The Meaning of Words: Obama versus McCain

October 12, 2008


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.


16 Responses to “The Meaning of Words: Obama versus McCain”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    I find it interesting that you note Bush used more personal pronouns than Kerry or Gore. On the one hand, perhaps that ties in with being seen as someone people would prefer to have a beer with, as has been said many times. But what I’ve noticed is that Bush is extremely fond of the pronoun I – to a fault. This is purely my perception but it seems he rarely takes any blame yet over and over again takes personal credit for things that I believes others would share credit for (ie, “we”). *I* decided, *I* told, I, I, I. So in my eyes this “personal connection” is a negative. Also, have you done any research on mispronounced words – say, “nucular” (which by the way Palin mispronounces as well; thank goodness McCain doesn’t…)?

  2. Greg Says:

    I was surprised that Obama was rated as more “negative” than McCain.
    I think as Professor says, it is hard to factor in everything. McCain snarls a lot, so I think even reading a prayer might take on a mean sound, even though the words are angelic.
    Wonderful work, Professor, and look forward to more!

  3. […] in analyzing the difference between Obama and McCain, Professor Pennebaker has this to say in on his blog: Categorical versus fluid thinking.  Some people naturally approach problems by assigning them to […]

  4. Sandy Says:

    “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.”

    This seems to be a fairly large condemnation of your expert analysis. From a linguistic and statistical standpoint, your conclusions seem hardly evident. Your data are interesting, but until you actually have linguistic (ie, scientific) studies to back up your points, it may be better to not try an analysis. It is studies like this which ultimately confuse people as to what the study of linguistics is. We do not make conclusions based upon what we feel an adverb means, or what a particular syntactic structure says about a person, etc. We make conclusions based solely on fact alone. Yes, you may conclude that in one speech, Obama may ‘use verbs more’ and McCain may ‘use articles more’, but you can conclude not one thing more than that. If your expert opinion is not much better than tea-leaf reading, please don’t call is an expert opinion.

  5. This is really interesting research. I am conducting a similar study on the usage of words, but applying it to the corporate world. Similar research has been done in the past by David G. Winter, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Rather than looking directly at the word choice, he codes transcripts of political addresses (states of the union, inaugural addresses, etc.) for a phenomenon called motive imagery, originally developed by David McClelland in the early 50’s. Motive imagery classifies language in 3 ways. Via achievement motive imagery, affiliation motive imagery, and power motive imagery. These classifications have been shown statistically to predict for future outcomes and performances in the political world. My own personal research will look at wording used by CEOs of publicly traded companies in Letters to the Shareholders and evaluate whether their language choice predicts for corporate outcomes. Fascinating stuff. I will keep an eye out.

  6. Dina Says:

    This is an interesting perspective on the presidential race however wouldn’t the analysis of the candidate speeches be an analysis of the speech writers rather than the candidates themselves? Was this somehow accounted for?

  7. I wrote a linguistic analysis of Barack Obama’s language that readers of this article might find interesting. I’d be very interested to hear any feedback your readers might have.

    It is located at called “How to Talk Barack”.

    If you’re pressed for time, I’d direct you to the final section “The Beat”, whcih is the one the one that the majority of readers find most interesting.

  8. A fascinating, if nascent, science. Intriguing, though, that Hillary did not get the nomination, although your premise would seem to predict she would have. And, as others have noted, so many other factors apply. Still, I salute you for this attempt at a new sort of analysis. (Posted about you on my blog today.)

  9. As a retired teacher; and maybe as a lover of the language, too, I have felt repeatedly unnerved by some of my student’s near compulsion to insert the word ‘like’ with such unconscious frequency that it seems (almost) to be between every second word.
    The same could be said for ‘y’know’.
    I wondered if anyone kept count on those jewels, or else had an opinion about why it has reached epidemic proportions.

  10. C Workman Says:

    I just began the (referenced) blog (having written this piece 10-9-08) and found it uncanny, as I happened upon the “Counting Words” article from a NYTimes link just this evening. My piece had not particularly been meant to have political enscathings, but oddly enough, last night also I had found myself reading some blogs at via a link I had discovered on a Ron Paul website. I suppose the nail that I am driving is: “What a small (web) world it is!”

  11. Mike Says:

    Dina makes the crucial point. In this entire analysis, you seem to be assuming that what the candidates say is representative of their personality, rather than reflecting the style (not to mention the rhetorical strategy) of their speech writers. So Obama uses more verbs than McCain. Your leap from this empirical observation to assertions about how they “understand” or “define” the world is startling. Are we to assume that McCain and Obama engage in naive stream-of-consciousness soliloquies when on the stump? An alternate hypothesis: Obama’s speech writers think independents want to know what he’ll do as president (verb). McCain’s speech writers think independents want to hear conviction about what kind of a (article) world it is that we live in. I think a more scientific approach would be to admit that we know very little about the candidates’ cognition from their word choice.

