Kayla N. Jordan
University of Texas at Austin

While candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have already been campaigning for months, the primary season hit a new phase this week with the first debates between the candidates. Here, in the first of several blog posts about the 2020 election, I use computer-based text analysis methods to start to get a sense of the psychology of the candidates. Rather than their positions or policies, the goal of these posts will be to understand the candidates as people by considering questions like how are they thinking, how are they relating to other people, and how are they communicating their ideas.

The system the majority of the analyses will rely on is a program developed in the Pennebaker Lab at UT Austin called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC2015 (available for academic research at liwc.net or for commercial application at Receptivit.com). LIWC can analyze any text to determine the percentage of words in the text indicative of negative emotion and cognitive processing and 80+ other dimensions. LIWC has been used in hundreds of studies in multiple disciplines ranging from psychology to business to medicine to political science to computer science. To learn more about some of these studies, check out this link.

So what can LIWC tell us about the 2020 presidential candidates? As the election season unfolds I will be looking at many dimensions including motivations, confidence, and time orientation, but for now I want to look at three central psychological dimensions: thinking style, emotional tone, and authenticity. Also, rather than cramming in all 20 candidates, I am going to focus on the ten candidates who, at the moment at least, seem to have the best chances of securing the nomination: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Kristen Gillibrand.

Thinking Style

People naturally differ in the ways that they think and communicate ideas. On one end of the spectrum, there are people who are very analytic, logical thinkers. Analytic thinkers organize their ideas in formal, hierarchical ways focusing on concepts and ideas. On the other end of the spectrum are people who think in narrative, intuitive ways. Narrative thinkers organize their ideas more informally, often telling stories and focusing on people and actions. Linguistically, analytic thinkers use more articles and prepositions while narrative thinkers use more pronouns, auxiliary verbs, adverbs, negations, and conjunctions. Check out this link or this link to learn more about the research on analytic thinking. So where do the Democratic candidates fall on this spectrum?

The Analytic Thinkers: Of the 10 candidates, 3 stand-out as the most analytic: Buttigieg, Gillibrand, and Sanders. These candidates talked about their policies and ideas in logical ways. They relied more on facts and figures focusing on concepts and details rather than stories and anecdotes. For example, take Bernie Sanders. When talking about his health care plans, he laid out the problem, gave statistics, and stated his proposals rarely making his positions personal.

The Narrative Thinkers: On the narrative end of the spectrum, Klobuchar, Biden, and Castro stand out. Unlike their analytic counterparts, they tell stories and anecdotes focusing on people and actions more than concepts and abstractions. Rather than making structured arguments, these candidates communicates their ideas in looser, more informal ways. Compare Biden’s discussion of health care to Sanders’. Where Sanders gave impersonal arguments, Biden connected his policy plans to his families’ personal experiences with cancer.

The In-Between Thinkers: Rather than falling on either end of the spectrum, four candidates fall somewhere in the middle: Harris, Booker, O’Rourke, and Warren. Drawing on both styles, these four candidates use both formal, logical structures as well as stories and personal experience. For example, when Elizabeth Warren talked about gun violence she used not only statistics and structured policy proposals but also anecdotes from her time on the campaign trail talking to voters.

6.27.19.Analytic

Note. Analytic thinking scores are standardized composite scores ranging from 0 (most narrative) to 100 (most analytic).

Emotional Tone

Emotion has become a central feature of political campaigns and has been studied in a variety of ways such as fear appeals and negative advertising. Here, however, I focus on what the use of emotional language might say about a person’s general outlook. A more optimistic, upbeat outlook is indicated by positive emotional words such as love, respect, and happy. A more pessimistic outlook is indicated by the use of negative emotional words such as anger, death, and hurt. What were the candidates’ emotional outlooks in the first debates?

The Optimists: Three candidates were high in positivity: Gillibrand, Harris, and Klobuchar. These three women candidates all presented optimistic, upbeat messages. Gillibrand and Klobuchar, in particular, come across as affable during the debates occasionally mixing in humor and provide hopeful views of the future.

