Kayla N. Jordan, Ph.D.

Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election is in full swing as the candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, have officially been nominated by their parties. Although these two candidates are the oldest on record, they are quite different in both policy and personality. How might these differences (and potential similarities) be quantified? As they square off in the 2020 presidential election, I will be exploring many of linguistic features including thinking style, authenticity, and motivation. That said, in this first post, I analyze the content of their nomination acceptance speeches to explore the visions they have for the nation.

 The figure below shows the words most frequently used by the two candidates, Biden in blue and Trump in red. General patriotic (e.g. great, America, people) and government (e.g. president, nation, country) words obviously featured in both speeches. However, two telling differences emerge. First, the candidates have different policy priorities. Biden’s speech was light on policy details but focused on work and family (e.g. work, back, promise, love). Trump’s extra-long speech hit many of his signature policies with a specific focus on law and order (e.g. police, illegal, enforcement, borders). Second, Trump was explicitly partisan using his opponent’s name 30 times and making the case for Republicans this election. Conversely, Biden never used his opponent’s name and did not explicitly evoke party politics (using the word democrat only once and never referring to republicans) keeping the focus on himself rather than his opponent.

Though Trump and Biden used some of the same words, they did not always mean the same thing. To understand the different views Trump and Biden had on important concepts, I calculated which words in the speeches were most often associated with two terms: ‘Americans’ and ‘country’. In the figure below, the blue word cloud represent the words Biden used more often when talking about Americans and the red cloud are the words Trump used more often when referring to Americans. For Biden, the most important feature about Americans currently is how they have been impacted by the pandemic. For Trump, the view of Americans seems darker suggesting dangers to rights and liberties.

Both candidates also referenced ‘our country’ multiple times in their speech but based on the figure below (Biden in blue and Trump in red), they have different perceptions of the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Democratic nominee, the top issues for the country in Biden’s view are health, education, and the environment. Furthermore, Biden focused on the nation’s ongoing problems with justice and inequality. True to his brand, Trump’s view of the country’s top issue was immigration. Rather than thinking about the country’s internal issues Trump was fixated on potential external threats.

While many posts on this blog focus on uncovering the psychological states and processes of the candidates, their language also reveals their perspectives and visions for the nation. In the nomination acceptance speeches, President Trump and former Vice President Biden presented wildly different views for the future. Biden’s vision focuses on American families and improving the lives with changes to health, education, and work. Trump’s vision focuses on tradition and protection seeing the way forward through the past and through freedom from interference. As they meet in debates and continue their campaigns, we will have more opportunities to learn about both the candidates themselves and their plans, but these two speeches provide a clear picture into the candidates’ perspectives on the nation. Check back in the next week for further analysis of the candidates’ acceptance speeches and other texts.

Contact me at kjordan@harrisburgu.edu. Thanks to Kate Blackburn for helpful comments.

Kayla N. Jordan, Ph.D.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

 

The parties’ conventions are now over. The candidates have accepted their parties’ nominations, and the general election has officially begun. In the coming weeks, we will learn more about the candidates in debates, stump speeches, and other events. Before that, it is worth looking at what we can glean about the candidates from their convention speeches. In this post, I explore the two vice presidential candidates: Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence. In a LIWC analysis of their speeches, two features stood out: their motivations and risk orientation.

David McClelland’s motivation theory posits three major drives of human behavior: power, affiliation, and achievement. In studies of U.S. presidents, power motivated presidents (like FDR and LBJ) tend to be rated more effective by historians but are also more likely to enter a war. Affiliation motivated presidents are often good negotiators but can be weighed down by scandal (like George W. Bush and Nixon). Achievement motivated presidents (like Woodrow Wilson) can be highly idealistic but also ineffectual. Here I measure these motivations using LIWC2015 where power motivation is indicated by use of words like leader, demand, and strength, affiliation motivation by the use of words like help, family, and ally, and achievement motivation by words like win, excellence, and gain.

During the Democratic primary, Kamala Harris scored relatively high in power motivation and relatively low in affiliation motivation. As shown in the figure below, her nomination acceptance speech showed a different set of motives. Unlike in the primaries where she was vying against other Democrats and focused on status, the now Democratic nominee for vice president was mainly concerned with affiliation. In making the case for the Democratic ticket, she focused on family and community using both personal examples (e.g. ‘She taught us to put family first—the family you’re born into and the family you choose.’) and political ideals (e.g. ‘People of all ages and colors and creeds who are, yes, taking to the streets, and also persuading our family members, rallying our friends, organizing our neighbors, and getting out the vote.’). Senator Harris seems to now be motivated primarily by social relationships and bringing the Democratic party and nation together.

