Obama: Psychological Fragility or Flexibility?

February 13, 2008

People differ in the ways they face upheavals in their lives.  Many of us have natural defenses that can be seen in daily language.  One of the most interesting is the ways people use “I” and “we.”  For example, when people are feeling great emotional pain, it is common that they avoid 1st person singular pronouns such as I, me, and my.    Indeed, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, our analyses of thousands of blogs revealed that bloggers dropped in their use of “I” words and increased in their use of “we” words for several days.  By focusing attention outside of themselves, they probably felt less pain.

Of the four surviving candidates for president, all have suffered losses and experienced wins in the various primaries.  This gives us a unique opportunity to see how each person talks in their post-election speeches.


 In the bar graphs, the gray bars depict the percentage of “I” or “we” words of each candidate in their speech(es) after it was announced that they lost the election.  The yellow bars represent the candidates’ language after it was announced that they had won.  In some cases, such as Super Tuesday, all candidates won some and lost others.  If they both won and lost, we coded it as a win.

In the first graph, it is clear that McCain is the most steady in his use of 1st person singular.  Whether he won or lost, he used “I” words at almost exactly the same rate.  Obama, on the other hand, used virtually no “I” words after a loss but was comparable to everyone else when he won.


The second graph shows the candidates’ use if “we” words.  Note again that McCain is fairly steady — as are Clinton and Huckabee — in terms of the use of “we” whether they won or lost.  But look at Obama; he again stands out.  When he lost, his use of “we” words skyrockets.  In comparison, when he wins, “we” words are lower for him than any of the other candidates.

What does this mean?  Obama, in comparison with the other candidates, uses language that allows him to escape from himself after losing.  He moves from a personal to an interpersonal form of talking in the face of an upheaval. 

Is Obama emotionally flexible or emotionally fragile?  Compared to McCain and Clinton, he certainly has the least experience with the rollercoaster of politics.  To the degree this strategy helps him to cope with loss, this is a healthy strategy.  It also suggests a greater emotional vulnerability than we typically see. 



2 Responses to “Obama: Psychological Fragility or Flexibility?”

  1. Hanna Says:

    Hey there, my name is Hanna and I am a student in the Linguistics program at CU Boulder. I came across this blog a few days ago and I am very impressed with what you have found. In fact, I will be directing my fellow students to this blog as preparation for a class presentation this Friday.
    I am wondering, though, why the pronoun “we” is considered to be so much “colder” or more “distant” than “I”. It seems to me that the pronoun “we” has a potentially inclusive character to it, which should suggest that the speaker is including the audience in his or her plans.


  2. corcifefs Says:

    Hello Sir!
    I never thought I will agree with this opinion, but you know… I agree partially now.

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