The Pessimists: Four candidates were on the negative side: Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden, and Booker. These candidates presented less positive images painting more pessimistic views of the future. Bernie Sanders was the clearest representation of negativity. For Sanders, there are many serious problems that must be addressed immediately and decisively to avoid a future filled with doom and gloom.

The Realists: The three remaining candidates fell in the middle: Warren, Castro, and O’Rourke. For these three candidates, their outlook is mixed with serious, urgent problems needing solutions, but with a hopeful outlook that such problems are solvable.

6.27.19.Tone

Note. Tone scores are standardized scores ranging from 0 (most negative) to 100 (most positive).

Authenticity

Politicians are often portrayed as less than honest, hence a final important dimension to consider is authenticity. Individual high on authenticity come across as honest and straightforward while those low on authenticity come across as evasive and impersonal. Linguistically, studies have found that authentic individuals tend to use more I-words, present-tense verbs, and relativity words (e.g. old, far, here) and fewer she-he words and discrepancy words (e.g. could, should). How authentic are the Democratic candidates?

The Most Authentic: The most authentic candidate was Pete Buttigieg closely followed Sanders and Castro with Booker is a somewhat distant fourth. In their debates, Buttigieg and Castro, in particular, came across open and personal giving straightforward, clear answers to questions. Warren, Klobuchar, Biden, and Gillibrand fall in the middle of pack, but were slightly closer to the authentic candidates than to the inauthentic candidates. These four generally came across as straight-forward and personal but with moments of distance and evasion.

The Least Authentic: The least authentic candidate was Beto O’Rourke with Kamala Harris in a close second. O’Rourke was particularly striking in the debates. Despite the large amount of attention he received in his 2018 Senate Run, O’Rourke during the first debate came across as distant and impersonal often giving responses seeming robotic and rehearsed.

6.27.19.Authentic

Note. Authenticity scores are composite standardized scores ranging from 0 (least authentic) to 100 (most authentic). In political contexts, the range is generally limited with scores effectively ranging from 0 to 50.

Going Forward

These are just a few initial insights into the 2020 Democratic candidates, and as we gather more data throughout the primary season, we will gradually gain a clearer sense of who these candidates are and how they might behave as leaders. That said, there is one broad takeaway from this first look at the 2020 candidates. While many of the candidates have similar (or even identical) policy positions, the analysis presented here shows the candidates have very different personalities and communication styles. The ideological similarities between candidates in a primary election can make choosing between them difficult, and I hope that the psychological views on the candidates that I will be presenting in these blog posts can provide additional information for voters who want another perspective of the candidates.

Check back later for further insights of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as I analyze the debates and other (linguistically) interesting campaign events this election cycle. For more information on this project, contact Kayla Jordan (kaylajordan@utexas.edu). For more information about LIWC, check out this link.

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Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

After just over a month in office, Donald Trump gave his first address to Congress. The content of Trump’s address was similar to past presidents’ State of the Union (SOTU) addresses with a focus on recent accomplishments and plans for the upcoming year. But what about the style of the speech?

Unlike his inaugural address which was linguistically similar to Trump’s typical language, his recent address was more analytic and less authentic than normal. Similar to his RNC acceptance speech, Trump’s first SOTU was heavily shaped by a speechwriter. Although the content of the address overlapped considerably with Steve Bannon’s recurring themes of fear of outsiders, the linguistic markers were quite similar to the language of Stephen Miller in a recent interview on Face the Nation.  Despite Miller’s probable role in the address, Trump’s latest speech is useful in understanding overall trends in the presidency and where Trump fits in.

Decline in Analytic Thinking

Similar to trends in inaugural addresses, SOTU speeches are generally highly analytic and formal, but have been becoming less so over time. Starting with Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, modern presidents have adopted a more informal, narrative style in their annual addresses to Congress. Trump’s first address continued this trend with his level of analytic thinking on par with the last 5 presidents.

