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.
Seeking Power, Finding Friends, and Making the Grade: Drive Orientations of the Primary Frontrunners
November 16, 2015
by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin
Last week both the Republicans and Democrats once again hit the debate stage. In this post, we discuss how the frontrunners in both parties compare in the ways they orient to power, achievement, and affiliation. Similar approaches were studied by David McClelland in the 1950s which resulted in his theory of human motivation which proposed three central needs that drive people’s lives:
- Need for power — driven by prestige, control, status, and influence over others
- Need for achievement — driven by succeeding, accomplishing goals and overcoming challenges
- Need for affiliation — motivated by close relationships with others
Whereas McClelland viewed power, achievement, and affiliation as basic motives that could drive people to behave, we think of them more as orientations. That is, people differ in the degree to which they pay attention to these dimensions in their everyday actions. By understanding how political candidates are naturally orienting to these dimensions, we can discern what is important to them.
Consider power orientation. Those who attend to power automatically assess others by how much status or influence they have. In debates, for example, candidates high in power orientation will use words such as leader or follower, demand, weak, or powerful. When they walk into a room, power-oriented people naturally pick out who has the most and the least power. Interestingly, people with high power orientation could be people who themselves are powerful or weak. Their own level of power can be independent of how closely they are monitoring others’ power. David Winter, a student of David McClelland, studied power motivation of presidential speeches using a content analytic strategy. He found Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to be particularly high in power which he argued was related to their political effectiveness and aggression.
Achievement orientation works in a similar way. People who are concerned with other people’s or their own achievement are constantly measuring success, failure, and ambition. To get a sense of the degree to which candidates are paying attention to achievement issues, listen to how frequently they use words such as win, lose, excellence, and earn. Very often, those high in achievement orientation measure themselves by the relative success of themselves compared to others. Winter has found that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were quite high in achievement orientation. Both were highly competitive in school and were known to be hard driving and ambitious from an early age.
People with a high affiliation orientation are scanning their environments for friends, close relationships, and trustworthy allies. Candidates who naturally orient to affiliation use words like help, friend, ally, family, and we. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were found by Winter to be high in affiliation orientation. Although friendship was important to both of them, not all were socially successful. Nixon, for example, wanted to be close to others but had great difficulty succeeding. He was introverted and, by most historical accounts, one of the most lonely presidents in recent time. Bush prized close friendships and used social compatibility as a central measure of other leaders’ character (his remarks about Putin, Tony Blair, and Dick Cheney are notable examples).
As noted in earlier blog posts, we analyzed the debate language of the top candidates using the computer text analysis program LIWC2015 (www.LIWC.net). The program calculates the percentage of words used by each candidate that reflected power, achievement, and affiliation. To compare the candidates on these dimensions, we have adjusted the scores across all the debates so that a score of 50 is average, a score greater than 60 is above average, and a score less than 40 is below average.
Comparing the Republican frontrunners: Trump, Carson, Rubio, Cruz, and Bush
Jeb! Bush stands out among all of the candidates in both parties as being the highest in achievement orientation. In this last debate and in the previous ones, Bush repeatedly mentioned his own successes — “we’ve had a great American success story” (referring to his time as governor of Florida) — as well as the failures of others — “We lose a fortune on trade.” (referring to policies of the current administration). Given that he is the third member of his immediate family to run for president, Bush is likely measuring his own political legacy with that of his father and brother.
Ben Carson scores in the average range on affiliation and achievement but somewhat below average on power. Being low on power orientation could reflect his being a surgeon — someone who has always had a great deal of professional power and prestige. He may feel that he has no need to check the levels of other people’s power because he is secure in his own powerful status.
Ted Cruz uses language that indicates that he is far more oriented to power and status than any other candidate in either party. In the last debate, Cruz focused on the power of others and himself by invoking militarist language with phrases such as — “armies of accountants”, “enforcing the law and defending the Constitution”, and “building a grassroots army”. In the first three Republican debates, Cruz emerged as the most power-oriented candidate no matter what the debate topic. There is a sense that in any given interaction, he first sizes up the other person’s status before deciding to pursue a conversation with them.
Marco Rubio distinguishes himself by, well, not being distinctive along any of the three dimensions. A deeper analysis, however, suggests that he bounces around in his orientation from debate-to-debate. For example, in the last debate, when discussing domestic and economic issues, Rubio used more power and achievement words. When discussing foreign policy, he used more affiliation words. In the first debate across topics, he was almost as power-oriented as Cruz across all topics but in the CNBC debate, he was nearly as low in power orientation as Trump and Carson.
