By Nia Dowell, John Myers, and Arthur Graesser, Department of Psychology and the Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Memphis

It’s early November in a presidential election year, and every time candidates open their mouths, they are trying to persuade potential voters. Clearly, language is a powerful tool used by politicians to deliver persuasive messages and gain support.

With this in mind, we examined the extent to which the presidential and vice presidential candidates utilized the theoretically grounded strategies of persuasion put forth by Petty & Cacioppo (1984). Their research discriminates between two distinct paths to persuasion, namely the central route and the peripheral route.

The central route is characterized by coherent, logical, expository language, resulting in a formal complicated message. The upside of this central route is that ­once you are persuaded, you usually stay persuaded. That is, the central route results in a rather stable opinion and attitude change. In the political context, however, the downside of the central route is that the majority of people in the general public audience may not be motivated or educated enough to digest a message that might appear a little dry. From a political candidate’s point of view, this obviously has many detrimental consequences, maybe millions if you consider the number of “tuned out” Americans out there.

The peripheral route offers more advantages to political candidates striving to gain the support and retain the attention of the masses. The peripheral route is characterized by entertaining, narrative discourse that is more informal and easier to comprehend. As you might have guessed, successful persuasion via the peripheral route is quite temporary and unstable. However, considering that the election is less than one week away, this may be all the candidates really need.

So, now you no doubt want to know, who took what route in the recent 2012 election debates: The Democrats or Republicans?

Using a computational linguistics facility, Coh-Metrix (Graesser, McNamara, & Kulikowich, 2011), we assessed the extent to which the presidential and vice presidential candidates pursued the central and peripheral routes to persuasion.

Coh-Metrix is an automated linguistic analysis tool that analyzes text by measures of genre, cohesion, syntax, words, and other characteristics of language and discourse. Coh-Metrix is sensitive to a wide range of linguistic/discourse features that reflect multiple levels of complexity. Five orthogonal Coh-Metrix dimensions of text characteristics were identified as accounting for most of the variability in text complexity among 37,521 texts in a principal components analysis:

  1. Narrativity. The extent to which a text features story-like elements, such as characters and events, which are closely affiliated with everyday oral conversation.
  2. Deep cohesion. The extent to which the ideas in a text are connected with causal, intentional, or temporal connectives at a deeper level of semantic understanding.
  3. Referential cohesion. The extent to which discourse contains explicit words and ideas that overlap across sentences and the entire text.
  4. Syntactic ease. Sentences with fewer words and simple, less embedded syntactic structures are easier to process and understand.
  5. Word concreteness. The extent to which a text features concrete words that tend to evoke mental images and are more meaningful to the reader than abstract words.

Using these measures we were able to compute a composite measure of formality.  Formal text is informational (rather than narrative) with high cohesion, complex syntax, and abstract words.  Informal text is more narrative, with lower cohesion, simple syntax, and concrete words.

Our analysis of the presidential and vice presidential debates revealed some interesting, and potentially alarming results for the future of the democratic candidates (Obama and Biden) with regard to their persuasive impact.

Presidential Debates

Debate I: For the first presidential debate, we observe a clear difference in language formality. This difference in formality may tip the ballot in favor of Romney, with regard to persuasion. Romney came out swinging, using the language of the “people” and capitalizing on the peripheral route to persuasion. Obama had more complex syntax and deeper cohesion, but those features of language are not aligned with the peripheral route to persuasion.


Debate II: For the second presidential debate, we see a slight increase in formality for Romney compared with the first debate, but we still observe this same pattern in language formality between the candidates.


Debate III: So who’s advising the president?! In the third debate, we watched him take more than a serving of the formal discourse pie and continue to use complex and stilted language.  Did he lose the attention of the masses this time around?


Vice Presidential Debate

Similarly, we witness a formal and complicated message for the democratic vice president, Biden, as he follows suite with his running partner by using the central route to persuasion. Ryan, on the other hand, is keeping it more informal and simpler, steadily keeping the attention of the masses via the peripheral route to persuasion.


Bottom Line

The Democrats may have more formal language and appeal to the smart voters who are attracted to the central route to persuasion.  However, the peripheral route to persuasion is more effective for most voters.  On November 6 we shall see which route reigns supreme.


Graesser, A.C., McNamara, D.S., & Kulikowich, J. (2011).  Coh-Metrix: Providing multilevel analyses of text characteristics.  Educational Researcher, 40, 223-234.

Petty, R., & Cacioppo, J. (1984). The effects of involvement on responses to argument quantity over quality: Central and peripheral routes to persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 69-81.


by James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung

Pundits are reporting that the third debate on foreign policy was a toss-up, perhaps with a very slight edge in Obama’s favor.  The stubbornly objective computerized text analysis program, LIWC, refused to name a winner.  But in counting different types of words by Obama and Romney, LIWC revealed some word patterns that tell us a little more about the two candidates.

The candidates as communicators: businessman versus professor.  Romney and Obama break down ideas and express them in very different ways.  They simply think differently.

Across the debates, Romney uses shorter words and shorter sentences.  He tends to be more concrete, breaking problems into more precise categories.  Compared to Obama, he uses a high rate of articles (a, an, the) which reflects his reference to concrete nouns.  These nouns are well organized; by his high use of prepositions and specific references to spatial words (above, around, below, outside), Romney provides a roadmap of his thoughts.

Obama tends to be a more theoretical communicator.  His sentences are much longer, his words bigger, and he is much less personal.  Unlike Romney, Obama often sets up a context for his thoughts. Look at the way he often starts a response to a question: “Well, my first job as commander in chief, Bob, is to keep the American people safe. “; “You’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean.“; “When I came into office, we were still bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan had been drifting for a decade.