The decline in analytic thinking signals a shift in how presidents are thinking about problems and presenting their ideas. Trump, like other recent presidents, laid out his ideas in a simpler, more straightforward way than past presidents. Going forward, Trump will likely rely more and more on offering simple, intuitive solutions and ideas to the problems he faces.

sotu-analytic

Rise in Confidence

The language presidents use can show how confident and self-certain they are as leaders. Confidence or clout is indicated by more we-words and social words and fewer I-words, negations (e.g. no, not), and swear words.

Whereas analytic thinking has decreased over the last century, clout has increased. Around the same time presidents began becoming less analytic, they also started to exude more confidence. Presidents have increasingly approached these addresses to Congress with confidence and certainty. Trump is the most confident so far, but is still similar to recent presidents. Trump and other modern presidents are decisive and confident in their plans and proposals.

sotu-clout

The Big Picture

In their SOTU addresses, presidents have been becoming more confident and less analytic. These trends show that presidents are changing how they are thinking and interacting with lawmakers and the American people. Administration after administration, the yearly SOTU addresses are laying out simpler and less nuanced world views with bolder more decisive proposals. Faced with complex, hard-to-solve problems, clear and easy solutions are likely more appealing to present to an increasingly polarized Congress (and electorate).

While Trump is often seen as a significant departure from presidential norms, in many ways, he isn’t all that different than other modern presidents. Rather than being an extreme outlier, Trump is part of long-term trends. He is a more confident, intuitive thinker, but Obama and Bush were as well. The content of what Trump is saying may be abnormal, but the style is typical of recent presidents.

Trump’s Inaugural Address

January 21, 2017

Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

After an unconventional campaign, Trump gave an equally unique inaugural address. In keeping with his populist connection with the voters, Trump spoke in a direct, nuance-free style against the Washington elites and promising to “Make America Great Again.”

Unlike his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention which was clearly not written by him, Trump (or a speechwriter with a good grasp of Trump’s language style) was the primary author of his inaugural address.  Linguistically, it was quite similar to the ways he spoke in his stump speeches, interviews, and debates.  Consequently, the conclusions we have reached about his personality and thinking styles in the past are only reinforced after his ascension to the presidency.

Trump is Intuitive and not at all Analytical

In their inaugural addresses, presidents tend to show an analytic thinking style. They generally lay out their ideas in a formal, logical manner. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt, modern presidents have adopted increasingly informal and narrative styles than their predecessors. Trump, however, has broken new ground in simple and intuitive thinking.  As depicted in the graph below, no American president has been so low in analytic thinking.

Consistent with all of his debates, Trump is not capable of more logical and hierarchical thinking. He has rarely made an if-then statement. As evidenced through his tweeting, he is a fast decision maker driven by intuition and hunches.  Because of this, scholars must pay particularly close attention to the values that are guiding him — nationalism, isolationism, wealth, security, hard work, and deal-making. When confronted with a difficult decision, he will likely be guided by advisors or the core values that are salient to him at the moment.

inaugural-analytic

Trump is Authentic

Several studies have identified a set of word categories that are associated with people telling the truth.  For example, I-words (e.g., I, me, my) often signal that the person is speaking from the heart.  Interestingly, when we listen to a person who uses authenticity language, we are more likely to believe them.  They come across as more personal and understanding.

From the first debate over 18 months ago, Trump has consistently used words associated with authenticity at very high rates.  Indeed, this is his appeal.  He shoots from the hip and many people feel he is talking directly to them.  Presidents have differed widely in the authenticity of their inaugural addresses. Presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, surprisingly, gave straightforward addresses clearly laying out their thoughts. Other presidents such as Eisenhower and Truman were more distant and impersonal in their speeches. As shown in the figure below, Trump rivals George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington in his use of authentic language.

Warning:  Authentic language does not always mean honest or truthful.  LBJ and Nixon may have spoken in authentic ways in their inaugural addresses but history has judged both men as wily and devious in their attempts to get legislation passed. Trump has a long history of making up often-outlandish facts and talking about them with complete sincerity.  His language suggests that he actually believes them.  In fact, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has done a beautiful analysis of deception arguing that the most deceptive people (and other animals) are successful because they are self-deceptive.

