CAN THE SCIENCE OF PSYCHOLOGY TELL YOU WHAT EACH CANDIDATE REALLY THOUGHT ON THURSDAY NIGHT? APRIL 15TH ELECTORAL TELEVISED DEBATE UK ELECTION
DR RAJ PERSAUD, CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST, CONSULTS WITH AN AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST SPECIALISINGI IN LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS, PROFESSOR JAMES PENNEBAKER, TO UNCOVER THE TRUTH BEHIND THE VERBAL JOUSTING
How much do we really uncover about our leaders when they are supposedly exposed to the full glare of a ‘Presidential’ style debate? The media may have gushed the event was ‘unique’ and ‘unprecedented’, but given how heavily schooled, practiced, prepped and prepared by various experts all the candidates will have been, the real problem for the electorate will have been how to breach these ramparts in order to glimpse the authentic human behind the rhetoric.
But this problem may now have been solved in a unique manner with an exceptional combination of scientific and statistical analysis with the precise words Clegg, Brown and Cameron used, along with psychological acumen.
James W. Pennebaker, a Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas, has run every word each candidate used on Thursday night’s debate through an exclusive computer program developed in order to mathematically measure all the words the different candidates used, and has drawn some surprising conclusions about their underlying personality.
Pennebaker has also previously deployed his technique of analysing in depth what candidates said during the 2004 US Presidential Election Campaign, and was able to wrinkle out key differences in personality between the candidates, despite the welter of spin and strategy billions of dollars in campaign contributions had purchased.
Published in the prestigious academic journal Journal of Research in Personality, Pennebaker and colleagues found that John Kerry, the failed Democratic candidate, used language most similar, compared to all the other candidates, to that of a depressed person.
This may have been vital to what was considered then the surprising failure of his, and running mate John Edwards’ campaign, given how much more intelligent and competent than Bush and Cheney, Kerry and Edwards were both widely perceived to be. Plus Bush and Cheney were quagmired in the middle of various disastrous wars overseas.
Previous psychological research has established that voters much prefer optimistic language, and given both Democratic candidates used words that was more depressive than their Republican rivals, this could have been a key electoral factor, perhaps operating at an unconscious level in the voter’s mind.
In a study with colleagues published in the journal American Psychologist, Martin Seligman, a US Professor of Psychology who advocates optimism as the fundamental variable that determines outcomes in competitive predicaments, was able to predict Senate and Presidential election results – even voting upsets – with truly astonishing accuracy, by merely comparing levels of optimistic vocabulary in candidates’ speeches.
Pennebaker’s 2007 study, entitled ‘Winning words: Individual differences in linguistic style among US Presidential and Vice Presidential Candidates’, also revealed that Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, was, from the words he used, the most ‘feminine’ of the four candidates. Previous research on the psychology of linguistic style has found that women display characteristic differences in linguistic styles compared to men.
For example, they deploy greater references to others (they are more relational) and make fewer references to money. The deep problem for a male politician of appearing too ‘feminine’ to the electorate is that previous psychological research has uncovered that approaching two thirds of voters characterise leaders of countries as ‘masculine’.
Using the same statistical and computerised approach to analysing the candidate’s words, I invited Pennebaker to apply the technique he used so powerfully in recent US Presidential campaigns, on the words that Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown generated for their first televised debate.
Pennebaker’s preliminary analysis is that Brown used more emotionally and psychologically distant language. His low use of 1st person singular pronouns, or I-words means that in psychological terms he was the least personal. Instead of using “I”, he tended to use “we” – a sign of psychological ‘distancing’ Pennebaker often reports in less electorally successful politicians (John Kerry and Al Gore were both big “we” users). Brown also used negative emotion words, especially words that signaled anxiety, at the highest rates compared to the other two candidates.
Compared to the other two adversaries, Pennebaker found Nick Clegg used more personal language (more I-words for example), deployed the most positive emotion words, and tended to talk in the present tense at the highest rates. These are strong indicators of psychological immediacy, in other words, he is speaking more of the here-and-now.
