States of the Union: Truman to Obama

January 28, 2010

by James W. Pennebaker

Most years since George Washington, the President of the United States has addressed the joint sessions of Congress along with leaders in the military, judiciary, and other parts of government in a public speech.  The purpose of the address is to summarize the accomplishments and problems of the nation and to lay out plans and expectations for the coming years.  Although the tone of the State of the Union addresses change from year to year, the occasion is generally a mixture of a sober analysis and political undertones.

The address is typically written, at least in part, by the president with help from experts, speechwriters, and aides. Nevertheless, it generally reflects the leader’s intentions, values, emotional and thinking styles, and personality.  Unlike the inaugural address, which is delivered to the nation once every four years, States of the Union (SOU) talks are delivered annually to the country’s governing body.  The SOU, then, is a more business-like and detail oriented communication intended to direct Congress to move in specified directions.

As has been discussed elsewhere, the words people use reflect their social and psychological states.  When analyzing people’s communication, it is possible to separate what they are saying from how they are saying it. That is, different words reflect the content of the communication and others reveal the style of the message.  Very broadly, linguistic content is conveyed through the use of nouns, regular verbs, and some adjectives and adverbs.  Language style is apparent through a group of words variously referred to as function, style, or junk words.  These style-related words include pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs.

Style or function words are quite different from content words in that there are very few of them, they are used at high rates, are processed in the brain differently, and are quite social.  For example, of the 50,000 to 100,000 words most English speakers have in their vocabulary, only about 500 are function words.  Despite the small number of these words, we use them in almost every sentence. In fact, 50-60 percent of all the words we use are style words.  Of particular significance, these style words are social in the sense that they require a shared understanding between speaker and listener.

Over the last several years, multiple studies have found that the analysis of function words can reflect psychological dimensions of speakers.  Laboratory and real world studies indicate that pronouns and other style words predict a speaker’s honesty, social status, emotional state, social connections with others, dominance, and thinking style.  Function words are linked to people’s immediate psychological state within a given context and also can provide a broader view of their personality across situations and time.

SOU addresses are a perfect opportunity to study the psychological features of the nation’s leaders within relatively formal contexts.  Unlike most speeches, SOUs are generally given in the same location, to the same types of dignitaries, at the same time of the year.  Although the speeches themselves have undoubtedly been shaped by others, they continue to reflect the personality and thinking of the president and his staff.

The Current Analyses – with special attention on Obama

All of the SOU addresses from Truman to Obama spanning from 1946 through 2010 were analyzed using the computerized text analysis program LIWC (Pennebaker, Booth, & Francis, 2007).  LIWC analyzes each speech, calculating the rates at which over 70 categories of words are used.  In addition, six broader categories of language are calculated based on previous research.

Social-emotional style.  Many speakers work to establish a close personal relationship between themselves and their audience.  Markers of this warm interpersonal style include the use of personal pronouns, high rates of positive and negative emotion words, and references to other people.  In general, people scoring higher on the social-emotional style dimension are individuals who truly enjoy talking and connecting with others.  As can be seen in Figure 1, there has been a fascinating evolution in social-emotional language over the last 65 years – from very low social-emotional language to the second Bush’s peak.  Obama is reversing this trend.  Not as emotionally or socially detached as Nixon and earlier presidents, his style is comparable to that of Reagan’s.

Figure 1: Social-emotional style.  Higher numbers reflect use of more personal pronouns, references to other people, and emotional words.

Positive emotionality.  Speakers differ in the degree to which they convey feelings of positive and negative feelings in their speeches.  An overall positive emotionality index was computed by subtracting the percentage of negative emotion words from positive emotion words.  The higher the number, the more the speaker conveys optimism and the less he uses words that convey feelings of sadness, anxiety, or anger.  As can be seen in the second figure, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton were consistently the most positive in their SOU addresses. Obama is striking in being the least positive.

Figure 2. Positive emotionality.  The higher the number, the more the person uses positive emotion words relative to negative emotion words.

Complex thinking.  An SOU address requires a certain degree of finesse to be effective.  The president needs to convey complex ideas in ways that a broad audience can understand.  Most issues facing a country – such as health care, national security, immigration – are composed of multiple dimensions that are often difficult to discuss in a simple way.  Since Truman, presidents have varied tremendously in their attempts to talk about large issues in complex ways.  Most opt to define problems simply and propose relatively straightforward solutions.

