways
Three trends are important to note. First, power orientation is related to how well candidates’ campaigns are going. The three candidates with the lowest concern for power are those who have been leading in the polls for quite some time. Second, the two candidates highest in achievement orientation are those with a family legacy in politics. Third, overall the Democratic candidates have slightly higher concerns with affiliation than the Republican candidates. This could reflect the tone of the debates or the underlying philosophies of the two parties.
This set of analysis reveals something not only about the personalities of the leading presidential candidates but also suggests how these candidates may approach the office of president. As the election season progresses, we will examine new ways of understanding the mindsets of the remaining candidates and examine how they are changing over time.
Hogenraad, R. (2005). What the words of war can tell us about the risk of war. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 11(2), 137-151. doi:10.1207/s15327949pac1102_2
McClelland, D. C. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton: VanNostrand.
Winter, D. G. (2011). Philosopher-king or polarizing politician? A personality profile of barack obama. Political Psychology, 32(6), 1059-1081. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00852.x
Winter, D. G. (2005). Things I’ve learned about personality from studying political leaders at a distance. Journal of Personality, 73(3), 557-584. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00321.x
by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin
After a spirited third debate among the Republicans, we are seeing how the Republicans are shaping up. In this post, we check out how the frontrunners – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorino, and Ben Carson – compare across the debates in terms of time orientation. Are they stuck in the past, rooted in the present, or looking to the future?
Time orientation is tied to reward sensitivity, impulse control, need for consistency, age, culture, and political orientation. At its core, time orientation tells us where people are looking and how they are relating to events. People focusing on the past are thinking about events that are certain, unchangeable, relatively knowable, and somewhat psychological distant. People who talk about the past rely on historical events when making decisions about about the present and future. Research in our lab also suggests that past-oriented people tend to be relatively liberal, optimistic, and well-adjusted.
People oriented towards the present are thinking about current events that are psychologically close. Present-focused people tend to be more neurotic, depressed, and pessimistic than either past- of future-oriented people. Among students in college, a present-focus predicts poorer class performance — probably because it hampers their ability to look at the big picture.
Future-oriented people focus on events that are not certain or knowable but are changeable and unpredictable and, like past events, are psychologically distant. Our research with thousands of students suggests that a future orientation is associated with general anxiety or worry with a deep sense of responsibility and conscientiousness. Consequently, future orientation can be the result of a need for security, safety, and tradition.
It is relatively easy to measure time orientation by analyzing the words people use in everyday language using our text analysis program, LIWC2015. A past focus includes past tense verbs as well as words such as earlier and yesterday. A present focus includes present tense verbs and words like now and currently. A future focus involves using words such as will, foresee, and plan.
Note. Word frequencies of each time orientation were standardized (z-scored) based on all debate speakers then the standard score was divided by the sum of the absolute values of scores of all time orientations and re-scaled such that a score of 50 represents the average across candidates. Within candidates, scores greater than 50 indicate that time orientation is dominant relative to the other orientations.
The graph is based on the debate language of the five Republican frontrunners in terms of their time orientation. People can be high or low on each of the dimensions. So, for example, Bush is high on both past and future orientation whereas Trump is relatively high on all three. (In fact, Trump’s time orientation is unlike anyone else’s). What’s most interesting, however, is to focus on the highest dimension for each person.
Bush stands out by being the highest in past orientation. It is consistent with his being relatively optimistic and upbeat. And, in comparison to the other candidates, relatively liberal (we’ll keep this little secret to ourselves — his campaign would not like to hear this). In the last debate, Bush focused more on his own past record (and the past mistakes of others) than the other candidates while still keeping an eye to the future.
Carson is unique in having a much higher focus on the present than to the past or future. Such an approach would hint at his not using much evidence from the past or long term considerations about the future in his decisions. As he is a relative newcomer to politics, he could be focusing on pressing, present problems without having a political past to draw from or a clear direction for future goals. Interestingly, this pattern might suggest that he could be more unhappy or worried than he sometimes appears.
Fiorina and Rubio have similar profiles — highest in future orientation and lowest in past. Consistent with other findings, this strategy reflects their deep concerns about security, instability, and the unpredictability of the future. They would like to focus on making plans to improve the future with a sense of responsibility and dedication. Like Carson, this pattern could indicate that Fiorina and Rubio may be more anxious or worried than they let on.