Mike Pence also showed affiliation motivation in his nomination acceptance speech with talk of his family (e.g. ‘would not be possible without the support of my family’) and the nation (e.g. ‘A country doesn’t get through such a time unless its people find the strength within.). However, Vice President Pence’s speech demonstrated an equally strong power motivation. Much of his speech focused on the strength of the president (e.g. ‘Donald Trump had leadership and the vision to make America great again’) and status of the nation (e.g. ‘if you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted, then he’s not your man.’). As his own status is being threatened, perhaps it is unsurprising that Pence’s speech showed motivation to keep that status and power.

vp motives

Beyond their motivations, the VP candidates differed in their risk orientation. Pulling from regulatory focus theory, some individuals are naturally more risk averse and cautious. They prioritize safety and security in their decision-making processes. Other individuals are more risk seeking and make bold choices. They prioritize rewards and benefits when making decisions. Linguistically, risk-oriented (or risk-averse) people tend to use words like danger, defend, and disadvantage. Reward-oriented people tend to use words like better, optimistic, and achieve.

In the Democratic primary, Harris tended to balance risk and reward concerns using words indicative of each equally. The figure below, which shows the relative use of risk versus reward language, indicates a slight shift in Harris’s orientation. In her acceptance speech, Harris was significantly more reward-oriented. Rather than focusing on dangers, Harris focused on the benefits that could come with a Biden-Harris administration (e.g. ‘not just to get us through our current crises, but to somewhere better’). Mike Pence, on the other hand, considered risks and rewards more equally in his speech. His speech outlined the accomplishments and goals of the Trump-Pence administration (e.g. ‘we have a President with the toughness, energy and resolve to see us through’). However, Pence also hammered home the risk and dangers of a Biden presidency (e.g. ‘Joe Biden would set America on a path of socialism and decline’). Beyond the rewards of another four years, Pence was preoccupied with the risk of an electoral loss.

vp risk

Given the age of the presidential candidates this election year, the likelihood of the eventual vice president becoming president is potentially greater than normal. Hence, understanding how Senator Harris and Vice President Pence approach problems and decisions is especially important. As a vice presidential candidate, Senator Harris is focused on bringing people together and how to make the nation better. Vice President Pence is more split in his focus. On one hand, he also considers social relationships and progress, but he is equally focused on power (his own, the party’s, the nation’s) and the risks of the other side’s plans. Soon, the VP candidates will meet in their first and only debate providing another opportunity to glean insights into how they might approach governing.

Contact: kjordan@harrisburgu.edu

Kayla N. Jordan, Ph.D.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

 

Though not running for office themselves, the wives (and all too rarely husbands) of presidential candidates are visible figures both in the campaign and in the administration. The spouses of presidential candidates are usually not directly involved in politics themselves (the Clintons being a notable exception and why I’m not including Hillary Clinton here). Michelle Obama was lawyer and community organizer, Dr. Jill Biden a teacher and professor (until just recently), and Melania Trump a model. At the parties’ conventions, the goal of the candidate’s spouse generally is to humanize and soften the candidate with their speeches often containing less political content and more stories about and focus on the candidate as a person. In this post, I consider how these words these women used reflect their views of their spouses (or in Michelle Obama’s case someone she and her husband worked closely with).

Given the goal of humanizing the candidate, the convention speeches of the spouses are often filled with personal stories without the same structure and formality that other political figures bring to their speeches. Hence, one interesting linguistic dimension to consider is analytic thinking. Analytic thinking is a composite measure of function words (like articles, prepositions, and adverbs) that captures how someone is organizing their ideas. Those high in analytic thinking organize their thoughts more formally and hierarchically; they focus on ideas and concepts. Those low in analytic thinking organize their thoughts more informally and like a story; they focus on people and actions. Check out this paper to learn more about analytic thinking in politics.

