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The Language of the 2010 UK Debates:
Assessing Optimism, Honesty, and Thinking Styles

Dr Raj Persaud, Consultant Psychiatrist, and James Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology University of Texas

The last debate has ended and the polls deliver the instant reaction of the electorate – preliminary results suggest its Cameron who appears to have ‘won’ this round. While what psychologists term ‘recency’ effects might suggest it’s this last debate that is going to have the most profound impact on the electorate, within research psychology, there are also well known ‘primacy’ effects, whereby the impact of first impressions appear to have more force than later events, suggesting the surprise of the first debate could remain surprisingly salient.

Perhaps in this uncertain environment, the best bet is it’s probably the cumulative effect of all three debates – televised candidates debates were the unprecedented innovation of this campaign – which is going to be what really plays in the privacy of the voting booth on election day.

With the final debate on Thursday night, people have heard each of the three candidates spew over 17,000 words – that’s more than the average human says in a full day.  Using computerized text analysis methods, we now have a fairly good picture of how each of the candidates uses language within the debate setting.

James Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has pioneered the use of an exclusive computer programme called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) which he has deployed previously in academic research to investigate differences in verbal style between political candidates and whether there are links with the outcome of elections. A study he has published in the Journal of Research in Personality with Richard Slatcher and colleagues entitled ‘Winning words: Individual Differences in linguistic style among US Presidential and vice presidential candidates’ is discussed in previous The S Word blogs, along with how he has deployed this technique to uniquely analyse the UK Election Televised Debates exclusively for New Scientist.

The LIWC program is based on the proposal that words people use in everyday speech reflects who they are. Of particular relevance are a group of words called function or junk words.  These almost-invisible words include pronouns (such as you, me, they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (for, with, to), etc.  The ways people use these words can tell us about speakers’ emotional states, formality, honesty, thinking styles, and other dimensions of how they approach their worlds.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg all have distinctive speaking styles that highlight different parts of their personality.  Some of these differences are obvious; others are not.


Martin Seligman, a Professor of Psychology who emphasizes the importance of optimism in helping people achieve goals, published a famous study with colleagues in the journal American Psychologist which appeared to show that optimism was vital to a candidate’s chances of electoral success. He demonstrated through analyses of US Presidential candidates’ nomination acceptance speeches from 1948 to 1984, those candidates who were more ‘pessimistically ruminative’ in their language, went on to lose 9 of the 10 elections. By sheer chance alone optimism/pessimism dimension would be associated with 5 out of 10 not the actual figure of 9 out of 10, which the authors argued indicated suggests word usage must be having some significant effect on voters.

It is instructive to examine in more detail the exception to Seligman’s and colleagues optimism trend which was the 1968 election. It is notable in that election, Humphrey was more optimistic than Nixon, the rival candidate, and only marginally so. Humphrey also began his campaign with the major disadvantage of a key electoral event, the Chicago riots, which produced a deficit for him of a hammering 16.2% in the polls. Yet his superior optimism meant that during the shortest period between the conventions and election in recent history, he narrowed that gap to 0.8%.

What is intriguing about this example is that it shows, of course, language used by politicians isn’t the only factor in determining the outcome of an election, real events out there in the world also play a vital role. However, it is how politicians react to these events, with, for example a particular explanatory style, that also appears essential to their eventual success. Gordon Brown had faced a key incident the day before the debate that many in the media argued has sealed his fate. Psychologists might dispute that what in fact determines his destiny is also how he responds and reacts to the event.

In the first debate Clegg scored lowest on dwelling on the past and highest on use of positive emotions, exactly what a psychologist would brief him to do if he wanted to tap into the electoral power of linguistic optimism. However, by the third debate and using all the words used over all three encounters, Pennebaker’s analysis finds he has ceded the lead to Cameron. Cameron now scores best on four of the six key measures of verbal optimism as measured using Pennebaker’s technique.

People who are upbeat and optimistic tend to use present and future tense verbs, first person plural pronouns (we, our, us), simple words, and words that denote positive feelings and, at the same time, tend to avoid words that express negative feelings.  Although the first debate found Clegg and Cameron to be quite high in optimism, Clegg’s upbeat language use has steadily fallen whereas Cameron’s has jumped ever since.  For last night’s debate, David Cameron was by the most upbeat and optimistic followed by Clegg with Brown far behind.

Why does optimism matter so much? The psychological theory would go something like this: if we think of the opposite of optimism, which is pessimism, there is accumulating psychiatric research which suggests this explanatory style and outlook on life leads to helplessness.

Helplessness in turn appears to reliably produce clinical depression. The UK, like many countries in the current fiscal quagmire, is facing unusually serious problems. This makes us anxious, so we want to elect leaders who are going to solve our problems. We intuitively understand that candidates who approach these problems with the self-belief and assurance that they can and will be solved, are more appealing, compared with contenders whose demeanor does not inspire confidence that difficulties can be overcome.

Of course, the key problem is the danger of electing a candidate who is unrealistically optimistic (some might term it ‘unrealistic optimism’ that lead to one fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction along with perhaps ‘unrealistic optimism’ about the aftermath of the subsequent war?). It is interesting in this regard that a recent psychological study entitled ‘Self-Perception and Psychological Well-Being: The Benefits of Foreseeing a Worse Future’ has found that being unrealistically optimistic can also lead to lower well-being in the future.

Perhaps in order to avoid the unrealistic optimist, we need to search for the candidate who is also willing to be searingly honest. 