Trump, then, may be objectively deceptive but his language reveals that he is generally an authentic individual. He says what he believes without trying to be evasive. He is quick to respond with his open and honest opinion be it during a press conference or on Twitter. For Trump, there is no hiding behind rhetoric.

inaugural-authentic

The Big Picture

Trump’s inaugural address reflects his unorthodox campaign and likely signals the beginning of a different approach to the presidency. Trump continues to buck conventions and differentiate himself from the prototypical politician. His language in the campaign was a stunning departure from the political norms.  It is unsurprising that his first speech as president veered so far from the norms.

The language in Trump’s inaugural address matches his language from the election debates suggesting how he approached the campaign is likely to be how he approaches the presidency. Trump likely won’t change his style to appease critics or garner support; he simply is who he is: a straightforward individual who speaks his mind and relies on his gut instincts. Given this remarkable consistency of Trump’s language, the president will likely continue to be an unique political figure.

Helpful References

Ho, S. M., Hancock, J. T., Booth, C., Liu, X., Timmarajus, S. S., & Burmester, M. (2015, May). Liar, Liar, IM on Fire: Deceptive language-action cues in spontaneous online communication. In Intelligence and Security Informatics (ISI), 2015 IEEE International Conference on (pp. 157-159). IEEE.

Newman, M. L., Pennebaker, J. W., Berry, D. S., & Richards, J. M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 29(5), 665-675.

Pennebaker, J. W. “The secret life of pronouns: How our words reflect who we are.” New York: Bloomsbury (2011).

Pennebaker, J. W., Chung, C. K., Frazee, J., Lavergne, G. M., & Beaver, D. I. (2014). When small words foretell academic success: The case of college admissions essays. PloS one, 9(12), e115844.

Trivers, Robert. The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. Basic Books, 2011.

Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

After one of the biggest scandals of the election season so far, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met in debate for the second time. While Clinton has seen substantial gains in the polls since the first debate, Trump has been steadily losing ground with many of his own party withdrawing support in the days after the latest scandal. Did these changes in the campaigns affect the candidate’s in last night’s debate? Here we examine how the tone of the candidates as well as their sense of status may have shifted.

Emotional Tone

As with the first debate, both of the candidates launched attacks on their opponent. There were even questions addressing the negativity in the current election. Did the language in the last debate show any increasing negativity?

The graph below shows how the candidates’ emotional tones have shifted from the primary debates to the first general election debate to the most recent debate. The language of both candidates in the primaries was relatively optimistic and upbeat. As they headed into first debate with Trump trailing in the polls, Clinton maintained that sense of optimism whereas Trump’s language took a pessimistic turn. In the latest debate, Trump fell further into negativity where Clinton retained her positivity.

second-debate-tone

Clout

People who are high in clout speak confidently with a sense of certainty. They tend to use we-words and social words more while using I-words, negations (e.g. no, not), and swear words less.

Historically, both Trump and Clinton have addressed their audiences with a relatively high degree of confidence. While they were still battling their primary opponents at the time, both were consistently in the top of the field lending a sense of power in their position. In the first Clinton-Trump debate, Clinton’s word usage suggested a greater sense of status or power whereas Trump’s language was more hesitating and weak. In last night’s second debate, the candidates’ language styles reversed.  Despite his recent difficulties, Trump’s words revealed greater confidence that Clinton’s.

second-debate-clout

The Big Picture

With little time left before election day, the candidates are running out of time to gain votes. Given numerous difficulties, both are dealing with the fallout and managing voters’ perceptions. The ways in which their language has shifted suggest different reactions to their campaigns’ problems.

Donald Trump is speaking with increasing certainty and confidence but, at the same time, revealing darker and more pessimistic tones. While Trump’s scandals have garnered more attention, Hillary Clinton is not without problems of her own. In contrast to Trump, she is maintaining an optimistic tone but speaking with less certainty.

Linguistic features of candidates are very poor predictors of their electability.  Sometimes we want a warm, approachable leader and other times we want a no-nonsense autocrat. Sometimes, we just want a change. Just paying attention to their words can tell us a great deal about their personalities but much less how effective they will be in governing a nation.