Finally, there is the odd man out — Donald Trump. Trump is slightly higher in future orientation but is still above average in past and present orientation. This pattern suggests that Trump has a more balanced time orientation and may shift his focus depending on the situation or topic. For example, when asked about economic issues in the last debate, Trump often referenced his past in business, but when asked about immigration, he focused more on his plans and goals for the future. Overall, it is premature to characterize Trump along the time dimensions; as he said in the last debate, perhaps he just likes being unpredictable.
Like our last post, these analyses reveal how the candidates are approaching the issues and give a hint as to how they may act if elected. There are a couple of ways in which the current analyses accomplish this. One, they give a sense of how the candidates are orienting their campaigns. Are they stuck rehashing past successes and failures or are they actually looking to the future and planning what they would do if elected? Two, these analyses hint at how the candidates may approach problems. What are the qualities that make a good president — optimism, pessimism, or conscientiousness, perhaps? How might a president with these different qualities approach decisions?
This analysis is only one part of the bigger picture. In weeks ahead as the election season progresses, we will be focusing on different dimensions of language to provide an in-depth, global look at how these political candidates are thinking and behaving.
Guo, T., Ji, L., Spina, R., & Zhang, Z. (2012). Culture, temporal focus, and values of the past and the future. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(8), 1030-1040.
Robinson, M. D., Cassidy, D. M., Boyd, R. L., & Fetterman, A. K. (2015). The politics of time: Conservatives differentially reference the past and liberals differentially reference the future. Journal of Applied Social Psychology,45(7), 391-399. doi:10.1111/jasp.12306
Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1271-1288. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1241
Through Their Words: Hillary, Bernie, and their Republican Friends — Text analysis of the first Democratic Debate
October 14, 2015
by James W. Pennebaker and Kayla N. Jordan
Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin
Computer analyses of the language of the candidates in the most recent debate reveal some basic personality and psychological differences. The primary comparisons are between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as well as the ways they differed from the most likely Republican nominees: Bush, Fiorina, Rubio, and Trump. The main findings include:
- Clinton is much more positive in emotional tone than Sanders. Her levels of positivity are comparable to the most positive Republican, Jeb Bush.
- Sanders is somewhat more of an analytical, formal thinker than Clinton. All the candidates, however, are reasonably similar with the exception of Donald Trump — who appears incapable of thinking in a formal, logical way.
- Sanders and Clinton use language that comes across as authentic and honest in ways similar to Trump. Fiorino, Bush, and Rubio are significantly lower than the others in authenticity.
- Sanders’ language suggests greater clout and more power-awareness than Clinton’s language.
- The male candidates across parties tend to use male-centric language at high rates with Sanders and Rubio being the most male-centric. For the female candidates, Clinton is balanced in her gender references while Fiorino uses slightly female-centric language.
This is the first of several brief blog posts about the 2016 election. Our plan is to use some sophisticated computer-based text analysis methods to get a better sense of the social and psychological dimensions of the candidates. No platforms or positions discussed here. Just people’s basic thinking, emotional, and interpersonal styles.
The basic system we rely on will be a computer program developed in our lab, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC (pronounced “Luke”, and available for research purposes at www.liwc.net, or for commercial purposes through www.Receptiviti.com). LIWC analyzes any kind of text and calculates the percentage of words that are emotional, cognitive, and another 80 or so dimensions. There are now hundreds of studies in political science, business, psychology, and other disciplines that have used it. For a brief summary of articles, check this link or this one. The more recent version of the program, LIWC2015, has just been released and has a number of dimensions particularly well-suited to political campaigns.
OK, let’s get serious. There are only two viable candidates for president in the Democratic race right now — Clinton and Sanders. O’Malley made a credible showing but until his ratings reach double digits, we’ll stick with the front runners. Biden may join the team eventually but let’s put him aside since he was a no-show for the October 13th debate.
Although LIWC can analyze a mind-boggling number of dimensions, we will focus on only a handful: emotional tone, thinking style, authenticity, power and clout, and sexism (relative referencing of males to females).
Historically, the American electorate has preferred more upbeat and optimistic candidates to more negative or hostile candidates. The simplest way to measure emotional tone is simply to calculate the total number of words that have a positive connotation (such as happy, success, good) or a negative one (anger, death, hurt). Across the board, Clinton was far more optimistic and upbeat than Sanders.
