Emotional tone of the debates: Positive and negative emotions

January 21, 2008

The degree to which politicians express positive emotions or negative emotions has been considered one of the hallmarks of electability. We like happy, upbeat, and optimistic leaders and tend to vote against negative, dour, and pessimistic people.  How are the candidates doing?

Emotions are more complicated than most people think.  We usually think that positive emotions are the opposite of negative emotions.  Not true.  We can all be happy and sad at the same time or feel nothing at all.   Our candidates are no exception.

Consider how the candidates use positive emotion words. Examples of positive words include nice, love, good, funny, gift, etc.  As you can see in the graph below, McCain and Romney stand out in their use of these words.  These guys are practically bubbly when saying positive things.  Giuliani, on the other hand, is significantly lower in positive words than most everyone else.

Positive emotion words

The ways that the candidates are using negative emotions are less spectacular.  Statistically, there is no real difference among them.  It is interesting, however, that Giuliani is the highest — which doesn’t paint a very chipper view of the former Mayor.

Negative emotions

A final way to look at the emotional tone is to simply look at the difference between positive and negative emotions.  Overall, Romney and McCain are the most positive followed closely by Clinton.  Again, Giuliani proves himself to be the least positive in terms of his language use.

What does this mean?

When we listen to candidates talk, we usually don’t hear their individual words.  However, the more they use words that we like, the more we become receptive to their message.  Be careful in interpreting these findings however.  For the words to have a maximal effect, they must fit with the speakers’ body language and tone of voice.  Some commentators have noted that Romney seems stiff and insincere.  Positive emotions may clash a bit with that image.  By the same token, Obama and Huckabee are often viewed as warm and approachable — even though their words don’t quite match.

It makes you think.

JWP

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