The figure below shows how First Ladies Obama and Trump (and potential First Lady Biden) compare on this metric. In her most recent speeches, Michelle Obama stands out as being relatively low in analytic thinking. Her speeches focus on the stories of the American people and their experiences rarely relying on political abstractions or symbols. Dr. Jill Biden and Melania Trump are somewhat higher in analytic thinking. They both still weave in stories and anecdotes, but their speeches contain more formal, abstract language (e.g. “Yes, so many classrooms are quiet right now. The playgrounds are still. But if you listen closely, you can hear the sparks of change in the air.” [Jill Biden], “The common thread in all of these challenging situations is the unwavering resolve to help one another.” [Melania Trump]). While personal moments came through in their speeches, Dr. Biden and Melania Trump seems to have more trouble than Michelle Obama at creating a truly human, personal story.

first ladies analytic

Potentially the single most important feature of political convention speeches is their tone. Like in previous posts, here I quantify tone using LIWC2015 which measures the difference in positive emotion words used and negative emotion words used. Across speakers at the Democratic convention (and likely the Republican convention), speeches have been more negative than normal given the current state of the nation. This same drop is seen in Michelle Obama and Melania Trump’s speeches compared to their 2016 convention speeches. Looking at just this year’s conventions however, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were much more negative than Melania Trump. The Democratic women’s negativity is seen in their focus on the numerous challenges facing the country and the criticism of the current leadership.

Melania Trump, on the other hand, though using emotional words at similar rates, was exceedingly positive in her speech. With minor nods to the pandemic and racial injustice, her language was generally optimistic focused on opportunity and hope. That said, the words she used do not quite capture the full picture of her speech. For those who watched these speeches, the tone of Melania Trump’s words didn’t seem to match her nonverbal communication. Whereas Michelle Obama and Jill Biden used not only emotional words but also emotional facial expressions and intonation, Melania Trump’s words may have carried emotion, but her facial expressions and tone were rather flat. Watching her speech, one may come away with the perception that it was an unemotional speech rather than an optimistic one.

first ladies tone

First ladies (or potential first ladies) likely do not impact voter’s perceptions of the candidates to a great extent. However, their words provide an interesting perspective on the candidates which might reinforce positive perceptions or mitigate negative ones. In this year’s conventions, Dr. Jill Biden and Melania Trump humanized their husbands to some extent but may have been a bit too abstract. While circumstances led one to an optimistic speech and the other to a more pessimistic one, both clearly believe their husband is up to the nation’s current challenge and the job of president. Check back in soon for a look at the vice presidential candidates as the RNC begins to wrap up.

Contact: kjordan@harrisburgu.edu

Kayla N. Jordan, Ph.D.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

While the Republican National Convention started this week, I want to look back at one speaker from the DNC last week and consider how the past and present of the Democratic party might be illuminated by one of their most popular figures. Making his fifth appearance at the Democratic National Convention, former President Barack Obama spoke eloquently in support of his former VP, Joe Biden. While the current unprecedented situation calls for an unprecedented speech, it is worth considering how President Obama has changed through his many DNC speeches. Here I consider three features of his language: optimism, self-focus, and certainty.

In his breakout speech, soon to be Senator Obama’s soaring rhetoric was filled with emotion and optimism. A linguistic analysis of the differences between the use of positive emotion words (happy, good) and negative emotion words (hate, kill) bears out this perception. As can be seen in the figure below, in his following speeches, he remained quite the optimist. His tone dipped a bit in his first nomination acceptance speech in 2008, but the nation was in a recession. While still on the positive side, Obama’s speech last week was the most negative he has ever given at the DNC. Likely this slightly darker tone reflects that not only is the economy once again doing poorly (like in ’08) but also there is a pandemic as well as existential threats to America’s democratic institutions.

obama tone

Another interesting trend in President Obama’s DNC speeches is his declining use of I-words (e.g. I, me, mine, my). The use of the self-focused pronoun ‘I’ can be surprisingly informative. Psychological studies have found high use of I-words to be linked to greater honesty but also greater insecurity. Low use of I-words, on the other hand, is linked to greater self-confidence and security but also can come across as impersonal and distant. Obama used fewer I-words than any modern president and examining his DNC speeches reveals that he has used them less and less over time (in his DNC speeches at least). Already a self-confident individual, President Obama has become even more so as he has solidified his place in the Democratic party. While his elevated rhetoric may evoke distance, he spoke more authoritatively than ever in his support of this former vice president and his own legacy.

obama i-words

Finally, a surprising trend in President Obama’s speeches has been increasing uncertainty. Cognitive processing (indicated by words like think, believe, could, know) is a measure of how much a person is still working through an issue and trying to find a solution. Often, people who use fewer such words come across as very certain and unshakable in their beliefs. Since his first speeches in 2004, Obama has shown a nearly linear increase in cognitive processing. A plausible reason for his increasing uncertainty is increased complexity and unpredictability of his world, going from a young state legislator running for the Senate to presidential nominee to president to Democratic party leader. Given the election of Trump in 2016, Obama may still be working through how the nation has changed and the best way to reach the American people at this unprecedented time.

obama cogproc

The changes in President Obama’s life (and the Democratic party to some extent) over the last decade and a half are reflected in his language. An optimist who, like all of us, has become a bit less optimistic in the current crisis, and a self-confident, experienced leader who realizes that simple answers may not always exist.