It’s also interesting to compare the emotional states of Clinton and Sanders to the most likely candidates on the Republican side — Bush, Rubio, Fiorina, and Trump (sorry to those of you who are rooting for Cruz or Ben Carson or one of the others — it’s not gonna happen). As you can see in the graph, Clinton’s emotional state is similar to Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Trump. Sanders and Fiorina are both impressively low.
Note that the Emotional tone index is a weighted score that ranges between 0 (very negative) and 100 (very positive).
The words people use in everyday language can reveal their natural thinking style. There are at least two ways to capture thinking styles that are related to the debates. The first measures people’s natural ways of trying to understand, analyze, and organize complex events. We have devised a metric called the categorical-dynamic index, or the CDI. A high score on the CDI is associated with analytical, formal, and logical thinking. A low score is often associated with more narrative thinking where the speaker is in the here-and-now. The CDI has been found to be related to college grades, measures of intelligence, and various markers of academic success.
The second measure, which we call Cognitive Processing, reflects the extent that people are trying to work out a problem in their minds. For example, if you were asked to describe the most efficient way to get from your home to the City Hall in a particular town about 100 miles away, you would likely use words such as think, believe, realize, know, and other cognitive processing words. However, if you knew precisely how to get there because you had driven that route dozens of times, you would not use cognitive processing words. In other words, if you are still trying to figure out a problem, you use cognitive processing terms; if you are certain that you know “the answer”, you don’t use these words.
In terms of raw intelligence and the ability to think analytically, Sanders scores slightly higher than Clinton. In fact, most of the likely Republican nominees are in the same range. The one who scores far, far below the rest is Donald Trump. Trump shoots from the hip and is guided by his intuition. He is not a logical or analytical thinker.
Of all the candidates, Hillary Clinton scores highest on cognitive processing — meaning she is someone who continues to work through issues as they come up. Bernie Sanders, however, is the lowest of all the candidates. This suggests that he has already thought through his positions and is most entrenched in his beliefs in that he is no longer thinking about them as much as the others.
Over the years, multiple labs have developed algorithms that tap the degree to which people are personal, honest, and authentic. The authenticity measure is made up of words such as I-words (I, me, my), present tense verbs, and other dimensions previously associated with telling the truth. While the Democrats are quite similar to each other in terms of authenticity, they are strikingly higher than the Republican candidates with the exception Trump.
Clout and Power-Awareness
There are at least two ways to think about power, status, and clout. The first, which we call clout, is the kind of power that is seen in a strong leader. A person with clout speaks with confidence and a sense of certainty. People who have clout tend to use we- and social words more and I-words, negations, and swear words less. Overall, Sanders uses language that suggests more clout than Clinton. Although Fiorina was far higher than Sanders in the last Republican debate and Trump was somewhat lower than Clinton.
The second measure of status is power awareness. That is, to what degree are people aware of people with more or less power than they have? When you walk into a room, to what degree do you notice the relative status of others? The power-awareness measure captures the degree to which people use words such as command, boss, and defeat. As depicted in the table, Sanders is much more power-aware than Clinton and is at the same level as the most power-aware Republican Marco Rubio. It’s interesting that Trump is by far the least power-aware of all the candidates. In his mind, he already has the most power and there is no reason for him to have to size up other people along this dimension
Male-Centric Language (A marker of sexism, perhaps?)
The ways people use words tell us where they are paying attention. If a speaker uses a high rate of words such as women, females, she and her, and relatively few references to males, the speaker is simply thinking and talking about women more. Is this sexist language? Maybe, maybe not. Does this speaker always make more references to women than men? If so, the person certainly isn’t paying much attention to people of the male persuasion.
By analysing references to females and males, we can get a sense of candidates’ natural orientations to women and men. We aren’t warranting that this is a measure of overt sexism but it may be a subtle or implicit signal of gender bias.
Check out the graph. The numbers refer to the percentage of all gender references that are male. Numbers above 50% suggest a male bias; numbers below 50% hint at a female bias. Overall, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina use gendered language very differently than the male candidates. Clinton referred to males and females at similar levels; Fiorina made more references to women than men — partly based on the questions she was asked in the last debate. The men, however, were far more gendered in their language than the women. It wasn’t even close. The two who were most male-centric were Sanders and Rubio.
