HOW COME NICK CLEGG AND THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS CRASHED FROM LEADING THE POLLS AT ONE STAGE AND THEN ENDED UP WITH FEWER SEATS THIS TIME AROUND THAN AT THE LAST UK GENERAL ELECTION? DOES PSYCHOLOGY HAVE THE ANSWER?
RAJ PERSAUD CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST
The UK election is finally over – and several aspects of the result appear to have surprised everyone – in particular the eventual poor showing of the Liberal Democrats. Polling weeks before, particularly after the first televised debate between the three candidates, appeared to reveal an unprecedented Lib Dem surge. Some measures even put them in the lead over the other two parties.
So what went wrong? In particular could or did science predict this unexpected result?
Central to the claims to knowledge made by scientists involve the ability to predict the future. Scientists correctly view with suspicion disciplines that appear wonderful at explaining the past, but poor at predicting prospects. This is precisely why Economics and Psychology are often viewed as not being ‘proper’ sciences.
New Scientist – a UK based science magazine - has run more than one psychology experiment that could be interpreted as attempting to predict the outcome of the election. Voting behaviour could be viewed as great natural experiment, as it’s an outcome that is precisely measured. It’s also important (as opposed to the somewhat trivial that often ends up being gauged in Psychology Laboratories) and the ability to predict the future in this arena would be genuinely useful and powerful.
James W. Pennebaker, a Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, had run every word each candidate used in all three of the televised election debates through an exclusive computer program developed in order to mathematically measure all the words the different candidates used. The results and analysis can be found in previous The S Word Blogs on the New Scientist website.
The LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) program Professor Pennebaker has developed examines each word in text supplied to it, and calculates the percentages of words used allocated to particular categories, found from previous research to be psychologically significant.
Pennebaker previously deployed his technique of analysing in depth what candidates said during the 2004 US Presidential Election Campaign, and found that John Kerry, the failed Democratic candidate, used language most similar, compared to all the other candidates, to that of a depressed person.
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.
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.
In the first debate, according the Pennebaker’s LIWC program, 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 found he had ceded the lead to Cameron. Cameron now scored best on four of the six key measures of verbal optimism as measured using Pennebaker’s technique. Clegg’s upbeat language use had steadily fallen during the course of the three debates, whereas Cameron’s had relentlessly climbed.
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.
A review of Pennebaker’s results and analysis in previous The S Word blogs suggests that from the particular perspective of his technique, one account is offered by Science as to why the Lib Dems failed to capitalize on the advantages procured for them initially by the performance of Nick Clegg their leader in the first televised debate.
There are of course many other explanations, from political theory and media analysis.
But Pennebaker’s analysis offers one intriguing explanation in the world of confusion that the British electorate wakes up to the morning after the night before. An account that at least appears to have held true for pervious US Presidential Elections, as well as this extraordinary UK one.
FOR FULL NUMERICAL ANALYSIS GO TO JAMES PENNEBAKER’S WEBSITE