How We Talk When We Talk About Politics
The ways people use words can say a lot about them. Particularly revealing are the most common-yet often invisible-words, called “function” or “junk” words. Function words include pronouns (I, you, it), prepositions (to, for, of), articles (a, an, the), auxiliary verbs (is, have), and a few others. Though there are fewer than 200 common function words, they account for over half of the words we use every day. Recent studies indicate that these words are closely tied to our social and psychological states.
In the recent Observer poll of 2,500 Democratic primary voters in Texas, we asked participants two open-ended questions about their preferences. The first was: “In a couple of sentences, could you tell me what you think about the presidential campaign so far?” The second: “Could you describe the Texas issues that are most important to you?”
By analyzing the words people used to answer the questions, we were able to see how supporters of the different candidates are psychologically different. We also see the similarities between the rhetoric of the campaigns and the language of their supporters.
While each candidate attracts a large and diverse group of followers, some general patterns emerged from our analysis.
Personal language. Certain words tell us whether a person is speaking in an informal, personal manner. For example, we tend to use shorter and simpler words when talking with friends than when talking with our boss in a meeting. Clinton supporters tended to use the shortest words, whereas McCain’s and Obama’s followers used bigger ones.
Perhaps the most visible marker of informal language is the use of first-person singular pronouns-words such as I, me, my. Clinton supporters used I-words at much higher rates than Obama supporters, with McCain’s in the middle.
Thinking styles: concrete versus abstract. When people talk about concrete objects or concerns, they tend to use down-to-earth nouns along with articles (a, an, the). For example, a person who responds to voter issues by saying “the gasoline prices” is thinking slightly differently from someone who says “gasoline prices.” The use of “the” makes the topic more real and less abstract. Clinton voters tended to be the most concrete in their thinking, and Obama supporters the most abstract.
Time orientation. The verbs we use signal whether we’re thinking about the past, present, or future. It is also possible to respond to polling questions without using verbs in such a way as to make time irrelevant. It means different things to say “The Iraq War was a mistake,” “Iraq is a mistake,” or just “The Iraq War.” Supporters of both Clinton and Obama referred to past events more than McCain supporters. Interestingly, Clinton voters used present-tense verbs at far higher rates than others-Clinton supporters tended to talk in the here-and-now.
Emotional tone. To what degree did people use words that suggest positive (happy, good, fun) versus negative (bad, mess, ridiculous) feelings? The “emotion word” analysis should give the McCain camp serious concerns.
In terms of positive emotion-word use, Obama and Clinton supporters were similar in their optimism, energy, and good cheer. Common responses to questions about the nature of the primary among these supporters included statements like, “It’s been interesting” or “exciting.” McCain respondents were generally not very positive or upbeat. In fact, they were downright negative, often saying things like “nasty” or “It stinks.” A closer analysis of the words used by McCain supporters betrayed more feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and open hostility than Clinton and Obama supporters held.
Inhibited or constrained. People often give signals in their language about what they are trying not to do or not to think about. People who are inhibiting themselves tend to use negation words such as “no, not, never” at high rates. Other markers of inhibition include words such as “stop,” “control,” “block,” or “restrain.” There is an interesting psychological difference between saying, “Stop building the border wall,” and saying, “Open the border.” Language analysis indicates that McCain supporters were quite high in their use of negations and other markers of inhibition or constraint. Their orientation, then, tended toward avoidance of bad things, as opposed to the pursuit of good things.
James W. Pennebaker is chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. For more information, see www.psy.utexas.edu/Pennebaker.