Donald Trump has a similar profile to Carson. The one difference is that he is by far the lowest of any of the candidates in power orientation. This suggests that Trump is quite secure in his sense of power based on his success in business. His language hints that he does not make big distinctions in the relative status of others.
Comparing the Democratic frontrunners: Clinton and Sanders
Hillary Clinton is somewhat above average in achievement orientation and, perhaps surprisingly, somewhat below average in power orientation. Similar to Jeb Bush’s situation, Hillary’s high drive for achievement could reflect an implicit comparison with her husband’s presidency. The somewhat low power drive indicates she is not overly concerned with paying attention to the status of others. Like Carson and Trump, she comes to the debates with a very strong track record and likely feels relatively secure in her own power.
Bernie Sanders is below average on achievement orientation and above average in power. He is far less concerned with winning or losing points within the traditional political arena. Rather, he seeks to bring about a fundamental change in the culture. He is not conforming with the status quo but rather trying to overthrow it, or, as he said in the last debate, “What my campaign is about is a political revolution.”
Trends and Takeaways
Three trends are important to note. First, power orientation is related to how well candidates’ campaigns are going. The three candidates with the lowest concern for power are those who have been leading in the polls for quite some time. Second, the two candidates highest in achievement orientation are those with a family legacy in politics. Third, overall the Democratic candidates have slightly higher concerns with affiliation than the Republican candidates. This could reflect the tone of the debates or the underlying philosophies of the two parties.
This set of analysis reveals something not only about the personalities of the leading presidential candidates but also suggests how these candidates may approach the office of president. As the election season progresses, we will examine new ways of understanding the mindsets of the remaining candidates and examine how they are changing over time.
Hogenraad, R. (2005). What the words of war can tell us about the risk of war. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 11(2), 137-151. doi:10.1207/s15327949pac1102_2
McClelland, D. C. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton: VanNostrand.
Winter, D. G. (2011). Philosopher-king or polarizing politician? A personality profile of barack obama. Political Psychology, 32(6), 1059-1081. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00852.x
Winter, D. G. (2005). Things I’ve learned about personality from studying political leaders at a distance. Journal of Personality, 73(3), 557-584. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00321.x
Through Their Words: Hillary, Bernie, and their Republican Friends — Text analysis of the first Democratic Debate
October 14, 2015
by James W. Pennebaker and Kayla N. Jordan
Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin
Computer analyses of the language of the candidates in the most recent debate reveal some basic personality and psychological differences. The primary comparisons are between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as well as the ways they differed from the most likely Republican nominees: Bush, Fiorina, Rubio, and Trump. The main findings include:
- Clinton is much more positive in emotional tone than Sanders. Her levels of positivity are comparable to the most positive Republican, Jeb Bush.
- Sanders is somewhat more of an analytical, formal thinker than Clinton. All the candidates, however, are reasonably similar with the exception of Donald Trump — who appears incapable of thinking in a formal, logical way.
- Sanders and Clinton use language that comes across as authentic and honest in ways similar to Trump. Fiorino, Bush, and Rubio are significantly lower than the others in authenticity.
- Sanders’ language suggests greater clout and more power-awareness than Clinton’s language.
- The male candidates across parties tend to use male-centric language at high rates with Sanders and Rubio being the most male-centric. For the female candidates, Clinton is balanced in her gender references while Fiorino uses slightly female-centric language.
This is the first of several brief blog posts about the 2016 election. Our plan is to use some sophisticated computer-based text analysis methods to get a better sense of the social and psychological dimensions of the candidates. No platforms or positions discussed here. Just people’s basic thinking, emotional, and interpersonal styles.
The basic system we rely on will be a computer program developed in our lab, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC (pronounced “Luke”, and available for research purposes at www.liwc.net, or for commercial purposes through www.Receptiviti.com). LIWC analyzes any kind of text and calculates the percentage of words that are emotional, cognitive, and another 80 or so dimensions. There are now hundreds of studies in political science, business, psychology, and other disciplines that have used it. For a brief summary of articles, check this link or this one. The more recent version of the program, LIWC2015, has just been released and has a number of dimensions particularly well-suited to political campaigns.
OK, let’s get serious. There are only two viable candidates for president in the Democratic race right now — Clinton and Sanders. O’Malley made a credible showing but until his ratings reach double digits, we’ll stick with the front runners. Biden may join the team eventually but let’s put him aside since he was a no-show for the October 13th debate.
Although LIWC can analyze a mind-boggling number of dimensions, we will focus on only a handful: emotional tone, thinking style, authenticity, power and clout, and sexism (relative referencing of males to females).
