Me, Myself, and I: Self-Focus Among Presidential Frontrunners
February 15, 2016
Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin
One of the most frequently used words in the English language is “I”. The use of this small word has been linked to honesty, depression, status, and other psychological dimensions. In this post, we explore how the leading candidates are using I-words (including other first person singular pronouns such as me, my, and mine ) and what these words suggest about the candidates’ personalities and mental states.
People who frequently use I-words are more self-focused. They are thinking and talking about what they are doing and how they are feeling. The use of I-words can convey whether a person is personal versus distant and insecure versus confident. High “I” users tend to be personal but insecure whereas low “I” users tend to be confident yet psychologically distant.
The personal versus distant aspect of I-word use is best illustrated by studies of honesty and deception. Across several studies the best predictor of honest language is the use of I; people who are lying tend to avoid using I to distant themselves from their deception. The low use of I-words can also be indicative of self-confidence.Studies of status have found people of higher status tend to use fewer I-words and President Obama, who uses fewer I-words than any other modern president, is often rated as the most self-confident.
Not surprisingly, the presidential candidates differ in their use of I-words across the debates. Particularly revealing is how they compare with current and past presidents in unscripted sessions such as in press conferences. The similarities and differences between candidates and past presidents can illuminate what kind of president the candidates might be.
- Donald Trump uses I at much higher rates than any other candidate. Trump’s speaking style is quite personal and sometimes self-effacing. In some ways, his I-word usage is consistent with feelings of insecurity. As the only frontrunner without a political background, his lack of experience on political issues potentially reveals his weaknesses which he sometimes covers with bluster, distraction, and attacks on others. It is interesting that the two past presidents who used I-words at comparable rates were George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford — neither of whom were considered experts in hard-ball presidential politics.
- Ted Cruz uses Ifar less than Trump but slightly more than the other frontrunners. Interestingly, Cruz still uses I-words at lower rates than any modern U.S. president and at rates almost identical to Obama. Cruz’s more average use of I-words suggests he is self-confident and emotionally distant.
- Marco Rubio has the lowest rate of I-word use among any frontrunner or past president. More than any other candidates, Rubio likely comes across as impersonal and distant.
- Jeb Bush’s rate of I-word usage is similar to that of Ted Cruz and of President Obama. Bush’s style of speaking is more impersonal than most other candidates and previous presidents. Like Cruz, Bush likely has more self-confidence.
- Hillary Clinton is more self-focused than Bernie Sanders. Clinton is quite personal in her language style often speaking of her record, as a Senator and Secretary of State, and her plans if she were elected. Her relatively high use of I-words could indicate she may be somewhat insecure and anxious perhaps reflecting her ongoing struggles with scandals from her time at the State Department. Compared to previous presidents, her use of I-words is similar to LBJ and, interestingly, Bill Clinton.
- Bernie Sanders uses I-words at rates lower than Hillary Clinton but higher than most of the Republican field. He uses I-words at rates comparable to George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and JFK. Sanders uses both personal and distant language to explain his positions. While he comes across as relatable, he is still focused on the political issues and his policy proposals.
Trends and Takeaways
It is interesting to note the leaders in both parties, Trump and Clinton, use I-words the most. Their personal way of speaking undoubtedly helps them sound warmer and more sociable than the other candidates.
It is also interesting to note the differences between the parties. The Democrats are quite similar to each other. The Republicans, on the other hand, are striking with Donald Trump exceptionally high and Marco Rubio quite low compared to the others. From a language perspective, the Democratic race is a battle for basic ideas and values whereas the Republican contest is more a battle of personalities.
While it is advantageous for a leader to be likable and warm, self-confidence is also important in leadership. Likability may help a president’s approval ratings and be useful in interacting with allies and adversaries. Other qualities such as thinking style, clout — or the ability to command respect — and raw intelligence may be more helpful when making complicated political decisions.