March 1, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
October 10, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
October 5, 2016
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.
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.
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.”
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.
September 24, 2008
by Molly Ireland
Joe Biden is notorious for embarrassing interview blunders. He can be a little too uncensored and tends to go off-message when he’s not reading from a script. Our analysis shows, however, that Biden’s speech writers might want to take a few cues from his interview persona. In interviews the Democratic vice presidential candidate is more human and less severe than he is in speeches. When talking as himself, Biden talks like a normal person, using pronouns and verbs at rates that closely match the speaking styles of the average people we’ve recorded over the years. Consequently, in interviews Biden is more approachable, more socially connected, and also more cautious and insightful – in other words, he sounds like a human leader rather than a stuffed suit. The good news about Biden’s interview language is, unfortunately, bad news for his speeches. In speeches Biden comes across as stern and slightly awkward. Whether a candidate appears warm and human or cold and preprogrammed could decide the election. It has in the past.
Here’s a quick summary of the significant differences between Biden in interviews and speeches:
Sensory words: “looking forward,” “her silence…was deafening.” Biden uses more sensory words in interviews. In conversations with journalists, he’s more likely to say things like “I see” and “I hear” (no difference in feeling words). In this example from his September 7th interview with Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press, Biden talks about listening to news about Palin:
I mean, I hear this talk about, you know, is she going to pick up Hillary voters? Well, I–so far I haven’t heard one single policy position, one single position that she has in common with Hillary.
And from the same interview, in response to Brokaw’s question about whether Democrats should be afraid of Palin:
I mean, I think it’s–well, I don’t–look, that’s for voters to decide. … And as I look down the road, that’s how I’ve always debated whoever I’ve debated, including the really tough women I work with, smart women, in the Senate. So I, I, I really don’t view this any differently. I may be surprised here down the road. But, but, you know, I’m just looking forward to debating her. I mean, why–look, she had a great speech. But what was–her silence on the issues was deafening.
Here Biden is using “look,” “see,” and “hear” in ways that would be common in a normal conversation. He also talks about deafening silence and looking down the road, using sensory metaphors so that his points sink in immediately and make a more visceral impact. Using sensory words figuratively and literally reminds us that Biden is a person – a seeing, hearing person – rather than a disembodied head floating above a lectern.
God and emotion: praying for the troops, but without the melodrama. Biden’s interview language is also more natural in that he talks less about God and death less and uses fewer emotional words than in speeches. In the last several years Republican politicians have made a point of talking about “godless liberals” to motivate fundamentalist Christian voters. Consequently, Democrats have had to talk about God a lot just in order to convince voters that they aren’t in fact heralds of the Beast. The fact that Biden talks about religion a lot more in scripted speeches than in off-script interviews may be caused by this trend. His notoriously uncensored interview language is probably closer to his normal way of speaking. Importantly, in interviews Biden talks about religion almost exactly as much as an average person in conversation: rarely (.3% for Biden, .2% for average people). Religion is private and, in face-to-face talks, Biden usually keeps it that way.
In speeches, Biden used 3.5% negative emotion words, compared with 2.5%, the average for people in conversations. Speeches are meant to be stirring, and it makes sense that speeches given by candidates who oppose the current administration would contain more negative emotions than would be normal in any other setting. So while it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Biden uses more negative emotions in speeches, it is a good sign for the Democratic party he’s less melodramatic and more easygoing in conversation with interviewers. Comfortable, emotionally controlled interviewees make better diplomats than hot-headed gunslingers.
Pronouns, verb tense, and cognitive complexity: “I know,” “because I think.” You can also see in the examples above that he’s using less “we,” and more “I” and third person singular (she, he). He still uses “I” at a pretty low rate in interviews, on average — 4.8% in his most recent interview, with Brokaw, and 2.8% on average over the last three years. But Biden is no Woody Allen – his “I” use is certainly not off the charts. While high “I” – above about 8% — is correlated with neuroticism and maladaptively high self-focus, Biden’s “I” use in the Brokaw interview and on average is significantly less than most people. Low “I” use in conversation usually signifies that the speaker is of higher status. Rather than talking about himself, he is thinking about others, what they should do, how their actions will affect the US, etc. His relatively low “I” use here probably reflects the fact that he is, as a vice presidential nominee with a long, venerable resume, objectively a high status politician.
Also, when Biden uses “I” it’s very rarely in self-critical or self-obsessive ways. In interviews Joe Biden says “I think,” “I know”, and “I mean” frequently. In fact, in speeches and interviews, Biden uses tentative (probably, depends) and insight words (think, know) as well as prepositions (about, within) and conjunctions (but, or) more often in interviews than in speeches. All of these word categories signify greater cognitive complexity. Tentative words particularly are signs of carefulness and restraint – good qualities for a wartime leader to have.
His higher use of “she/he” (1.6% vs .7% in speeches) and “you” (1.6% vs .5%) also shows that he is somewhat socially oriented, and that he is thinking and talking about others almost as much as he is about himself. Again, his “she/he” use is still only about average – he pays attention to the people around him, but he’s not a gossip.
Verbs, past and present. Biden uses present tense and past tense more in interviews than in speeches, although he still uses both tenses less than we normally see in average conversations. His speech writers—and the Republican nominees’ writers, by the way—seem to be trying to spread their message of hope and progress by talking about the future more often than is normal, and the past abnormally infrequently. Usually people use past tense about four times as often as present tense (4% vs. 1%); in Biden’s speeches, he references the future about as often as the past (1.6% past vs. 1.4% future).
Talking more about the future and less about the past in speeches may backfire, making Democrats seem more like starry-eyed future gazers rather than battle-ready realists. In the last few months and during the elections of 2000 and 2004, analysts on both sides of the political divide complained that Democrats failed to seize a multitude of opportunities to capitalize on Republicans’ vulnerabilities – including blatant hypocrisy (male anti-gay rights activists seducing young men online) and campaign misconduct (calling voters at inopportune times with obnoxious messages supposedly from Democratic candidates). The sub-normal levels of past tense verbs in both Biden’s and Obama’s speeches indicate that the party so far appears to be set on the same naïve path.
When Biden is uncensored, on the other hand, he basically gets it right. His increased use of verbs — particularly his much more normal use of past and future tense verbs — makes Biden seem more like a man of action and an everyman in interviews than in speeches.
Summary. To sum up, in interviews Biden comes across as a high status, cognitively complex, but eminently approachable everyman. In terms of pronouns, Biden’s language is high status (lower than average “I”) but personable (higher “I” and lower “we” than in speeches, higher “she/he” and “you” use). He also seems to be an insightful, careful leader, as you can see by his increased use of insight words and other measures of cognitive complexity. Biden also has a tendency to pay much more attention to the present and past in interviews than in speeches. In this respect his language is much closer to a normal person in conversation than most future-gazing politicians. He is also much more natural when talking about religion and emotions in interviews compared with speeches. In speeches he uses far more negative emotion words and religious words than the average person, while in interviews his language in these categories is indistinguishable from the common man he wants to represent.