  12. Dr. Clifton Chadwick Says:

    I think a very useful and important contribution would be if you analyse “Dreams of My Father,” and Ayers’ 2001 autobiography “Fugitive Days.” You might find truly revealing results.
    Keep up your good work!

  13. Larry Gilman Says:

    Mike’s point is superb and deserves a scientifically convincing answer. Perhaps I have not drilled deep enough, but I see no description on your website of what specific texts have been used for this analysis, only a statement that “speeches, press conferences, debates, and interviews” were used. If prepared speeches are included, then of course we are not talking about Obama and McCain’s language patterns at all. We are talking the language patterns of two collective speakers or groups, groups which include the actual candidates but cannot be identified with them. The makeup of these groups may not even be stationary (speechwriters can come and go). If this is the case, we must distinguish between Obama (the man) and “Obama” (the collective speaker), likewise McCain and “McCain.” Stationary, unitary speakers cannot be assume: in fact, we know prima facie that they do not exist. This seems to me to call the whole analysis into question.

    I am also skeptical about certain statements made in the article without any footnoting or amplification. For instance, the statement that higher usage of exclusive words is associated with better college grades. The implicit causal claim seems to be that use of such words reflects an underlying stylistic or psychological bent that also issues in behaviors reflected in better grades, more honest lab work, etc. But it seems to me equally plausible that doing one’s homework in college _affects_ later word usage; and/or, if use of exclusive words precedes good college grades, that such use reflects greater literacy going into college — which may have many causes, a psychic bent (or whatever one calls it) being only one such. Complex logical distinctions are more likely to be verbalized in written nonfiction texts, I would wager, than in colloquial speech, and bookish people are more apt to talk like books — regardless of temperament. And they are perhaps more likely to thrive in text-centered environments like colleges, and even to behave appropriately (“honestly”) in them.

    I do not mean to ignorantly disparage a whole body of work, but there is some heavy convincing you have yet to undertake here. There have been too many phrenologies foisted on us in the past. And there is another very basic question of appropriateness: a method with _statistical_ validity might still be bogus if applied to _individuals_. What is the variance? What are the chances that any given individual is going to fall near the group average? If the variance is wide, then it can’t be very meaningful to analyze McCain, Obama, or any other individual person. Or, rather, I should say, “McCain” or “Obama.”


    Larry Gilman, PhD

  14. […] 3.) As we all know, it isn’t just what you say, but how you say it. The NY Times interviews James Pennebaker about his research in word counting and psychology. Interested? Find out what it could tell us about Obama and McCain. […]

  15. […] Talvez o apoio do general republicano Colin Powell tenha sido o cheque-mate na candidatura John McCain, mas a vitria do candidato democrata Barak Obama talvez j tenha sido anunciada h muito tempo: quando ele escolheu ser mais positivo, centrar sua imagem na mudana futura e ao usar termos como “hope” para sua campanha. Segundo o professor de Psicologia James W. Pennebaker, da Universidade do Texas, um dos maiores especialistas em linguagem e pesquisador de discursos e linguagem que vo dos Beatles ao Al Qaeda, d pra prever at as diferenas de estilo de governo com base na linguagem expressa. No seu excelent blog WordWatchers, o prof. Pennebaker faz uma verdadeira devassa nos principais eventos da eleio americana, contando at pronomes usados nos debates e fazendo soma de palavras que expressam conjuntos semelhantes de emoo. Recentemente ele foi assunto de uma tima matria no The New York Times – He Counts Your Words (Even Those Pronouns) – que tambm muito interessante e analisa, entre outras coisas, os hbitos dos mentirosos e as expresses mais usadas por doentes que se curam mais rpido. Trecho de uma anlise sobre as atuais eleies americanas, que do vantagem a Obama por sua linguagem: (…) 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. ~ James W. Pennebaker, The Meaning of Words: Obama vs McCain […]

  16. Bernie Burogis Says:

    A person’s spoken word is not the ultimate measure of an individual personality traits (whether cognitive or non-cognitive.. etc, etc.. ), that is exactly why the lie detector is invented. All people can fabricate the words they want to say including you Mr. Pennebaker, you just told us it is still in its infancy! Linguistic Inguiry & Word Count is only a method of analysis and predictions!! A person’s action is much better than a text or word!! Like the proverb do not judge a book by its cover!!

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