By James W. Pennebaker

What does it mean when the candidates use language differently?  Here and elsewhere, language experts have argued that word use can be associated with electability, sociability, and thinking patterns of the candidates.  Although it is tempting to use text analysis programs to predict who will win, one should be wary.  Perhaps a safer bet is to use language markers as correlates of people’s social, cognitive, and personality styles.  That is, we should be thinking beyond electability and towards possible governing styles.

Predicting who will win.  Over the years, several research teams have found that the degree to which candidates express optimism and positive emotion is linked to electability.  We have found this as well.  Bill Clinton and George W. Bush used more positive emotion words and future tense verbs than any of their rivals in the presidential debates and interviews.  No other language dimensions have predicted voter preferences as well. 

This year, in the primaries, John McCain was the most optimistic whereas Hilary Clinton was consistently more positive than Barack Obama.  Since the conventions, McCain has continued to be far more positive in his language use than Obama.  Interestingly, McCain has expressed more negative emotion as well.

Optimism may have its limits.  Unlike virtually every other presidential election in memory, the 2008 contest is taking place in a highly threatening, anxiety-provoking economic time.  A less emotional orientation could well be more appealing than it has been in the past.

 Predicting how they will govern.  Most language dimensions that we study are probably better markers of how people will lead than who will vote for them.  Some dimensions that are relevant include:

Cognitive complexity.  A particularly reliable marker of cognitive complexity is the exclusive word dimension.  Exclusive words such as but, except, without, exclude, signal that the speaker is making an effort to distinguish what is in a category and not in a category.  Those who use more exclusive words make better grades in college, are more honest in lab studies, and have more nuanced understanding of events and people.  Through the primaries until now, Obama has consistently been the highest in exclusive word use and McCain the lowest.

Categorical versus fluid thinking.  Some people naturally approach problems by assigning them to categories.  Categorical thinking involves the use of articles (a, an, the) and concrete nouns.  Men, for example, use articles at much higher rates than women.  Fluid thinking involves describing actions and changes, often in more abstract ways. A crude measure of fluid thinking is the use of verbs.  Women use verbs more than men.

McCain and Obama could not be more different in their use of articles and verbs.  McCain uses verbs at an extremely low rate and articles at a fairly high rate. Obama, on the other hand, is remarkably high in his use of verbs and low in his use of articles.  These patterns suggest that McCain’s natural way of understanding the world is to first label the problem and find a way to put it into a pre-existing category.  Obama is more likely to define the world as ongoing actions or processes.

Personal and socially connected.  Individuals who think about and try to connect with others tend to use more personal pronouns (I, we, you, she, they) than those who are more socially detached.  Bush was higher than Kerry or Gore.  McCain has consistently been much higher than any other candidate in this election cycle. His use of 1st person singular (I, me, my) is particularly high which often signals an openness and honesty.  Obama uses personal pronouns at moderate levels – similar to Hillary Clinton and most other primary candidates of both parties.

Restrained versus impulsive.  People vary in the degree to which they act quickly or shoot from the hip versus stand back and consider their options.  Over the last few years, some have argued that the use of negations (e.g., no, not, never) indicate a sign of inhibition or constraint. Low use of negations may be linked to impulsiveness.  Bush was low in negations whereas Kerry was quite high.  Across the election cycle, Obama has consistently been the highest user of negations – suggesting a restrained approach – where as McCain has been the lowest – a more impulsive way of dealing with the world.

The limits of text analysis.  Language use is highly dependent on context.  Most people use far more personal pronouns when talking with friends than when giving a formal speech.  Nationally televised debates, interviews, and stump speeches are highly unusual language settings.  To the degree that the candidates are using their own words, they provide us a glimpse of the ways they are thinking and dealing with their worlds. 

 Because every election is different, it is important to weigh the cultural context of the time.  During economic upheavals, wartime, or other unusual periods, normally-abnormal speaking patterns may now be quite normal and vice versa.  One can imagine a number of new methodologies growing from this election.  For example, it might be instructive to use natural language use in blogs or the media as an indicator of cultural context by which to compare future candidates’ word use.

Finally, no one should take any text analysis expert’s opinions too seriously.  The art of computer-based language analysis is in its infancy.  We are better than tea-leaf readers but probably not much.

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