As we move into the Republican National Convention this week, it will be interesting to see how the leaders of the Republican party compare to Obama and the other Democratic leaders. Check back later this week for direct comparisons between Democratic and Republican figures during their conventions including Kamala Harris versus Mike Pence and Joe Biden versus Donald Trump.

Contact: kjordan@harrisburgu.edu

Kayla N. Jordan, Ph.D.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

This week saw the beginning of the 2020 Democratic National Convention with many notable political figures taking the (virtual) stage. One of these speakers was the trailblazing progressive, Senator Bernie Sanders. After another unsuccessful run at the presidency, Sen. Bernie Sanders once again gave a speech in support of someone he was recently in competition with. However, pundits have said that his speech demonstrated a stronger support of this year’s nominee, Vice President Joe Biden, than his support of 2016’s nominee, Hillary Clinton. Also, despite still not being a Democrat, Sanders seems to be more of a team player this election explicitly calling on his supporters to vote for Biden. Does his language support these perceptions? Short answer: yes.

Compared to his speech at the 2016 convention, Sanders’ speech this week was given with more certainty. In 2016, Sanders used more cognitive processing words (9.4% of his speech was words like should, believe, think). This week, only 7.6% of his speech was made up of these words indicating a greater sense of certainty in what he was saying. This certainty may be due to his desire to ensure supporters vote for Biden (instead of staying home or voting third party). He may also see Biden as a better ally than Clinton for advancing his progressive ideas.

His speech at the DNC also reflected a greater sense of affiliation with the Democratic party. When people are motivated by social relationships, they tend to use words like we, together, and ally. In 2016, affiliation terms made up 4.1% of his speech. This week, affiliation terms made up 5.7% of the words in his speech. Sanders may feel greater connection with Biden, and Sanders may also see the importance of coming together at this unprecedented time.

Two other changes in Sanders’ convention speeches are worth noting. First, while Sanders sincerely wanted Biden to succeed come November, his speech this convention may reflect some disappointment in his repeated failure to secure his own nomination. Sanders’ speech scored much lower on authenticity (dropping from a standard score of 22 to 11). To put party over ideology, Sanders may have felt the need to suppress his usual fiery, progressive style.

Second, this time Sanders was more confident in his own position within the Democratic party. Clout is a composite linguistic measure reflecting the status and power of the speaker. Sanders’ clout score increased from 2016 (79.8) to 2020 (89.2) suggesting that Sanders thinks he is in a better place within the Democratic party than he was four years ago. Check out these older posts for more info on how authenticity and clout are measured.

Once seen as a staunch Independent, Bernie Sanders has become a vital progressive figure in Democratic politics. As the progressive wing of the party grows, Sanders can provide a clue as to how progressive leaders and voters are viewing this election and Biden’s candidacy. The analysis here suggests that though they may not agree with all his positions, progressives see a Biden presidency as the only way forward at this juncture. Check back for more psychological text analyses of the 2020 Democratic and Republican national conventions as they unfold these next two weeks.

Contact: kjordan@harrisburgu.edu

 

Kayla N. Jordan, UT Austin

Former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is a recent addition to the Democratic debate stage (and Democratic party). This week was only his second appearance in the debates as he is currently self-funding his campaign and made the decision to not run in the first four primary states. To begin to catch up with the analysis done on the other candidates, this post focuses on where Bloomberg stands on three important metrics covered in past posts: thinking style, clout, and authenticity.

Thinking Style

In the very first post of this primary season, I discussed that the way candidates use words like pronouns, articles, and prepositions is a marker of analytic versus narrative thinking style. Some people naturally lean more toward an analytic, formal thinking style while others lean more toward an intuitive, informal style. From the data thus far, Bloomberg looks like the most informal of the bunch (though Klobuchar scores a close 2nd). His linguistic patterns are simple, intuitive, and not overly concerned with details and connections between ideas. There is little in the way of hierarchical, logical arguments. Rather, he focuses more on making statements and detailing his record (e.g. “I’ve trained for this job for a long time and when I get it, I’m going to do something rather than just talk about it.”).

