Wednesday, October 15, 2008


An article by Wapner points to the work of James Pennebacker and his Wordwatchers blog that is tracking the candidates use of words during the 2008 election. The blog makes fascinating reading. Here is just one clip:
Predicting how they will govern. Most language dimensions that we study are probably better markers of how people will lead than who will vote for them. Some dimensions that are relevant include:

Cognitive complexity. A particularly reliable marker of cognitive complexity is the exclusive word dimension. Exclusive words such as but, except, without, exclude, signal that the speaker is making an effort to distinguish what is in a category and not in a category. Those who use more exclusive words make better grades in college, are more honest in lab studies, and have more nuanced understanding of events and people. Through the primaries until now, Obama has consistently been the highest in exclusive word use and McCain the lowest.

Categorical versus fluid thinking. Some people naturally approach problems by assigning them to categories. Categorical thinking involves the use of articles (a, an, the) and concrete nouns. Men, for example, use articles at much higher rates than women. Fluid thinking involves describing actions and changes, often in more abstract ways. A crude measure of fluid thinking is the use of verbs. Women use verbs more than men.

McCain and Obama could not be more different in their use of articles and verbs. McCain uses verbs at an extremely low rate and articles at a fairly high rate. Obama, on the other hand, is remarkably high in his use of verbs and low in his use of articles. These patterns suggest that McCain’s natural way of understanding the world is to first label the problem and find a way to put it into a pre-existing category. Obama is more likely to define the world as ongoing actions or processes.

Personal and socially connected. Individuals who think about and try to connect with others tend to use more personal pronouns (I, we, you, she, they) than those who are more socially detached. Bush was higher than Kerry or Gore. McCain has consistently been much higher than any other candidate in this election cycle. His use of 1st person singular (I, me, my) is particularly high which often signals an openness and honesty. Obama uses personal pronouns at moderate levels - similar to Hillary Clinton and most other primary candidates of both parties.

Restrained versus impulsive. People vary in the degree to which they act quickly or shoot from the hip versus stand back and consider their options. Over the last few years, some have argued that the use of negations (e.g., no, not, never) indicate a sign of inhibition or constraint. Low use of negations may be linked to impulsiveness. Bush was low in negations whereas Kerry was quite high. Across the election cycle, Obama has consistently been the highest user of negations - suggesting a restrained approach - where as McCain has been the lowest - a more impulsive way of dealing with the world.

1 comment:

  1. pretty fascinating stuff. i've been focused over the last month a bit on how the candidates use language to manipulate the psychology of voters. McCain for example referring to us as "my friends" or expressing in passing Obama's naivete or instilling fear into voters with words like "dangerous". but i hadn't thought too much about what their linguistic patterns reveal about them...