The 2016 election cycle has baffled researchers across the political spectrum. Donald Trump is an aberration rarely seen at the highest levels of politics.  Linguistically, he is authentic and supremely confident but at the same time simple and not concerned with logical or formal reasoning.  There are times when we seek someone like this.  If we are buying a new car and we know nothing about cars, the salesperson who comes across as authentic, confident, and doesn’t bog us down with details can be extremely appealing.  And if the salesperson assures us, “trust me, I know more about cars than anyone”, how could we go wrong?

Trump’s appeal gets at the heart of the human psyche.  In an increasingly complex world, no one has an great understanding of the implications of major decisions.  Every political, economic, or policy change has major unintended consequences that overwhelm some of the greatest minds of our generation.  At some point, many of us simply turn to that confident new voice that promises a simple, straightforward solution that is guaranteed to work.

Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

On the night of October 4, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence met in the first and only vice presidential debate. Compared to their presidential counterparts, both have stayed out of the limelight and have avoided any significant controversy. Very soon, however, one will soon be first in line for the presidency. What do their words say about them? Are they similar to their presidential partner or radically different?.

We have discussed emotional tone and belief certainty in the blog before, most recently to analyze Clinton and Trump’s acceptance speeches. Emotional tone reflects a candidate’s optimism versus pessimism through the use of positive and negative emotion words. Belief certainty indicates the extent to which candidates are absolutely certain where they stand on various issues versus are still working through issues.  When people are still attempting to understand the complexity of a topic, they tend to use more cognitive processing words like think, know, and believe. Those who think they know Truth don’t need such words.

Emotional Tone

In an election spawning many insults and personal attacks, the emotional tone of Clinton and Trump has been surprisingly positive throughout the primary debates. Clinton maintained that optimism in the first general election debate whereas Trump turned more pessimistic. After a week of Clinton gains and Trump losses in the polls, how did their running mate’s sound?

Surprisingly, both VP candidates depart from the tone of their presidential counterparts. In contrast to Trump’s recent negativity, Pence’s words were relatively upbeat and optimistic even if his facial expressions didn’t always match. Kaine, on the other hand, who typically projects a happy and upbeat image, took a more pessimistic, negative tone in the debate opposite to Clinton’s consistent optimistic outlook.

vp-tone

Belief Certainty

Both Clinton and Trump are relatively low in belief certainty. Even in the first general debate, Clinton and Trump used language indicating that they were still processing issues and beliefs. In a debate in which Pence and Kaine focused on the presidential candidates rather than their own positions, it is worth noting if they are processing issues like their running mates’ beliefs or their own.

Kaine and Pence displayed high levels of belief certainty in their debate. Both VP candidates are dedicated to their candidates’ stances and stand by their positions. While Kaine’s certainty is unsurprising given his long standing agreement with Clinton on many issues, Pence’s certainty is somewhat unexpected. Pence initially supported another candidate in the primary and has held many positions in opposition to Trump. Despite past disagreements, Pence has embraced Trump’s views. Based on previous debates by all other candidates during the 2016 election cycle, the level of certainty of Kaine and Pence would qualify them both as “True Believers.”

vp-certainty

The Big Picture

Though the vice presidential picks are unlikely to influence the outcome of the election, one of them may well be president one day. Their language in their debate suggest two men who are loyal running mates trying to paint their own candidate in the best light while putting the opposing candidate in the worst light. Kaine’s approach focused on highlighting Trump’s faults whereas Pence tried to defend his candidate presenting an analytic, positive argument for his candidacy.

Not since Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have we heard candidates speak with such certainty about their positions.  In many ways, very high belief certainty signals a leadership style that is ideological and uncompromising.  If the two VP candidates have adopted their candidates’ views as their own, the text analysis results could be a red flag for voters are looking for an open-minded leader who can compromise across the aisle.  If the candidates were merely speaking with certainty about the presumed beliefs of Clinton and Trump, then the certainty results provide less information about how the VP candidates would think and behave on their own.

