Clinton and Obama: Signs of dominance shifts

January 22, 2008

Last night’s debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina brought a new edgy tone to the debates — especially between Cliniton and Obama.  Analyses of their pronouns suggest an interesting evolution in their relationship and possibly sense of power, status, and control.  As Clinton’s self-assurance is increasing, Obama’s may be dropping.

 People’s use of the word “I” and other 1st person singular pronouns (me, my, mine, myself) has been found to be related to honesty, depression, low self-esteem, low dominance, and being less personal.  In interactions among two people, our research shows that the higher status person generally uses I-words at much lower levels than the lower status person.  Yes, you read that correctly. Intuitively, we think that I usage is linked to boasting and self-assurance.  Intuitions are often wrong.

Look at the history of the use of I-words in the debate by both Clinton and Obama.  Last night’s debate was a mere continuation of the trend of Clinton’s dropping usage of I and Obama’s increasing use of it.

Shifts in I among Dems

These effects are not subtle at all.  Clinton has dropped over 30% in her I-words since the November and December debates whereas Obama has increased over 50%.  Hillary IS finding her new voice but she actually got it before the Iowa primary.  She just didn’t know it.

Obama’s shift could be interpreted many ways.  The least flattering is that he is feeling increasingly subordinate, threatened, even slightly depressed.  Alternatively, he may be working to appear more personal and honest.  My sense, however, is that it is quite difficult to modulate one’s use of I, me, and my.  I’d put my money on the emergence of a new dominance hierarchy.

A couple of days ago, it was noted that Obama was overusing 1st person plural pronouns — we, us, our, ours, etc.  “We” usage among politicians is often a sign of psychological distancing.  Given Obama’s extremely high usage of “we” compared to his use of “I”, it was suggested that his handlers have a little talk with him about it.

We shifts for Dems in January

As you can see in the graph, Obama and his handlers have been intuiting our warning. He has, in fact, been dropping in his usage of “we” words.  In fact, since the January 15th debate, he and Clinton have been using “we” words at almost identical rates. 

Today’s Big Picture

On stage in debates, Hillary Clinton is exhibiting a greater sense of mastery compared to her performance in earlier debates.  Although her “I” usage suggests that she is becoming less personal, her increasing use of “we” words suggest that she is not changing her relationship with her audience as often happens when people use the Royal “We”.  Obama, on the other hand, shows signs of increasing vulnerability and drops in self-esteem and dominance.  Most promising for his handlers is that he is becoming less vague and distant in his “we” use.



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