Winning and Losing: Clinton=stable; Obama=volatile

March 5, 2008

After each primary election, the candidates all appear on television and rally their troups.  Particularly revealing is how each person changes his or her language after winning versus losing.  There is some evidence in social psychology and business that if people succeed they tend to take credit. When they fail, they deflect the experience.  “I win; we lost.”

This pattern probably occurs as an ego-defensive maneuver. Because losing can be so painful, we do whatever we can to avoid misery and pain by turning our attention away from ourselves.

After the March 5 primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont, Clinton and McCain emerged as striking winners with Obama losing.  Since the early January Iowa caucus, all three of these candidates have experienced both stunning wins and losses. An analysis of their pronoun usage can help to tell us how they are psychologically steady versus, hmmm, less steady.

Check out the graph below.  The blue bars refer to word use in post-election comments after winning.  The red bars refer to language use after losing.  You will note that Hillary Clinton is breathtakingly stable. She uses both “I” words and “we” words at virtually identical rates whether she has just won or just lost.  McCain, too, is quite stable with “I” words whether winning or losing.  He does show an increase in “we” words after losing compared with winning.

But look at Obama.  After losing, he drops in his “I” words to almost zero. At the same time, he switches to exceptionally high rates of “we” words after losing.  This pattern was virtually identical in Obama after losing March 5th as it was after he lost in New Hampshire.


What does all of this mean?  One interpretation is that Obama is more emotionally labile than either Clinton or McCain.  An alternative interpretation is that Obama is a normal human being who responds the ways most of us would to such large wins and losses. More striking is how psychologically resilient both McCain and Clinton appear to be.

As a final note, these analyses are based on canned speeches by the candidates. It’s not clear if their words reflect their personalities or their election team’s psychological states.



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