2.25.20.Analytic

Clout

In another post, I examined the metric of clout (or confidence). Past work shows that people high in status or confident in their position tend to talk more about others while those low in status or lacking confidence talk more about themselves. With Buttigieg, Bloomberg is one of the least confident of the remaining candidates potentially due to his newness to the national Democratic party establishment. Bloomberg is often defensive or tentative in staking his place on the stage (e.g. “I don’t remember what they were, so I assume if it bothered them, I was wrong, and I apologize.”, “I’ve met with Black leaders to try to get an understanding of how I can better position myself”).

2.25.20.Clout

Authenticity

In the first post of the season, I also analyzed the candidates’ authenticity. We know from past work that when people are being honest and straightforward, they tend to talk more about themselves and their present circumstances. Politicians are often not the most authentic or honest individuals, so the differences between them can be interesting. Once again, Bloomberg stands out as the most authentic candidate (with Buttigieg a close second). For example, while his answers may not satisfy his opponents or Democratic voters, he didn’t evade questions of his past behavior (e.g. “We let it get out of control. And when I realized that I cut it back by 95%. And I’ve apologized and asked for forgiveness”, “But right now, I’m sorry if she heard what she thought she heard or whatever happened. I didn’t take any pleasure in that.”).

2.25.20.Authentic

An Interesting Comparison

Taken together, Bloomberg’s linguistic style is quite like one former primary candidate: Donald Trump. Like Bloomberg, Trump during the 2016 Republican primary debates had a very informal thinking style, was lower in clout than his opponents, and came across as highly authentic (for a politician). Beyond their shared business background and alleged past improprieties, Bloomberg and Trump seem to share a similar style of thinking about and communicating ideas. While Bloomberg might not win the Democratic nomination, his similarity to Trump makes him an interesting figure in the process.

Contact: kaylajordan@utexas.edu

 

Kayla N. Jordan, UT Austin

In the Las Vegas debate ahead of the Nevada caucus, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates clashed in arguably the most heated debate so far. Michael Bloomberg, a late comer to the 2020 primary and the Democratic party, hit the debate stage for the first time. Joe Biden struggled with disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire while Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar fought to unseat Sanders as the new front-runner. Amidst these complex dynamics, the candidates lost much of their usual congeniality attacking each other on both policy and personality.

While I usually analyze the candidates across debates, here I want to focus solely on this most recent debate. Rather than say something about the traits of the candidates, this post will consider how the candidates are reacting and interacting to each other and the ups-and-downs of the primary process. To capture the fieriness of the last debate, I examine the extent to which the candidates used positive and negative emotion. To capture the recent contentiousness of the primaries, I analyze how socially focused the candidates were as a proxy for how much the candidates may value (or not value) unity and teamwork.

Emotionality

Many methods have been devised to measure emotion from language. Here I keep with the method used in previous posts and use the positive and negative emotion dictionaries from LIWC2015. Positive emotionality is measured by words such as excellent, benefit, and respect (620 words in the dictionary). Negative emotionality is indicated by words such as fault, doubt, and unsuccessful (744 words in the dictionary). The graph below shows the percentage of each candidate’s total words that fell into one of these categories, and there are three main points of interest.

1. The least emotional candidates were Warren and Klobuchar which bucks the traditional stereotype of women being more emotional than men. Linguistically, the female candidates kept their cool last night more than their male counterparts.
2. Despite being the target of several attacks, the most positive candidate was Bernie Sanders. Klobuchar and Buttigieg were also on the more positive side. All three of these candidates used over twice as many positive emotion words versus negative emotion words. Despite defending against and instigating attacks, these candidates talked more about their own positive qualities and not just about the opponent’s bad ones.
3. Warren was the only candidate to use more negative (versus positive) emotion words. Leading off the night with attacks on Bloomberg’s record on women, Warren did not hesitate to call out issues with other candidates’ past actions or policy proposals. What is interesting is that while she spent the most time on the attack, Warren was not overly emotional in her attacks. Overall, she used the fewest emotion-laden words, and generally came across as pointing out her opponent’s weaknesses in a relatively matter-of-fact manner.

Emotion Words

Social Focus

Like emotion, the extent to which people are concerned with their social relationships can be illuminated by the words they use. With LIWC2015, social concern is measured by words such as help, talk, friend, and colleague (756 words in dictionary). Despite the general combative mood in the debate, candidates did differ in how socially focused they were and fell in three groups.