Function words allow for a nice metric to capture complexity of thinking.  When people are dealing with complicated problems they must acknowledge multiple sides to an issue.  Certain exclusive words – including but, except, without, or – signal that the speaker is making a distinction between what is and what is not included in the idea he is conveying.  Similarly, other word categories such as negations (e.g., no, not, never) and causal words (e.g., because, cause, effect) also reflect more complex thinking.

Figure 3 is a striking graph in suggesting that two presidents have been extraordinarily high in complex thinking – John F. Kennedy and Obama. Nixon and George H. W. Bush are a distant 3rd and 4th.  It is also interesting that both Bush-2 and Clinton are two of the least complex thinkers in their SOU addresses.

As a side note, the complex thinking dimension simply reflects the language that the president uses in the SOU address.  He may actually be a very complex thinker in general so these numbers merely tell us how he is presenting ideas to the congress and the American people.

Figure 3. Complexity of thinking.  The higher the number, the more complex and nuanced the language in the presentation of arguments.

Categorical versus dynamic thinking.  There are multiple ways to break down a complex problem.  Perhaps the most traditional method is to try to categorize the issue.  For example, if asked to evaluate the current economy, a categorical thinker would likely identify the various components, then the subcomponents.  In other words, the categorical thinker sees the first issue in approaching a new task as creating the relevant categories and the breaking down the problem to fit into the boxes that have been constructed.  People who are high in categorical thinking tend to use a high rate of concrete nouns, articles, and prepositions.

A very different approach is called dynamic thinking.  Dynamic thinking involves evaluating a new problem from a historical or developing perspective.  Instead of first evaluating the categories or dimensions associated with the problem, the dynamic thinker tracks how we have arrived at the problem, thereby tracking the problem over time.  If asked to evaluate the economy, the dynamic thinker may start with a point in the past and trace how historical forces have brought us to today’s economy.  Dynamic thinking is generally measured by the high use of verbs.  Interestingly, the more that people use verbs, the less they use nouns – suggesting that people tend to be either categorical or dynamic thinkers but not both.

Figure 4 reveals two fascinating trends.  The first is the evolution of dynamic thinking over time.  In the last 65 years, a striking shift in thinking emerged beginning in the 1980s.  With the election of Reagan, presidents moved from displaying categorical thinking to being more dynamic in the ways they discussed complex issues.  Every president since then has followed this trend.  Obama is striking in being by far the most dynamic and least categorical thinker in the modern presidency.

Figure 4.  Categorical versus dynamic thinking.  Higher scores reflect categorical thinking whereas lower (or more negative) scores indicate dynamic thinking.

The Language and Personality of Obama’s State of the Union Addresses

Barack Obama thinks and relates to people differently from most of his predecessors. His thinking style is both highly complex and, at the same time, dynamic.  Socially and emotionally, he is surprisingly cool and distant.  The word “cool” is not ill-advised.  In his SOU addresses, as well as his press conferences, he is detached.  His use of both positive emotion and negative emotion words is much lower than recent presidents.  Although his personal pronouns in his SOUs are slightly above average, they are actually quite low when talking informally in interviews or press conferences.  His is the language of the confident leader as opposed to the close buddy.

Obama has now delivered two SOU addresses.  Has his language changed much from a year ago?  Very broadly, no.  If anything, he is becoming more dynamic in his thinking and slightly less positive in his emotional tone.  Overall, however, he maintains a remarkably even style in the ways he talks to his audiences.

References

Chung, C.K., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2007). The psychological functions of function words. In K. Fiedler (Ed.), Social communication (pp. 343-359). New York: Psychology Press.

Pennebaker, J.W. (August 9, 2009).  What is “I” saying? (guest post).  The Language Log. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1651

Pennebaker, J.W., Mehl, M.R., & Niederhoffer, K.G.  (2003).  Psychological aspects of natural language use:  Our words, our selves.  Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 547-577.

Slatcher, R.B., Chung, C.K., Pennebaker, J.W., & Stone, L.D. (2007).  Winning words: Individual differences in linguistic style among U.S. presidential and vice presidential candidates.  Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 63-75.

Relevant Websites

http://www.psy.utexas.edu/Pennebaker

http://www.wordwatchers.wordpress.org

http://www.utpsyc.org

http://www.analyzewords.com

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2 Responses to “States of the Union: Truman to Obama”


  1. [...] analysis of the final 2008 Obama-McCain debate or his study of U.S. presidents’ States of Union addresses from Truman to Obama. What do you make of the results of these studies? And the methodologies employed? I’m [...]


  2. Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Many thanks for providing this info.


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