Over the last 10 years, more than a dozen studies of all kinds have analyzed the language of honesty and deception.  At least five language dimensions are reliably linked with honesty and another 3-4 are associated with lying.  People are more likely to be telling the truth if a) their sentences are longer and more complex, b) they use I-words more (e.g., I, me, my), c) they use bigger words, d) the make more references to time and motion, and e) they use more self-reflective words such realize, understand, and think.  The best markers of deception are would-should-could verbs, positive emotion words, and you-words.  Averaging across all these dimensions, Gordon Brown comes across as having the most honest language profile. Clegg comes in a distant second with Cameron close behind Clegg.

How do we square this linguistic analysis with the now notorious incident on Wednesday where Brown came over, in the long run, as incredibly insincere when confronted with an ordinary voter? One possible explanation might be that Brown is being honest in the context of a debate with non-ordinary people, ie politicians, but when confronted with ‘normal’ folk he struggles to adapt, and in particular another personality feature comes into play, his reputation for impatience with those who don’t comply with him while in his personal space.

It is intriguing to note also in this regard of how events are shaping the campaign as politicians responses on the hoof reveal more about them than the all the preparation in the world can hide, Clegg scored dramatically highest in the first debate on markers like use of I-words, but by the time all three had occurred and every one of the words were used in Pennebaker’s analysis, he had lost his significant advantage in this area.

Thinking style

The various text analysis methods find that all three candidates are quite bright.  They do, however, think differently.  One interesting difference in thinking is how people break down a complex problem.  For example, if confronted with a new challenge, one strategy is to reduce the problem into its component parts.  To do this, people generally use concrete nouns (which are reflected in the use of articles) and, the more specific they become, they will need prepositions and other linguistic devices (such as relativity words) that reflect specific concepts, objects, and things.  We refer to this as analytic thinking.  Another approach is to trace the evolution of problems and project how they will change in the future.  Looking at how events unfold over time requires more verbs, especially past and future tense.  This is often called dynamic thinking.

Gordon Brown is quite analytic in his approach whereas David Cameron is strongly dynamic.  Nick Clegg is midway between the other two on both of these dimensions.  If you would like to see examples of these differences in thinking, read how the three responded to a question about what their party would do to help families pay for housing:

Gordon Brown: …there is a pent-up demand for housing in our country. There are one million more home owners than there were just over ten years ago, so more people are buying their homes. …Shared equity is something that might be considered because that’s a chance to buy up a part of your house, and it’s become a more popular way of doing things and we are able to help finance that and work with the building societies and banks.

David Cameron: I have every sympathy with you because, frankly, today in our country, people who try and work hard and save, and obey the rules, and do the right thing. All too often, they just find hurdle after hurdle put in their way, whereas people who actually don’t play by the rules, who don’t think about saving and don’t think about their behaviour often get rewarded and that’s not right.

Nick Clegg: … this is one of the things that I, along with immigration, actually, that I probably hear about more than anything else as I travel around the country, a lack of affordable housing as I travel round the country. The lack of affordable housing. The people in your situation, but then there are, I think, 1.8 million families, that’s five million people, who are still on the waiting list for an affordable home.

As you can see, Brown is coolly analytic about the problem, evaluating what aspects of the economy may be contributing to the problem.  Cameron traces what people have done and are doing.  He sees the problem more of the action of others in the past and the present.  Clegg actually doesn’t, on this analysis appear to be thinking in a particularly individual or revealing way about the problem at all, suggesting perhaps an overriding caution over making an error and an emphasis on connecting with his audience, but, instead, later he does address how he would fix it.

Caveat:  Linking natural language use with social, cognitive, and personality dimensions is a relatively new science.  It’s important to think of it in probabilistic terms.  Our approach is more accurate than flipping a coin but far from 100% accurate.  Also, these analyses are based purely on how the candidates spoke in the debates.  As we’ve seen, once the microphones are thought to be turned off, the candidates may actually talk and think differently from what we’ve seen on the international stage.

Its also vital to grasp thus far psychologists have been intrigued by the link between various psychological measures of candidates and future electoral success, it’s another enterprise altogether to determine the link between various features of candidates, and what determines an eventually good leader, as opposed to a merely electorally successful one. The problem for elections is that there appears, at first glance and depending on your political prejudices, little correlation between electoral success and eventual greatness (Churchill lost the first election he fought after his victory in World War 2). The difficulty for science is that it’s a clearly measurable outcome, who wins an election, it’s a much less obviously reliably measurable variable, who is a truly great leader. Until we achieve that breakthrough in the science of psychology, you will have to vote using your own assessment, without, as yet, any more scientific data to rely on.

To see the actual numbers for the language analyses, go to


Pessimistic Explanatory Style in the Historical Record: CAVing LBJ, Presidential Candidates, and East Versus West Berlin. Zullow, Harold M.; Oettingen, Gabriele; Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E. P. American Psychologist Volume 43(9), September 1988, p 673–682

Self-Perception and Psychological Well-Being: The Benefits of Foreseeing a Worse Future. Cheng, Sheung-Tak; Fung, Helene H.; Chan, Alfred C. M. Psychology & Aging. 24(3):623-633, September 2009.

Winning words: Individual differences in linguistic style among U.S. presidential
and vice presidential candidates. Richard B. Slatcher, Cindy K. Chung, James W. Pennebaker, Lori D. Stone. Journal of Research in Personality 41 (2007) 63–75.

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