1. Warren and Biden used the most social words of the six candidates. Despite any animosity between the candidates, Warren and Biden both spent time focusing on how they need to work together to accomplish the goals they all agree on (e.g. ‘we have to change the tax code’, ‘We need to make an investment to level the playing field.’).
2. Sanders and Bloomberg were in the middle somewhat socially focused but generally focused more on conflicts between them. This can be seen in some of the interactions they had with each other. After agreeing that the rich needed to pay more tax, they devolved into personal attacks against each other (e.g. ‘the best known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses’, ‘maybe we should also ask how Mayor Bloomberg in 2004 supported George W. Bush for president”).
3. Klobuchar and Buttigieg used the fewest social words. Rather than unity and shared goals, they tended to focus more on why they themselves were voters’ best option. This can be seen in the extended back and forth they had pointing out each other’s flaws (e.g. “You have been unusual among Democrats”, “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Are you mocking me here, Pete?”).

Social Words

Looking Forward

Unlike past primary election cycles, the outcome of the Democratic primary is far from clear, and the probability of no candidate securing the nomination is unusually high. With so many candidates still in the race and the relatively high agreement between them on many issues, determining what does separate the candidates, like their communication styles and psychological traits, is potentially more important than ever. The analysis in this post demonstrates that one way the candidates differ is in how they handle conflict. It is hard to say which style would make the best candidate or best president, but hopefully the analysis can help voters determine which candidate might best match their ideal leader.

Contact: kaylajordan@utexas.edu

Kayla N. Jordan, UT Austin

While I have been focused on the Democratic candidates lately, this seemed like a good time to check in on the (presumptive) Republican candidate, Donald Trump. This week Donald Trump became the second president in modern history to give a State of the Union (SOTU) address during an impeachment trial. Unlike Bill Clinton, however, Trump is facing reelection. In this post, I analyzed Trump’s recent SOTU address compared to his first three as well as Bill Clinton’s at the time of his impeachment. Beyond exploring possible psychological impacts of impeachment, the analysis gives a peek into the mindset of Donald Trump as he gears up for his reelection bid.

In facing potential removal from office, two linguistic measures are potentially interesting: emotional tone and I-words. As discussed in previous posts, emotional tone gives a sense of a person’s general outlook by comparing their use of positive emotion words (e.g. happy, respect, love) to their use of negative emotion words (e.g. anger, hate, death). People high in emotional tone come across as upbeat and optimistic while those low in emotional tone seem pessimistic and dark. Presidents facing impeachment might be expected to become more pessimistic given their circumstances.

The use of I-words (e.g. I, my) can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, greater use of I-words is associated with honesty and authenticity. On the other hand, greater use of I-words is also associated with depression and insecurity. In their SOTU addresses, presidents, particularly those being impeachment, likely want to sound as honest and sincere as possible, but may at the same time be conveying a sense of insecurity. So what can we learn from Trump’s (and Clinton’s) SOTU addresses?

The graph below shows how Trump’s tone has shifted across his four SOTU addresses. For comparison, Clinton’s first SOTU address after he was impeached by the House as well as his three preceding SOTU addresses are included. Both Trump and Clinton show a similar pattern across their addresses with a decreasing positivity over time and an increased optimism in the SOTU address following their impeachment. A couple of possible explanations exist for this counter-intuitive optimism. First, both Clinton and Trump may have simply been optimistic about their chances of surviving the impeachment process. The second explanation is strategy; even in the face of the vote against them, they believed they were still good for the country and wanted to remind people of the positive things they’ve done (e.g. “our economy is the best it has ever been”) and plan to do (e.g. “making sure that every young American gets a great education”).

Tone_SOTU

Similar patterns are also found in Trump and Clinton’s use of I-words. For both presidents, I-words increase in the SOTU address following their impeachment. Both presidents are generally thought of as ‘authentic’, but the increase in I-words after their impeachments could further signal insecurity and a lack of confidence following the Congressional rebuke. While never directly mentioning the impeachment processes, both presidents made sure to highlight their contributions and goals (e.g. “I will send to Congress a plan… [Clinton]”, “I moved rapidly to revive the U.S. economy… [Trump]”). Such a self-focus may reflect a need to bolster their confidence after being hit with impeachment.

I_SOTU

Despite showing similar patterns in their responses to impeachment, Trump is in a unique position. Like Clinton, he is very, very unlikely to actually be removed from office. However, even if acquitted, Trump faces re-election, so it is interesting to consider how impeachment may impact his campaign style. In the 2016 election, he was relatively optimistic in the primaries, but much darker and more pessimistic in the general election. Consistent with his latest address, he tended to use I-words at high rates. So on the campaign trail, we will likely see a return of the authentic (but perhaps insecure) Trump, but will the sense of optimism he brought to the SOTU remain or will he return to the doom-and-gloom candidate of the 2016 general election?