In the Future
This is the first of several posts about the 2016 election. The current analyses are relatively cursory but give an interesting perspective on the most likely nominees for the Democratic and Republican parties. For more information about the current project contact Kayla Jordan or James Pennebaker. More information is available about the basic research behind LIWC and commercial uses.
Smart Language is not Smart Politics: A Computational Analysis of the 2012 Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates
November 1, 2012
By Nia Dowell, John Myers, and Arthur Graesser, Department of Psychology and the Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Memphis
It’s early November in a presidential election year, and every time candidates open their mouths, they are trying to persuade potential voters. Clearly, language is a powerful tool used by politicians to deliver persuasive messages and gain support.
With this in mind, we examined the extent to which the presidential and vice presidential candidates utilized the theoretically grounded strategies of persuasion put forth by Petty & Cacioppo (1984). Their research discriminates between two distinct paths to persuasion, namely the central route and the peripheral route.
The central route is characterized by coherent, logical, expository language, resulting in a formal complicated message. The upside of this central route is that once you are persuaded, you usually stay persuaded. That is, the central route results in a rather stable opinion and attitude change. In the political context, however, the downside of the central route is that the majority of people in the general public audience may not be motivated or educated enough to digest a message that might appear a little dry. From a political candidate’s point of view, this obviously has many detrimental consequences, maybe millions if you consider the number of “tuned out” Americans out there.
The peripheral route offers more advantages to political candidates striving to gain the support and retain the attention of the masses. The peripheral route is characterized by entertaining, narrative discourse that is more informal and easier to comprehend. As you might have guessed, successful persuasion via the peripheral route is quite temporary and unstable. However, considering that the election is less than one week away, this may be all the candidates really need.
So, now you no doubt want to know, who took what route in the recent 2012 election debates: The Democrats or Republicans?
Using a computational linguistics facility, Coh-Metrix (Graesser, McNamara, & Kulikowich, 2011), we assessed the extent to which the presidential and vice presidential candidates pursued the central and peripheral routes to persuasion.
Coh-Metrix is an automated linguistic analysis tool that analyzes text by measures of genre, cohesion, syntax, words, and other characteristics of language and discourse. Coh-Metrix is sensitive to a wide range of linguistic/discourse features that reflect multiple levels of complexity. Five orthogonal Coh-Metrix dimensions of text characteristics were identified as accounting for most of the variability in text complexity among 37,521 texts in a principal components analysis:
- Narrativity. The extent to which a text features story-like elements, such as characters and events, which are closely affiliated with everyday oral conversation.
- Deep cohesion. The extent to which the ideas in a text are connected with causal, intentional, or temporal connectives at a deeper level of semantic understanding.
- Referential cohesion. The extent to which discourse contains explicit words and ideas that overlap across sentences and the entire text.
- Syntactic ease. Sentences with fewer words and simple, less embedded syntactic structures are easier to process and understand.
- Word concreteness. The extent to which a text features concrete words that tend to evoke mental images and are more meaningful to the reader than abstract words.
Using these measures we were able to compute a composite measure of formality. Formal text is informational (rather than narrative) with high cohesion, complex syntax, and abstract words. Informal text is more narrative, with lower cohesion, simple syntax, and concrete words.
Our analysis of the presidential and vice presidential debates revealed some interesting, and potentially alarming results for the future of the democratic candidates (Obama and Biden) with regard to their persuasive impact.
Debate I: For the first presidential debate, we observe a clear difference in language formality. This difference in formality may tip the ballot in favor of Romney, with regard to persuasion. Romney came out swinging, using the language of the “people” and capitalizing on the peripheral route to persuasion. Obama had more complex syntax and deeper cohesion, but those features of language are not aligned with the peripheral route to persuasion.
Debate II: For the second presidential debate, we see a slight increase in formality for Romney compared with the first debate, but we still observe this same pattern in language formality between the candidates.
Debate III: So who’s advising the president?! In the third debate, we watched him take more than a serving of the formal discourse pie and continue to use complex and stilted language. Did he lose the attention of the masses this time around?
