The VP Debate: Biden vs Palin

October 2, 2008

It’s official.  Biden and Palin speak differently — but not in the ways many people think.  Biden uses language in a way that suggests he is more personal, honest (higher rates of I), and socially engaged (third person pronouns) whereas Palin is surprisingly emotionally distant ( more “we” words).  Palin uses more positive emotion words more than Biden but doesn’t differ from him in the use of negative emotions. 

The most striking differences appeared for a variety of cognitive dimensions.  As a thinker, Biden proved to be more specific and concrete (higher use of articles and nouns), concerned with specific numbers, and showed signs of being more cognitively complex in talking about issues (exclusive words). Palin, on the other hand, proved to be someone who thinks more about the perspectives of others — especially her audience.  Through her use of cognitive mechanism words (e.g., words like realize, think, believe), she was subtly acknowledging that there were different answers or approaches to the issues.  She is not the narrow-minded true believer many of her critics were hoping to see.  Not surprisingly, Palin was not as crisp or polished in her thinking and in her answers as Biden.  The best evidence for this was her complicated sentence structure (prepositions) and high rates of conjuctions and inclusive words — general markers of rambling and vagueness.

More to follow.  But in the meantime, here are the numbers:

Category

Examples

Biden

Palin

 

Interpretation

Word count

 

7372

7741

*

Palin talks more

Words per sentence

 

16.13

19.50

**

Palin longer sentences

Big words (over 6 letters)

 

16.05

16.81

 

Palin bigger words

Personal pronouns

 

9.06

8.68

 

 

   1st person singular

I, me, my

3.02

2.31

*

Biden more personal

   1st person plural

We, our

2.18

3.51

**

Palin more formal, distant

   2nd person

You, yours

1.25

1.51

 

Palin more aggressive, pointed

   3rd person singular

He, she, her

1.34

0.89

*

Biden more social

   3rd person plural

They, them

1.26

0.45

*

Biden more social

Indefinite pronouns

It, those

6.12

7.76

**

Palin more vague

Articles

A, the

7.21

5.65

**

Biden more concrete, less abstract

Verbs

Walk, went

16.02

15.22

 

Biden more dynamic

Auxiliary verbs

Is, have

10.46

10.09

 

 

   Past tense

Was, gave

3.89

3.02

 

 

   Present tense

Am, is

9.63

9.97

 

 

   Future tense

will

1.28

0.98

 

 

Common adverbs

Very, really

4.07

6.19

**

Palin more “flowery”

Prepositions

To, for, of

13.51

14.66

*

Palin more detailed

Conjunctions

And, or, whereas

5.64

8.16

**

Palin more extended sentences

Negations

No, not, never

2.20

1.51

*

Biden censoring himself

Quantifiers

Much, few

2.22

2.61

 

 

Numbers

Six, 12

2.43

0.92

**

Biden more specific

Social references

Friend, we, talk

10.66

10.75

 

 

Overall emotion words

Happy, hurt, kill

4.69

5.58

 

 

  Positive emotions

Happy, nice

3.35

4.25

*

Palin more positive

  Negative emotions

Sad, nasty, bad

1.45

1.34

 

 

      Anxiety, fear

Worry, scared

0.12

0.13

 

 

      Anger

Angry, hate

0.64

0.78

 

 

      Sadness

Depressed, cry

0.15

0.14

 

 

Cognitive mechanisms

Think, should

16.26

18.41

**

Palin more social thinking

   Insight

Realize, know

1.55

1.87

 

 

   Causal

Because, reason

2.02

2.07

 

 

   DIscrepancy

Would,could

1.56

1.69

 

 

   Tentative

Maybe, perhaps

1.75

1.38

 

 

   Certainty

Absolute, certainly

1.84

1.49

 

 

   Inhibition

Blocked, stop

0.56

0.44

 

 

   Inclusive words

With, and

5.41

7.67

**

Palin over inclusive

   Exclusive words

Except, but

2.62

2.36

*

Biden more cognitively complex

Relativity

Times, going, over

12.09

12.58

 

 

   Motion

Went, fly

2.16

2.20

 

 

   Space

Area, under

5.83

6.72

 

 

   Time

Hour, clock

3.95

3.46

 

 

Content Categories

 

 

 

 

 

Work

Job, paycheck

3.54

3.95

*

Palin focuses on work and jobs

Achievement

Try, succeed

2.03

2.79

*

Palin higher in achievement motives

Leisure

Games, tv

0.20

0.68

 

 

Home

Garage, yard

0.53

0.37

 

 

Money

Cash, debt

2.18

1.89

 

 

Religion

God, church

0.20

0.09

 

 

Death

Dead, cemetery

0.39

0.25

 

 

The numbers represent the percentage of total words that were spoken by the candidate. So, for example, 2.79% of all the words used by Sarah Palin were associated with achievement (words like try, succeed, win) compared with 2.03% of Biden’s words.  These numbers were generated by the computerized text analysis program LIWC, or Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (www.liwc.net).

James W. Pennebaker

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3 Responses to “The VP Debate: Biden vs Palin”

  1. movie fan Says:

    the VP debate was stunning. Palin did a decent job faking about 20% of the questions and didn’t even bother answering the other 80%.

    i couldn’t help thinking of the end of the movie Billy Madison, when the debate moderator says to Adam Sandler, “Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

  2. Chris Desopoulos Says:

    It’s interesting that Palin comes out as more detailed. I would have to review the debate to back this up, but as I recall it she was very short on details. I wonder if there isn’t need for a component in this type of analysis where you examine a person’s capacity to mimic certain traits.

    A personal example… I have a habit of “making up facts”. That means that I pronounce something to be so when in fact I have no idea. I can speculate as to how it could, or even should be so. But most important for success is that I *sound* authoritative. Think of the tone of voice when the movie ad declares, “This is the most important movie of the year.”

    Ok, so we know that marketing has raised the mimicry of knowledge and authority to a high art (I made up that fact). So why wouldn’t a person — a public speaker, perhaps — mimic language traits without providing the indicated substance? Especially a person trying to achieve authority? And so why would Sarah Palin *not* show traits of more detail when in fact she provides the least amount of it? If this is a trait that gave her success in the first place, it makes sense that she would “select” this trait in the future (naturally speaking).

    So I think we’d really learn something about a speaker if we analyzed word usage on the one hand, and then compared the indications with the objectively measurable substance. It should be possible to extract from a speech the details that correspond to known things, and quantify them. If usage indicates an open and honest person, then a round of fact checking should also be done as a relief. What would we learn if the substance check complimented the word usage? What would we learn if it didn’t?


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