Kayla N. Jordan
University of Texas at Austin

According to polls after the debate, many people viewed Hillary Clinton as the winner of the first presidential debate and Donald Trump as underprepared. However, at the beginning of the debate, Clinton got off to a shaky start whereas Trump had a relatively strong beginning. Clinton, eventually, found her footing sounding comfortable and in control while Trump seemed increasingly defensive and uncomfortable. What happened? To answer this question, we look at a linguistic marker of self-confidence: I-words (e.g. I, me, my).

People who are self-confident and secure tend to use fewer I-words. In the primary debates, both Clinton and Trump used I-words at high rates suggesting possible insecurity. In the first third of debate this week, Clinton started off using I-words more frequently than Trump. By the second third of the debate, Clinton’s I-word use dropped dramatically while Trump’s I-word use rose. Clinton’s decline in self-focus suggests a rise in self-confidence where Trump’s language is indicative of a loss of confidence. One possible explanation for their change in confidence is the issues brought up with the first third playing to Trump’s strengths and Clinton’s weaknesses before reversing. Overall, Clinton and Trump vary in the comfortability with the issues and the debate stage.

i-words-general

Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

This week Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met on the debate stage for the first time. In looking at their language so far, we have found the candidates to be remarkably consistent with their earlier primary debates in their language styles. Throughout their campaigns both candidates have faced numerous challenges to their temperaments and their honesty. Given the perceptions of their weaknesses, the candidates may have tried to change how they approached the debate their first presidential debate. We examine two ways the candidates may have changed: (1) are they more analytic or more narrative and (2) are they more authentic or more distant?

Analytic Thinking

As we have discussed in previous posts, people differ in the ways they think. Some people think in a formal, logical manner indicated by the greater use of nouns, articles, and prepositions. Others rely more on stories and narrative communicating in an informal manner using more pronouns, auxiliary verbs (e.g. is, have, was), and common adverbs (e.g. really, so, very).

During the primary debates, Clinton spoke using a formal, analytic style. She focused on her policy proposals and issues and laid them out in a logical fashion. Trump had a shoot-from-the-hip, informal way of speaking using stories and anecdotes to explain his thinking. Have their thinking styles changed? In Trump’s case, no. As you can see in the graph below, his numbers are virtually identical. Trump remains very much a narrative, intuitive thinker. Clinton, on the other hand, was more narrative than normal at this debate getting closer to Trump’s thinking style. Given her opponent and some of the criticisms she has faced, Clinton may have tried to be more personable and less formal to better appeal to voters.

analytic-trump-clinton

Authenticity

The words people use also reflect how authentic or personal they sound. People who are authentic tend to use more I-words (e.g. I, me, mine), present-tense verbs, and relativity words (e.g. near, new) and fewer she-he words (e.g. his, her) and discrepancies (e.g. should, could).

In the primary debates, both Trump and Clinton came across as relatively authentic and personal though Clinton was a bit more distant. Have the candidates changed? Once again, Trump has changed very little since the primaries. He is still speaking his mind in straight-forward, authentic way. Clinton, however, has changed rather dramatically. After a few recent scandals, it is perhaps somewhat unsurprising that Clinton has become more distant and inauthentic.

authentic-trump-clinton

The Big Picture

As Clinton said in the debate, “words matter.”  Indeed, the words people use reveal important facets about them. So what does the debate language of Clinton and Trump say about them?

Clinton. Clinton’s language has changed the most from the primary debates. She went from being analytic to more narrative and from relatively authentic to rather distant. By all accounts, she spent quite a bit of time preparing for the debate to change the way she speaks to address criticisms she has faced. Her drop in authenticity could be a result of consciously altering how she normally speaks. Her drop in authenticity may also give people a sense of her being more authoritative. Given the way she has been criticized for not being open (despite often being more accurate than Trump according to fact checkers like CNN and PoliFact), shifting back to her more honest style might be in order.

Trump. When not reading from a script, Donald Trump is remarkably consistent. Trump says what he thinks and believes in what he says. Unlike Clinton, Trump did not seem to spend much time preparing for the debate. For better or worse, Trump is who he is and may not change to court new voters or change people’s perceptions.