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 (  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.

drive orientations

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

p2 time orient

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:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1271

by James W. Pennebaker and Kayla N. Jordan

Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin

Executive Summary

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, or for commercial purposes through  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).

Emotional Tone

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).

Thinking Style

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.

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:

  1. Narrativity. The extent to which a text features story-like elements, such as characters and events, which are closely affiliated with everyday oral conversation.
  2. 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.
  3. Referential cohesion. The extent to which discourse contains explicit words and ideas that overlap across sentences and the entire text.
  4. Syntactic ease. Sentences with fewer words and simple, less embedded syntactic structures are easier to process and understand.
  5. 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.

Presidential Debates

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.


Bottom Line

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.

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.

by James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung

The October 16, 2012 debate was interesting for several reasons.  First, there was a shift in the social dynamics between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  As you can see in an earlier post, the first debate revealed Romney to be more authentic and slightly less optimistic and warm than Obama. Both were equally evasive in answering questions.

Most striking has been the immediate reaction from pundits — who generally claim that Obama was far stronger, more assertive, and more engaged than he was in the first debate.  Others note that Romney was more defensive.  Our text analysis procedure showed that both candidates were surprisingly similar in their use of words across the two debates.  We are pleased to officially announce that peoples’ personalities tend to remain constant over time and context.

But first, the award winners.

The authenticity award: Mitt Romney.

Authenticity reflects markers of self-reflection (I-words), cognitive complexity, and relative low rates of negative emotion.  Compared to the first debate, both Romney and Obama are both becoming more authentic.  However, Romney maintains a small lead (4.6 vs 4.2; compared to the first debate where Romney beat Obama by 4.4 vs 3.5).

The warmth and optimism award: Barack Obama

In the first debate, both men were quite similar, with Obama leading slightly. In the second debate, Romney made strides in sounding more optimistic. Ultimately, however, both were consistently emotionally distant.  Contrary to common wisdom, the rate of anger words was virtually identical to the first debate.  Most pundits claim that this was a more hostile debate but in anger word usage, it wasn’t.

The evasiveness award: Barack Obama

Using Language Style Matching, or LSM, we can calculate the degree to which each presidential candidate uses language congruent with the moderator Candy Crowley or the TV-studio audience question-askers.  We assume that the more similar the language style, the more the candidate is answering the questions and reflecting the thinking of the questioner.  In the first debate, both men were equally evasive with Lehrer.

In the second debate, both men answered all the questions more directly.  However, Romney was reliably more on target with the questions than was Obama (LSM coefficients for Romney were .94 vs .92 for Obama with Crowley; .90 for Romney  vs .86 for Obama with audience questions).

Interestingly, the two candidates matched in their language styles slightly more in the second debate (LSM coefficient of .95) relative to the first debate (.92), indicating greater engagement with one another.  So, although the candidates were not firing more angry words, the more subtle language style metric indicates that the candidates are increasingly vigilant about what the other is saying; things are indeed heating up.

The Big Picture

Standing back, what does all of this mean about the basic personality or character of both men?  It’s important to emphasize that both men use language the same ways they did four years ago.  The debates are simply revealing that they are the same people we have always known.

Obama.  Barack Obama is psychologically cool.  He does not use personal or emotional language at high rates.  Although he is a narrative thinker, he is not close to people.  If you listen to the way he answers questions, he tends to provide a brief history and context.  He is highly confident in his abilities.  Above all, he is consistent.  He has probably changed less in the last four years than any other president since Franklin Roosevelt changed during their first term.

Romney.  Mitt Romney is surprisingly similar to Obama.  He is psychologically distant although he uses I-words at rates slightly higher than Obama.  He is not particularly emotional nor is he socially connected to others.  The one difference from Obama is that Romney’s thinking is very male-like.  He uses a very high rate of articles and nouns — a sign that he tends to categorize and label problems in a traditional way.  The way he approaches problem is not unlike that of George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon.

Tune into Sosolimited’s web app,, during the third debate (10/22/12) for a live language analysis.  Following the third debate, we will explore the psychological dimensions of both candidates in greater detail.

Also, check out a brief video discussion:

by Cindy K. Chung and James W. Pennebaker

In last night’s (10/11/12) vice-presidential debates, Vice President Joseph Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan presented their views on domestic and foreign policies. Martha Raddatz of ABC News moderated the debate.  Using our word watching tools, we noticed some interesting throwbacks to previous blunders, flubs, and gaffes by each party.

At one point in the evening, in defense of several unfortunate comments that Romney has made in recent weeks, Ryan made an indirect reference to Biden’s previous blunders: “I think the Vice President knows very well that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”  Biden seemed to take the comment in stride (chuckling, “But I always say what I mean.”), and took the opportunity to again emphasize Romney’s disparaging 47% comment.

Ryan was the most emotionally expressive in his word use (5.45% of his overall word use were emotional words) relative to Biden last night (4.81%), and relative to Obama (4.73%) and Romney’s (4.87%) in the first Presidential debate last week (see our 10/3/12 post below).  This effect was largely due to his greater use of negative emotion words (2.39% vs. 1.96% by Biden, 1.93% by Romney, and 1.15% by Obama).  Both vice-presidential candidates were more hostile than the presidential candidates, using anger words at twice the rate of the presidential candidates.  Based on his function word use, Ryan was by far the least authentic of the four candidates.

Interestingly, Ryan used first person plural pronouns (e.g. we, us, our, etc.) at high rates (4.56% vs. 3.04% by Biden, 2.29% by Romney, and 3.51% by Obama), perhaps having taken Romney’s erroneous introduction of his running mate as “the next President” too seriously, or more likely, perhaps subtly reaffirming Ryan’s strategic role in warming more right wing supporters to the Republican ticket.

See what else we’ve been working on….  

More analyses on Word Watchers to follow.

For real-time language-based data visualizations of the second (10/16/12) and third (10/22/12) Presidential debates, tune in live to, a collaborative project by the renowned art and technology studio, Sosolimited.


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