Contact: kaylajordan@utexas.edu

Kayla N. Jordan, UT Austin

In the seventh and most recent debate, six of the remaining Democratic primary candidates battled it out as the primary season finally ramps up to the Iowa caucus. While not much new substance was learned during this debate, the candidates’ use of language can illuminate insights into their psychological states. In this post, I examine where each of the candidate’s attention is and what implications that has by looking at seemingly unimportant words: pronouns (specifically I and We).

When people use I (or me or my), they are demonstrating a greater focus on themselves and their own circumstances. On the negative side, research has shown greater use of I-words to be associated with depression and insecurity. However, greater I-word use has also been found to be related to honesty and authenticity. Hence, political candidates showing such self-focus through the use of I may be seen positively by voters as straightforward and personal. At the same time, they may be also seen as lacking confidence.

When people use we (or us or our), they are demonstrating a focus on others and the groups they belong to. Additionally, greater use of we-words can signal leadership and confidence. Political candidates who use we more may be perceived as more attuned to and concerned with the needs and attitudes of the nation (and in the case of the primary, members of their party). Like I-words, the use of we-words has potential drawbacks. An excessive use of we may come across and inauthentic and dishonest. So, where is the focus of the remaining 2020 Democratic primary candidates?

The Me Candidates. Biden and Klobuchar stand out as the most self focused candidates. They (especially Klobuchar) use significantly more I-words than we-words. In the debates, these candidates have focused more on building a case as to why they should be the candidate. They want voters to know what they’ve done (e.g. ‘I’ve been in the U.S. Senate for over 12 years.’, ‘I led that effort.’) and what they think are the best solutions to today’s problems (e.g. ‘I have a plan for that.’, ‘I lay out how I’d pay for that.’). While their high use of I-words likely contributes to voter’s perceiving them as authentic, it also may betray insecurity. Biden, even though he is leading in most polls, continues to struggle to rise decisively above the other candidates, and Klobuchar seems to have little to no chance of victory. Such uncertainties seem to bleeding through in their debate language.

The We Candidates. Three candidates stand out for their group-focus: Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg. They are focused on the concerns of the group (both the nation and the Democratic party) and what can be done to address these concerns. While they are making the decisions, they see themselves as part of a collective and confidently assert their leadership credentials to solve the country’s problems. They talk about the problems and solutions of the nation as affecting and involving everyone (e.g. ‘We have a problem’, ‘our campaign has the strongest grassroots movement’, ‘we could be using those dollars for something else’). Though these candidates might come across as more confident leaders, they also run the risk of inauthenticity. For example, all three of these candidates have been questioned on their ability to understand and relate to the concerns of African American voters perhaps making their use of we less than inclusive.

The Other Candidate. One candidate does not fall neatly in either of these categories. Tom Steyer, who has not made it into any posts so far but continues to qualify for debates, is equally self and other focused using I- and we-words at nearly identical rates. Steyer pushes his own experiences and ideas (e.g. ‘I understand how America interacts with other countries’, ‘I proposed a wealth tax’), but also talks about the concerns and responsibilities of the whole (e.g. ‘I know we can do it.’). Steyer seems to balance the best of both worlds conveying a sense of confidence and leadership along with a connection to the collective. While he still lags in the polls, perhaps this style will help him connect with voters as the primaries progress.

I and We words

Note. The y-axis depicts the average percentage of the words in the candidate’s debate language that are either I-words (e.g. me, mine, myself) or we-words (e.g. we, us, our). Averages were computed across all seven debates since June 2019. LIWC2015 was used to analyze the debate language. 

Summary. The remaining Democratic frontrunners are split between the me-candidates (Biden and Klobuchar), the we-candidates (Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg), and the in-between candidate (Steyer). Biden and Klobuchar’s use of I suggest honesty but insecurity, while Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg’s use of we suggest confidence but inauthenticity. Steyer’s use of both may help him avoid the pitfalls of a focus on one or the other. The primary contest is far from decided, and hopefully this new psychological look at the candidates helps readers gain a better understanding of these individuals as they decide who to vote for.

 Contact: kaylajordan@utexas.edu

Kayla N. Jordan, UT Austin

We all know that one person who is willing to put it all on the line. What makes that person willing to take any risk for a potential pay-off, compared to others who conservatively weigh potential benefits against potential risks? Given the implications of such differences in how people make decisions in the political domain, this post examines how the 2020 Democratic candidates approach risk and reward and what implications that might have for their leadership styles.

