Seeking Rewards, Avoiding Risks, and Taking the Middle Ground: A Language-Based Approach to Identifying Reward- vs Risk-Oriented Thinking

December 20, 2015

by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker

Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

In making an important decision, most of us weigh the potential payoffs against the possible costs.  We are essentially trying to balance the relative rewards and risks of that decision.  The problem of assessing risks versus rewards is at the heart of psychology because there are large personality differences between people who naturally focus more on rewards compared with those who automatically focus on risks.

Psychologists have long explored the meaning of being reward- versus risk-focused. Tory Higgins and his colleagues at Columbia University have proposed a regulatory focus theory that explains how people approach their worlds if they are naturally more promotion-oriented versus more prevention-thinking. People who pay attention to rewards tend to make riskier decisions without analyzing the downsides.  More risk-oriented people carefully consider the dangers and costs of moving forward and tend to approach life in a more defensive manner. A reward-oriented leader, for example, would be more likely to initiate aggressive action in order to gain territory, status, or goods; a risk-oriented leader might work to build a strong defense to protect against the aggressive actions of others.

The presidential debates provide rich data on how the candidates differ in being reward- versus risk-sensitive.  People who are more reward-focused use words such as achieve, optimistic, wager, and better at high rates.  More risk-oriented people tend to overuse words such as  avoid, defense, danger, and disadvantage. Indeed, our computer program LIWC2015 includes very large and comprehensive dictionaries of words that capture the language of both reward-focus and risk-focus. By tracking the language of the candidates across multiple debates, we are starting to get a reliable sense of each person’s natural degree of reward- versus risk-orientation.

In these analyses, we examine how candidates are speaking across all the debates so far. While there is some variation, the candidates are remarkably consistent in the language they use across debates suggesting reward and risk orientation are relatively stable personality traits that indicate how the candidates may approach their campaigns and possible the office of the presidency. Scores on these dimensions were standardized such that a score of 50 is average.

Three Personality Types: The Reward Seekers, the Risk Avoiders, the Middle Grounders

As can be seen in the first graph, each candidate has two scores — reward-orientated and risk-oriented language.  By comparing the relative height of the two bars, you can determine the degree that each candidate naturally approaches opportunities or avoids dangers.


Overall, there are three candidates who would be classified as strongly reward-seeking:  Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Bernie Sanders. All three focus on potential positive outcomes and are concerned with gains and benefits. They make far fewer references to risks and losses. Interestingly, the risk-focused dimension is particularly low for Carson and Sanders. While more open to change, this reward focus suggests these candidates will push for their plans and policies to be implemented as quickly as possible without fully considering possible downsides.

The one strong risk-oriented candidate is Ted Cruz. Cruz cares about safety and security. When the debates, he is thinking about things that can go wrong. His foreign policies involve strengthening America’s defenses and responding to perceived threats — both external to and within the U.S.  His consistent use of risk-oriented language suggests a decision making style that is defensive and based on maintaining the status quo.

The remaining three candidates, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio, use language that suggests a more balanced orientation between risk and reward. Overall, Bush, Clinton, and Rubio may make risky decisions that are, however, more carefully considered. This balanced approach tends to depend on the type of policy with a security-minded foreign focus and a riskier domestic focus as can be seen in the graph below.

Digging deeper: Risk and reward when talking about foreign versus domestic issues

Across the board, Carson, Trump, and Sanders use reward-related more than risk-related language whether talking about foreign or domestic topics.  As can be seen in the second graph below, the remaining candidates are more nuanced depending on the questions they are addressing.

Bush, Cruz, Rubio, and Clinton tend to be moderately high in reward orientation when dealing with domestic issues and lower in reward language when dealing with foreign policy issues.  (It should be noted that “foreign policy” has really been restricted to discussions of terrorism and little else in all the debates.)  These same four candidates are also very high in risk orientation language when addressing foreign but not domestic policies.

It is important to note that the two outliers in the discussion are Cruz and Carson.  Cruz is disproportionate to the other candidates in his extraordinarily high risk-focused language when talking about foreign policy and is strikingly low rate of reward language on the same topic.  Carson is similarly over the top in his reward language when talking about domestic topics compared to his language on any other topics.



Like our previous posts, these analyses reveal how these candidates are approaching their campaigns and how they may behave if elected. In particular, risk versus reward focus can provide insight into how each candidate approaches decision making.


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