Vice Presidential Debate
Similarly, we witness a formal and complicated message for the democratic vice president, Biden, as he follows suite with his running partner by using the central route to persuasion. Ryan, on the other hand, is keeping it more informal and simpler, steadily keeping the attention of the masses via the peripheral route to persuasion.
The Democrats may have more formal language and appeal to the smart voters who are attracted to the central route to persuasion. However, the peripheral route to persuasion is more effective for most voters. On November 6 we shall see which route reigns supreme.
Graesser, A.C., McNamara, D.S., & Kulikowich, J. (2011). Coh-Metrix: Providing multilevel analyses of text characteristics. Educational Researcher, 40, 223-234.
Petty, R., & Cacioppo, J. (1984). The effects of involvement on responses to argument quantity over quality: Central and peripheral routes to persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 69-81.
October 22, 2012
by James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung
Pundits are reporting that the third debate on foreign policy was a toss-up, perhaps with a very slight edge in Obama’s favor. The stubbornly objective computerized text analysis program, LIWC, refused to name a winner. But in counting different types of words by Obama and Romney, LIWC revealed some word patterns that tell us a little more about the two candidates.
The candidates as communicators: businessman versus professor. Romney and Obama break down ideas and express them in very different ways. They simply think differently.
Across the debates, Romney uses shorter words and shorter sentences. He tends to be more concrete, breaking problems into more precise categories. Compared to Obama, he uses a high rate of articles (a, an, the) which reflects his reference to concrete nouns. These nouns are well organized; by his high use of prepositions and specific references to spatial words (above, around, below, outside), Romney provides a roadmap of his thoughts.
Obama tends to be a more theoretical communicator. His sentences are much longer, his words bigger, and he is much less personal. Unlike Romney, Obama often sets up a context for his thoughts. Look at the way he often starts a response to a question: “Well, my first job as commander in chief, Bob, is to keep the American people safe. “; “You’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean.“; “When I came into office, we were still bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan had been drifting for a decade.”
Compare those first sentences to some of Romney’s: “Well, my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys…“; “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria. I don’t think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage.” “Well I believe we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.”
Obama thinks about a problem within a broader context; Romney tends to answer questions directly and then brings up contextual matters after the fact. These two types of thinking are likely to lead to very different strategies in decision making. A contextual thinker will likely spend more time looking at a problem from multiple perspectives. A more categorical thinker will likely have a more set world view and simply make decisions from pre-existing values or beliefs.
Ultimately, the two candidates are revealing their backgrounds. Romney is a businessman with a clear sense of economic realities, and a bottom line. Obama is, at heart, an academic — a world where there are multiple ways to get at truth, and so competing views must be acknowledged.
Candidates as people: social relationships versus achievement. Despite the nastiness of the 2012 presidential election, both candidates have come across as honest, decent people. They both appear to have warm and stable families. One thing that a text analysis method can help uncover are some of the basic values that are central to candidates. Across the debates, the two men have made references to money, religion, death, and family at similar rates. Two language dimensions that have emerged are references to other people and references to achievement and work.
One dimension of the LIWC program counts references to anything social — people, conversations, friendship, or anything that suggests an interest in or awareness of other people. Within each of the three debates, Obama has consistently used social words about 10% more frequently than Romney. In his mind, the current economic difficulties are a problem because they hurt people.
Romney, on the other hand, has consistently used words that suggest achievement (e.g., earn, success, win). Not surprisingly, Romney has also made greater references to the related dimension of work. Work words include a variety of more economically-relevant words such as job, paycheck, and company. Whereas Obama views economic difficulties as people-problems, Romney frames the recession as something that undermines achievement, jobs, and progress.
Obviously, a recession is bad for companies and for people. But the framing of the problem reveals differences in core values about people and human nature. Ultimately, it likely drives what each believes to be the most effective solution.
The debate language of Obama and Romney. It should be noted that debates are a very peculiar interaction in which to study language use and personality. Although many labs and companies have examined the men’s language use, body language, and voice characteristics, we are most impressed by how similar the two really are. They are both smart, eloquent, formal, and trustworthy.
The analysis of pronouns and other function words is helpful in revealing how people are speaking or thinking. LIWC can also give insight into personalities and even central values. The degree to which Americans agree with what the candidates are saying remains to be determined in the upcoming elections.