In psychology, a long line of research has examined risk versus reward focus. Proposed by Higgins and others, regulatory focus theory provides insight as to the implications of being more focused on reward or more focused on risk. Reward-focused individuals are often risk-takers seeking accomplishment and able to make big, progressive choices. They consider the benefits of an action, but might not really consider all the risks. Risk-focused individuals, on the other hand, tend to be more cautious seeking safety and security. They might consider the benefits of an action, but more heavily weigh the risk in order to prevent negative outcomes.

Linguistically, we can get a sense of where a person’s focus might be by looking at the words they use with LIWC2015, the psychological text analysis program used in previous posts. People who are reward-focused tend to use more words like achieve, optimistic, wager, and better. People who are risk-focused tend to use more words like avoid, defense, danger, and disadvantage. In the world of political leadership, differences in risk-reward orientation can have enormous implications for how leaders make decisions, ranging from how they handle a crisis to what policies they pursue. So which of the current candidates are risk-takers, risk-averse, or somewhere in between?

The Risk-Takers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of the candidates who have been most reward-focused are Sanders and Warren. As two of the most liberal candidates, they push big ideas that carry the potential for enormous benefits (but also potentially severe risks). From their health care plans to their tax policies, they focus on the potential positive outcomes of their proposals glossing over the potential negative consequences. Take for example the attacks Warren faced on her health care plan. While her opponents tried to focus on a potential negative outcome (i.e. a tax increase), Warren stuck to the positive outcome of decreasing costs (e.g. “what I have committed to, is costs will go down for hardworking, middle-class families.”).

More surprising, might be that Klobuchar also falls into this group. While as a moderate she tends to have more modest plans, she looks to the benefits of her proposals. Often talking about her work in the Senate, Klobuchar focused on the benefits of practical legislation. For example, in the debate over tech monopolies, while many other candidates discussed the potential negative outcomes of either action or inaction, Klobuchar put a positive spin on her proposal (e.g. “Start talking about this as a pro-competition issue”).

The Risk-Avoiders

Three candidates stood out as being risk-focused: Booker, O’Rourke, and Yang. The language of these three candidates suggest that they are focusing on avoiding negative outcomes. When weighing proposals and decisions, they may be more likely to err on the side of caution and lean toward the safe choices. Notably, the risks these candidates identified were about the other candidates’ policies or behaviors. For example, Booker repeatedly mentioned the risks of infighting amongst the candidates (e.g. “we’re not talking about the clear and existential threat in America”), O’Rourke attacked Warren’s tax policy (e.g. “Senator Warren is more focused …pitting some part of the country against the other”), and Yang tried to focus the jobs debate on the dangers of automation (e.g. “Saying this is a rules problem is ignoring the reality”).

The Middle Grounders

The remaining four candidates (barring Gabbard and Steyer who may have made the debate stage but not this post) are somewhere in the middle. Three candidates, Castro, Harris, and Biden, were lower than average on both risk and reward focus. For these three candidates, the potential outcomes of their plans or proposal were seemingly less important, and instead they relied more on their knowledge and experiences. For example, Harris often simply laid out facts (e.g. “There are states that have passed laws that will virtually prevent women from having access to reproductive health care.”) or relied on anecdotes and personal experience (e.g. “as a former prosecutor, I know a confession when I see it.”). Joe Biden took a similar approach while also spending a lot of time defending himself and his past decisions (e.g. “Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”).

Pete Buttigieg may be the most interesting case as he was above average on both risk and reward focus. Unlike the other candidates, he seems to more completely balance risk and reward. Ensuring positive outcomes is important, but potential negative outcomes should be considered and mitigated. For example, in responding to the plans of other candidates, he argued that grand plans are good but they should be tempered with what is safe and practical (e.g. “Yet there are some here on this stage who say it doesn’t count unless we go even further…We have an opportunity to do the biggest things we’ve done”). Potentially more than the other candidates, Buttigieg recognizes the importance of dreaming big, but also the importance of recognizing what actually has a reasonable chance of success.

10.115.19.Risk-Reward

Summary

The top Democratic candidates differ widely in how they approach decision making. Some, like Warren and Sanders, are risk-takers seeking to maximize benefits. Others, like Booker and O’Rourke, are more circumspect seeking to minimize bad outcomes. Still others, like Biden and Harris, look more to their own experience rather than the potential outcomes of their decisions. Only one candidate, Buttigieg, seems to really balance the costs and benefits of policies. While your own risk-reward orientation may make one of the candidates more attractive than others, hopefully this post gives you a better sense of how the candidates might approach decisions if elected.