No, not, never: Negations in political language

January 23, 2008

Think of the greatest presidential quotes of the last half century:

  • Ask not what your country can do for you… JFK
  • I am not a crook… Richard Nixon
  • Read my lips: No new taxes.  Bush 41
  • I did not have sex with that woman.  Bill Clinton

Any language scholar should get tingles when reading these moving statements.  The one thing they have in common is the use of a negation — a negating or denying of a thought, feeling, or behavior. 

In the 1950s and 60s, David McClelland, a Harvard personality psychologist, argued that people who used a high number of negations were attempting to control their needs for power and dominance.  They were thinking about doing something but were trying to block the thought after it had already appeared.  More recently, Dan Wegner, also a Harvard psychologist, has devoted much of his career to studying how people try to inhibit their thoughts. He’s the scientist who told people “don’t think about a white bear.”  Turns out most people are lousy at suppressing their thoughts.  Both McClelland and Wegner point to the stressful world of actively not doing or thinking about things.

Consider when we use words like no, not, and never.  I could say I’m sad or that I’m not happy.  If I say I’m not happy, I am indicating that I’m thinking about the world along a happiness continuum.  The concept of happiness is in my mind but I’m not high on it.  If I claim I won’t raise taxes, I am thinking along a taxation dimension.  That which is being negated is something I am thinking about. 

 JFK assumed that people were really thinking “what can my country do for me?”  Nixon was probably thinking “people believe I’m a crook.”  Bush was thinking about taxes and Clinton was thinking about sex.  It’s interesting that Nixon didn’t say, “I am an honest man” or that Clinton didn’t remark, “I had a platonic relationship.”

 More broadly, there are personality differences among people who use negations at high rates versus those who use them at lower rates.  McClelland would argue that high negation users are power-hungry people who are trying to control their urges.  How do the candidates differ in their use of negations in the debates?  As you can see in the graph, Huckabee and Romney are the two winners in the negations category.

Negations

This raises some interesting questions about what Huckabee and Romney are trying to inhibit.  A look at their negations in the last Republican debate reveals some interesting trends. (For a general list of Huckabee’s and Romney’s negation phrases in The January 11 New Hampshire debate, click here.)

Some Huckabee negations:

  • I hope we’re not headed for a recession..
  • They ought not be afraid of seeing a police car.
  • I’m not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines in it.

Some Romney negations:

  • I just haven’t heard your position; I don’t mean to be critical…
  • …Iran represents a very serious threat. I do not believe this action was taken by rogue elements…
  • …but we’re not going to say to people who’ve come here illegally, “You have a special pathway…”

Huckabee is thinking about a recession, about feeling fear when seeing a police car, and feelings of shame about his faith.  And Romney is thinking that he might be critical, that rogue elements may be involved, or that illegal aliens have a special pathway.  Huckabee and Romney ARE thinking along these dimensions and, at the same time, they are making an effort to distance themselves from their thoughts.

What’s it all mean?

Some researchers would conclude the Huckabee and Romney are more motivated by power than the other candidates.  Others would argue that the two are holding back or inhibiting their thoughts and feelings more than others.  That is, they are concealing sides of themselves that they don’t want others to see. (But then, who isn’t).

It might be worthwhile to start paying attention to what candidates negate or deny.  If someone says, “I’m not saying xxx” you can translate that into “I am thinking about xxx.”

JWP

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