Compare those first sentences to some of Romney’s:  “Well, my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys…“; “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria. I don’t think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage.”  “Well I believe we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.

Obama thinks about a problem within a broader context;  Romney tends to answer questions directly and then brings up contextual matters after the fact.  These two types of thinking are likely to lead to very different strategies in decision making.  A contextual thinker will likely spend more time looking at a problem from multiple perspectives.  A more categorical thinker will likely have a more set world view and simply make decisions from pre-existing values or beliefs.

Ultimately, the two candidates are revealing their backgrounds. Romney is a businessman with a clear sense of economic realities, and a bottom line.  Obama is, at heart, an academic — a world where there are multiple ways to get at truth, and so competing views must be acknowledged.

Candidates as people: social relationships versus achievement.  Despite the nastiness of the 2012 presidential election, both candidates have come across as honest, decent people.  They both appear to have warm and stable families.  One thing that a text analysis method can help uncover are some of the basic values that are central to candidates.  Across the debates, the two men have made references to money, religion, death, and family at similar rates.  Two language dimensions that have emerged are references to other people and references to achievement and work.

One dimension of the LIWC program counts references to anything social — people, conversations, friendship, or anything that suggests an interest in or awareness of other people. Within each of the three debates, Obama has consistently used social words about 10% more frequently than Romney.  In his mind, the current economic difficulties are a problem because they hurt people.

Romney, on the other hand, has consistently used words that suggest achievement (e.g., earn, success, win).  Not surprisingly, Romney has also made greater references to the related dimension of work.  Work words include a variety of more economically-relevant words such as job, paycheck, and company.  Whereas Obama views economic difficulties as people-problems, Romney frames the recession as something that undermines achievement, jobs, and progress.

Obviously, a recession is bad for companies and for people.  But the framing of the problem reveals differences in core values about people and human nature.  Ultimately, it likely drives what each believes to be the most effective solution.

The debate language of Obama and Romney.  It should be noted that debates are a very peculiar interaction in which to study language use and personality.  Although many labs and companies have examined the men’s language use, body language, and voice characteristics, we are most impressed by how similar the two really are.  They are both smart, eloquent, formal, and trustworthy.

The analysis of pronouns and other function words is helpful in revealing how people are speaking or thinking. LIWC can also give insight into personalities and even central values.  The degree to which Americans agree with what the candidates are saying remains to be determined in the upcoming elections.

by James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung

The October 16, 2012 debate was interesting for several reasons.  First, there was a shift in the social dynamics between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  As you can see in an earlier post, the first debate revealed Romney to be more authentic and slightly less optimistic and warm than Obama. Both were equally evasive in answering questions.

Most striking has been the immediate reaction from pundits — who generally claim that Obama was far stronger, more assertive, and more engaged than he was in the first debate.  Others note that Romney was more defensive.  Our text analysis procedure showed that both candidates were surprisingly similar in their use of words across the two debates.  We are pleased to officially announce that peoples’ personalities tend to remain constant over time and context.

But first, the award winners.

The authenticity award: Mitt Romney.

Authenticity reflects markers of self-reflection (I-words), cognitive complexity, and relative low rates of negative emotion.  Compared to the first debate, both Romney and Obama are both becoming more authentic.  However, Romney maintains a small lead (4.6 vs 4.2; compared to the first debate where Romney beat Obama by 4.4 vs 3.5).

The warmth and optimism award: Barack Obama

In the first debate, both men were quite similar, with Obama leading slightly. In the second debate, Romney made strides in sounding more optimistic. Ultimately, however, both were consistently emotionally distant.  Contrary to common wisdom, the rate of anger words was virtually identical to the first debate.  Most pundits claim that this was a more hostile debate but in anger word usage, it wasn’t.

The evasiveness award: Barack Obama

Using Language Style Matching, or LSM, we can calculate the degree to which each presidential candidate uses language congruent with the moderator Candy Crowley or the TV-studio audience question-askers.  We assume that the more similar the language style, the more the candidate is answering the questions and reflecting the thinking of the questioner.  In the first debate, both men were equally evasive with Lehrer.

In the second debate, both men answered all the questions more directly.  However, Romney was reliably more on target with the questions than was Obama (LSM coefficients for Romney were .94 vs .92 for Obama with Crowley; .90 for Romney  vs .86 for Obama with audience questions).

Interestingly, the two candidates matched in their language styles slightly more in the second debate (LSM coefficient of .95) relative to the first debate (.92), indicating greater engagement with one another.  So, although the candidates were not firing more angry words, the more subtle language style metric indicates that the candidates are increasingly vigilant about what the other is saying; things are indeed heating up.

The Big Picture

Standing back, what does all of this mean about the basic personality or character of both men?  It’s important to emphasize that both men use language the same ways they did four years ago.  The debates are simply revealing that they are the same people we have always known.

Obama.  Barack Obama is psychologically cool.  He does not use personal or emotional language at high rates.  Although he is a narrative thinker, he is not close to people.  If you listen to the way he answers questions, he tends to provide a brief history and context.  He is highly confident in his abilities.  Above all, he is consistent.  He has probably changed less in the last four years than any other president since Franklin Roosevelt changed during their first term.

Romney.  Mitt Romney is surprisingly similar to Obama.  He is psychologically distant although he uses I-words at rates slightly higher than Obama.  He is not particularly emotional nor is he socially connected to others.  The one difference from Obama is that Romney’s thinking is very male-like.  He uses a very high rate of articles and nouns — a sign that he tends to categorize and label problems in a traditional way.  The way he approaches problem is not unlike that of George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon.

Tune into Sosolimited’s web app,, during the third debate (10/22/12) for a live language analysis.  Following the third debate, we will explore the psychological dimensions of both candidates in greater detail.

Also, check out a brief video discussion:

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”?