Pennebaker’s analysis is that Clegg’s overall linguistic style on the night was characterised by verbal markers of honesty, consistent with previous research on differences between truthful and deceptive language. Linguistic honesty is associated with, among other features, higher use of I-words.
Clegg’s significant electoral secret weapons, given he is widely regarded to have won the first round of this televised contest, according to Pennebaker’s linguistic investigation, could include these verbal stylistic features, and perhaps in particular, his superior use of optimistic language. What is particularly intriguing about Pennebaker’s analysis is that for the first time it provides a scientific account for why Clegg may have been perceived to have performed better, given it’s not clear from the ensuing conflicting media cacophony that political commentators have properly figured out the secret to his success.
Compared to the other two candidates Pennebaker found that Cameron’s style was the least distinctive – other psychologists might speculate that this could be a sign of greater caution? The perception here in the UK was that Cameron went into the debate with the highest expectations on his shoulders and therefore had the most to lose. For him the debate was therefore for him to fumble and drop the ball, and therefore perhaps there was pressure to appear most anodyne?
Like Brown, Pennebaker found Cameron scored high in negative emotion words, but also more angry than anxious. He tended to be a bit more moralistic (using words like would, should, and could), less specific, with a greater focus on money-related issues.
In comparison with the other two candidates, Pennebaker found Brown was more concrete, focusing on particular objects and things (as indicated by his use of articles such as “a” and “the” – words that are needed with concrete nouns). Like Obama, whose speeches Pennebaker has also extensively analysed, he also used more verbs than the other candidates, often a sign, Pennebaker feels, of more dynamic thinking. Compared to Brown, Pennebaker found both Cameron and Clegg used relatively more ‘cognitive’ or ‘thinking’ vocabulary – words such as ‘think’, ‘realize’, ‘understand’, ‘because’.
Pennebaker argues that people generally use cognitive words when still attempting to construct an unambiguous narrative. In other words, Pennebaker’s overall conclusion, given his preliminary linguistic analysis, is that Cameron and Clegg verbal styles reveal they could still be struggling to generate ways of framing their thinking, compared to Brown, who already has some kind of clear account in his head.
Pennebaker cautions that his preliminary language scrutiny should not be taken too seriously just yet. As the debates unfold, it is possible language use by the various candidates will settle down, as nerves begin to play less of a factor, plus the uniqueness of the situation becomes less overwhelming.
This could allow possibly more natural ways of speaking to ‘leak’ out more, and therefore permit deeper significant psychological differences between the candidates to emerge from Pennebaker’s analyses. It is possible that a combination mathematics, science and psychology could offer the voters, at last, a real choice.
NOTE TO EDITORS
Pennebaker’s analysis has generated the table below where the numbers beneathe the total world count are percentages of overall speech, relevant to each particular linguistic attribute. The LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) program Pennebaker has developed examines each word in text supplied to it, first automatically checking the word actually exists and is in the dictionary. The word is then allocated a code, for example, as what kind of a word, whether, for example, or not a pronoun and, perhaps most specifically, an impersonal pronoun. After going through all the words in the supplied text, LIWC would calculate the percentage of each LIWC category. So, for example, 2.34% of all the words might be found to be impersonal pronouns. The LIWC output, then, lists all LIWC categories and the rates that each category was used in the given text. See the example below for the Thursday night debate.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON PROFESSOR JAMES PENNEBAKER’S WORK GO TO http://wordwatchers.wordpress.com/
DR RAJ PERSAUD IS CURRENTLY AT THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE FESTIVAL CONDUCTING AN EXPERIMENT ON THE PSYCHOLOGY OF EXPECTATION AND INTERVIEWING GRAHAM FARMELO ON HIS RECENT BIOGRAPH OF PAUL DIRAC http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk/Events/Big-Ideas/In-the-Psychiatrists-Chair