Synchronized Interviewing: McCain and Obama’s interactions with the media

October 28, 2008

by Molly Ireland

Most of us can probably recall times when we felt powerfully in sync with a person during a conversation, for better or worse. While in friendly situations synchrony often translates to simultaneous laughter and increased rapport, in less friendly contexts synchrony might take the form of synchronized suspicion and mutual outrage that the other person refuses to bend to our will.

Language Style Matching. In our lab at the University of Texas at Austin, we’ve been studying a specific kind of verbal synchrony which we call Language Style Matching, or LSM. Style matching is measured by comparing the way two sides of a conversation or two texts use function words, like pronouns, articles, and conjunctions. If two people use similar proportions of, for example, personal pronouns, then their LSM score in that individual LIWC category (see liwc.net) will be high. The comprehensive LSM metric we use to assess overall synchrony is the average of nine function word categories’ matching scores. As other entries on this site discuss, the way a person uses function words is often the key to predicting what they’re thinking and feeling at the time and how they are likely to behave in the future. So if LSM for a conversation is high, then odds are good that everybody’s in the same mindset – perhaps even if they don’t agree with or like each other.

Lab studies. In collaboration with Amy Gonzales and Jeff Hancock at Cornell, we found that in certain cooperative settings LSM is positively correlated with how much group members like each other and can help predict how well a group performs on a task. Recently we analyzed language in a more competitive setting, in transcripts from negotiation studies conducted at the University of Chicago by UT’s Marlone Henderson. Preliminary evidence indicates that LSM is not always a good thing. Higher LSM predicts poorer overall negotiation outcomes for participants who have been experimentally manipulated to approach the negotiation less objectively. For people with objective distance from the negotiation, LSM didn’t predict performance. (In general, objectivity leads to better performance, and being too close to an issue or a negotiation partner leads to poorer negotiation outcomes.)

As with all of the language research discussed here and elsewhere, it’s probably a bad idea to jump to conclusions about what, taken together, these two sets of findings mean for style matching that occurs in real life. But we do know that LSM is a reliable measure of function word synchrony, and we know that function words are themselves reliable predictors of psychology and behavior both in and out of experimental labs. Beyond that, we can safely guess that while style matching often leads to rapport, it can also indicate mutual stubbornness or distrust that, ironically, makes it harder to find common ground. And, more speculatively, to the degree that we can control when and how we style match, good communicators probably know when to follow another’s conversational lead and when to step out of sync.

The Candidates. Using online transcripts from news media websites, I looked at how the presidential candidates match their interviewers’ function word use. Hypothetically, LSM should be highest both when interviewer and interviewee are trying to make each other look good and when the two are at loggerheads. Low LSM might mean that the interviewer is trying to find the truth and the interviewee is focused on misdirection, or vice versa. Here’s how each presidential candidate matched with his interviewers (LSM scores in parentheses; 0 is perfectly out of sync, 1 is perfectly matched):


Barack Obama
1. Larry King (CNN host) (0.93)
2. Katie Couric (CBS anchor) (0.92)
3. Bill O’Reilly (conservative FOX News host) (0.90)
4. Michael R. Gorden and Jeff Zeleny (New York Times staff) (0.90)
5. Amanda Griscom Little (staff for Grist, environmental newspaper) (0.89)
6. Terry Moran (ABC News reporter) (0.89)
7. Chicago Sun-Times staff (0.87)
8. Cathleen Falsani (Chicago Sun-Times religious columnist) (0.86)
9. Jeffrey Goldberg (The Atlantic staff) (0.80)
10. Rick Stengel (TIME magazine editor) (0.76)


John McCain
1. Adam Nagourney and Michael Cooper (New York Times staff writers) (0.94)
2. Sean Hannity (conservative FOX reporter) (0.92)
3. Michal Reagan (conservative talk radio host) (0.91)
4. Pittsburg Tribune staff (0.91)
5. Peter Jennings (ABC reporter) (0.91)
6. Larry King (CNN host) (0.91)
7. Military Times staff (US Army newspaper) (0.90)
8. Martin Wisckol (Orange Co. online news reporter) (0.90)
9. Pastor Rick Warren (Evangelical minister) (0.90)
10. Larry Kudlow (economist, conservative CNBC host) (0.89)
11. George Stphanopoulos (liberal ABC reporter) (0.89)
12. Tim Russert (liberal NBC reporter) (0.86)
13. Financial Times (British financial newspaper) (0.85)

What these numbers might mean. On average, Obama matches slightly less than McCain, although both generally are highly synchronized with their interviewers. This could reflect Obama’s tendency to be more cool-headed and distant than McCain. Interestingly, both McCain and Obama matched with interviewers whose opinions were most diametrically opposed to their own as much as they matched with staunch allies. For example, one of Obama’s highest matches was Bill O’Reilly. The O’Reilly interview was not smooth: both often talked over each other and little headway was made by either side. Perhaps O’Reilly represents one of Obama’s rare failures to step back and regain objectivity when faced with conflict. Here’s an illustration from the September 4th interview (arguing about the success of the surge in Iraq):

SEN. OBAMA: … It has gone very well, partly because of the Anbar situation and the Sunni —
MR. O’REILLY: The awakening, right.
SEN. OBAMA: — awakening, partly because the Shi’a —
MR. O’REILLY: But if it were up to you, there wouldn’t have been a surge.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look —
MR. O’REILLY: No, no, no, no.
SEN. OBAMA: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
MR. O’REILLY: If it were up to you, there wouldn’t have been a surge.
SEN. OBAMA: No, no, no, no. Hold on.
MR. O’REILLY: You and Joe Biden — no surge.
SEN. OBAMA: No. Hold on a second, Bill.

McCain matched most with his New York Times interviewers, a newspaper frequently cited by conservatives as liberally biased. The New York Times recently officially endorsed Barack Obama for president. McCain also matched very highly (nonsignificantly lower than his most synchronized interview) with Michael Reagan, a radio talk show host who, despite his conservatism, managed to outrage McCain via a telephone interview on January 31st of this year. Here’s an example from that interview:

REAGAN: Senator, Senator, Senator, Senator, Senator…
MCCAIN (talking over Reagan): …well worth talking about as well…
REAGAN: Senator!
MCCAIN: I’m not…
REAGAN: Senator!
MCCAIN: I asked you, Michael, if I could finish, can I finish?
REAGAN: But you did finish–
MCCAIN: Can I Finish? Can I finish? Yes or no?
REAGAN: What else do you have to say?
MCCAIN: Can I finish or not, I mean otherwise…
REAGAN: Go ahead.

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3 Responses to “Synchronized Interviewing: McCain and Obama’s interactions with the media”

  1. kate Says:

    very cool findings! Your correlations are amazingly high. I love the Bill O’Reilly example because it speaks to the profound engagement of a negative interaction. In marketing and advertising, people always assume engagement has positive valence and talk about it like a panacea of potential sales. I like to point out it’s the opposite of indifference, not hatred – and could very well signal utter disdain. The style matching of interactions that “don’t click” was a big moment of insight in that early Watergate study…

  2. Yitai Says:

    Hello, Molly,

    It’s an interesting result and findings. I thought of LSM before, but I took this idea as an index to indicate “Empathy.” That is, more empathy listeners reveal, more verbal synchronies they express.

    So I may conclude that McCain showed more empathy to expressers than Obama did.


  3. Cool article! Thanks for sharing 🙂


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