Historically, the American electorate has preferred more upbeat and optimistic candidates to more negative or hostile candidates. The simplest way to measure emotional tone is simply to calculate the total number of words that have a positive connotation (such as happy, success, good) or a negative one (anger, death, hurt). Across the board, Clinton was far more optimistic and upbeat than Sanders.
It’s also interesting to compare the emotional states of Clinton and Sanders to the most likely candidates on the Republican side — Bush, Rubio, Fiorina, and Trump (sorry to those of you who are rooting for Cruz or Ben Carson or one of the others — it’s not gonna happen). As you can see in the graph, Clinton’s emotional state is similar to Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Trump. Sanders and Fiorina are both impressively low.
Note that the Emotional tone index is a weighted score that ranges between 0 (very negative) and 100 (very positive).
The words people use in everyday language can reveal their natural thinking style. There are at least two ways to capture thinking styles that are related to the debates. The first measures people’s natural ways of trying to understand, analyze, and organize complex events. We have devised a metric called the categorical-dynamic index, or the CDI. A high score on the CDI is associated with analytical, formal, and logical thinking. A low score is often associated with more narrative thinking where the speaker is in the here-and-now. The CDI has been found to be related to college grades, measures of intelligence, and various markers of academic success.
The second measure, which we call Cognitive Processing, reflects the extent that people are trying to work out a problem in their minds. For example, if you were asked to describe the most efficient way to get from your home to the City Hall in a particular town about 100 miles away, you would likely use words such as think, believe, realize, know, and other cognitive processing words. However, if you knew precisely how to get there because you had driven that route dozens of times, you would not use cognitive processing words. In other words, if you are still trying to figure out a problem, you use cognitive processing terms; if you are certain that you know “the answer”, you don’t use these words.
In terms of raw intelligence and the ability to think analytically, Sanders scores slightly higher than Clinton. In fact, most of the likely Republican nominees are in the same range. The one who scores far, far below the rest is Donald Trump. Trump shoots from the hip and is guided by his intuition. He is not a logical or analytical thinker.
Of all the candidates, Hillary Clinton scores highest on cognitive processing — meaning she is someone who continues to work through issues as they come up. Bernie Sanders, however, is the lowest of all the candidates. This suggests that he has already thought through his positions and is most entrenched in his beliefs in that he is no longer thinking about them as much as the others.
Over the years, multiple labs have developed algorithms that tap the degree to which people are personal, honest, and authentic. The authenticity measure is made up of words such as I-words (I, me, my), present tense verbs, and other dimensions previously associated with telling the truth. While the Democrats are quite similar to each other in terms of authenticity, they are strikingly higher than the Republican candidates with the exception Trump.
Clout and Power-Awareness
There are at least two ways to think about power, status, and clout. The first, which we call clout, is the kind of power that is seen in a strong leader. A person with clout speaks with confidence and a sense of certainty. People who have clout tend to use we- and social words more and I-words, negations, and swear words less. Overall, Sanders uses language that suggests more clout than Clinton. Although Fiorina was far higher than Sanders in the last Republican debate and Trump was somewhat lower than Clinton.
The second measure of status is power awareness. That is, to what degree are people aware of people with more or less power than they have? When you walk into a room, to what degree do you notice the relative status of others? The power-awareness measure captures the degree to which people use words such as command, boss, and defeat. As depicted in the table, Sanders is much more power-aware than Clinton and is at the same level as the most power-aware Republican Marco Rubio. It’s interesting that Trump is by far the least power-aware of all the candidates. In his mind, he already has the most power and there is no reason for him to have to size up other people along this dimension
Male-Centric Language (A marker of sexism, perhaps?)
The ways people use words tell us where they are paying attention. If a speaker uses a high rate of words such as women, females, she and her, and relatively few references to males, the speaker is simply thinking and talking about women more. Is this sexist language? Maybe, maybe not. Does this speaker always make more references to women than men? If so, the person certainly isn’t paying much attention to people of the male persuasion.
By analysing references to females and males, we can get a sense of candidates’ natural orientations to women and men. We aren’t warranting that this is a measure of overt sexism but it may be a subtle or implicit signal of gender bias.
Check out the graph. The numbers refer to the percentage of all gender references that are male. Numbers above 50% suggest a male bias; numbers below 50% hint at a female bias. Overall, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina use gendered language very differently than the male candidates. Clinton referred to males and females at similar levels; Fiorina made more references to women than men — partly based on the questions she was asked in the last debate. The men, however, were far more gendered in their language than the women. It wasn’t even close. The two who were most male-centric were Sanders and Rubio.
In the Future