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.


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.


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.

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.

drive orientations

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

by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker

Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

After a spirited third debate among the Republicans, we are seeing how the Republicans are shaping up. In this post, we check out how the frontrunners – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorino, and Ben Carson – compare across the debates in terms of time orientation. Are they stuck in the past, rooted in the present, or looking to the future?

Time orientation is tied to reward sensitivity, impulse control, need for consistency, age, culture, and political orientation. At its core, time orientation tells us where people are looking and how they are relating to events. People focusing on the past are thinking about events that are certain, unchangeable, relatively knowable, and somewhat psychological distant. People who talk about the past rely on historical events when making decisions about about the present and future.  Research in our lab also suggests that past-oriented people tend to be relatively liberal, optimistic, and well-adjusted.

People oriented towards the present are thinking about current events that are psychologically close. Present-focused people tend to be more neurotic, depressed, and pessimistic than either past- of future-oriented people.  Among students in college, a present-focus predicts poorer class performance — probably because it hampers their ability to look at the big picture.

Future-oriented people focus on events that are not certain or knowable but are changeable and unpredictable and, like past events, are psychologically distant. Our research with thousands of students suggests that a future orientation is associated with general anxiety or worry with a deep sense of responsibility and conscientiousness.  Consequently, future orientation can be the result of a need for security, safety, and tradition.

It is relatively easy to measure time orientation by analyzing the words people use in everyday language using our text analysis program, LIWC2015. A past focus includes past tense verbs as well as words such as earlier and yesterday. A present focus includes present tense verbs and words like now and currently. A future focus involves using words such as will, foresee, and plan

p2 time orient

Note. Word frequencies  of each time orientation were standardized (z-scored) based on all debate speakers then the standard score was divided by the sum of the absolute values of scores of all time orientations and re-scaled such that a score of 50 represents the average across candidates. Within candidates, scores greater than 50 indicate that time orientation is dominant relative to the other orientations.

The graph is based on the debate language of the five Republican frontrunners in terms of their time orientation. People can be high or low on each of the dimensions.  So, for example, Bush is high on both past and future orientation whereas Trump is relatively high on all three. (In fact, Trump’s time orientation is unlike anyone else’s). What’s most interesting, however, is to focus on the highest dimension for each person.

Bush stands out by being the highest in past orientation.  It is consistent with his being relatively optimistic and upbeat. And, in comparison to the other candidates, relatively liberal (we’ll keep this little secret to ourselves — his campaign would not like to hear this). In the last debate, Bush focused more on his own past record (and the past mistakes of others) than the other candidates while still keeping an eye to the future.

Carson is unique in having a much higher focus on the present than to the past or future. Such an approach would hint at his not using much evidence from the past or long term considerations about the future in his decisions. As he is a relative newcomer to politics, he could be focusing on pressing, present problems without having a political past to draw from or a clear direction for future goals. Interestingly, this pattern might suggest that he could be more unhappy or worried than he sometimes appears.

Fiorina and Rubio have similar profiles — highest in future orientation and lowest in past.  Consistent with other findings, this strategy reflects their deep concerns about security, instability, and the unpredictability of the future. They would like to focus on making plans to improve the future with a sense of responsibility and dedication.  Like Carson, this pattern could indicate that Fiorina and Rubio may be more anxious or worried than they let on.

Finally, there is the odd man out — Donald Trump. Trump is slightly higher in future orientation but is still above average in past and present orientation. This pattern suggests that Trump has a more balanced time orientation and may shift his focus depending on the situation or topic. For example, when asked about economic issues in the last debate, Trump often referenced his past in business, but when asked about immigration, he focused more on his plans and goals for the future. Overall, it is premature to characterize Trump along the time dimensions; as he said in the last debate, perhaps he just likes being unpredictable.

Like our last post, these analyses reveal how the candidates are approaching the issues and give a hint as to how they may act if elected. There are a couple of ways in which the current analyses accomplish this. One, they give a sense of how the candidates are orienting their campaigns. Are they stuck rehashing past successes and failures or are they actually looking to the future and planning what they would do if elected? Two, these analyses hint at how the candidates may approach problems. What are the qualities that make a good president — optimism, pessimism, or conscientiousness, perhaps? How might a president with these different qualities approach decisions?

This analysis is only one part of the bigger picture. In weeks ahead as the election season progresses, we will be focusing on different dimensions of language to provide an in-depth, global look at how these political candidates are thinking and behaving.


Guo, T., Ji, L., Spina, R., & Zhang, Z. (2012). Culture, temporal focus, and values of the past and the future. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(8), 1030-1040.

Robinson, M. D., Cassidy, D. M., Boyd, R. L., & Fetterman, A. K. (2015). The politics of time: Conservatives differentially reference the past and liberals differentially reference the future. Journal of Applied Social Psychology,45(7), 391-399. doi:10.1111/jasp.12306

Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1271-1288. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1271

The ways people use pronouns tells us how they are viewing themselves and their social worlds.  The analysis of five Republican and Democratic debates (June 2007, November 2007, December 2007, and two January 2008) were analyzed by each major candidate’s use of pronouns.  Not surprisingly, each candidate reveals a different side to the audience.

Use of I versus We.  Previous studies show that the use of 1st person singular (I, me, mine) is associate with:

  • honesty
  • being personal, more self-reflective
  • low in dominance, less threatening
  • less happy

In previous elections, Bush used “I” words at much higher rates than either Gore or Kerry; Bill Clinton used them more than Bush 41 or Dole.  Check out the graph.

  • iwords.jpg

Use of 1st person plural (we, us, our…) is even more diagnostic within a political context.  Within a political debate or speech context, people who use high rates of we-words are:

  • psychologically distant, less able to emotionally connect with the audience
  • often use “we” to mean “you”
  • more arrogant

Check out the second graph. 

 1st person plural (we, us, our)

You see that Obama, McCain, and Romney are the highest along these dimensions.

The I versus We ratio.  One more way to look at I and we is to compute a ratio where I-use is divided by the sum of I plus We.  Based on previous elections, the higher the ratio (that is, the relatively more use of I), the more likely the person was to get elected.  Overall, Clinton and Edwards are the highest by far with Obama the lowest.

1st person pronoun conclusions.  Don’t bet the farm just yet but the pronoun count strongly favors Hillary Clinton.  Someone should have a little chat with Obama about his vague overuse of “we”.  Who is the “we” he keeps referring to? Is he using this as code for “you”?