“I” versus “we” revisited

Many people intuitively think of “I” and “we” as two ends of a continuum, where the ends are something like:

“I”, Hillary Clinton, egotistical, one-person band


“we”, Barack Obama, inclusive, working together

In all of the work we’ve done analyzing text, the frequencies of “I” and “we” are uncorrelated, so that knowing one tells you nothing about the other. In other words, there are people who use high rates of both, some who use “I” a lot but not “we”, some who use “we” a lot but not “I”, and some who use very few of both. So any idea of a continuum is rather misleading.

From the point of view of deception, it’s the frequency of “I” that matters: high rates equal openness, low rates equal a facade.

Until a week ago, Obama was using very low rates of “I” and so I’ve argued that he was spinning hard; while Clinton uses much higher rates, and so is presenting something closer to her “real self”. (Since last weekend, Obama has changed his use of “I”.)

It also matters what kind of context the speech is made in, most importantly how much the speaker is constrained in how they can speak. The signals of deception are much clearer in free statements than they are in responses to questions. There are quite large differences in language use between the opening statements in debates, and the subsequent answers to questions, even though politicians are good at using questions as a platform for saying what they wanted to say anyway.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether the speech is scripted, as most official speeches are, or extempore (off the cuff). Obviously a formal speech is not usually written by the speaker. It seems, though, that speech writers must capture language patterns that the speaker is comfortable with to be successful at the job. So scripted speeches tend to have the language patterns of the speaker, and not of the speech writer. It may also be that a speaker adjusts the use of the the little words that are important for detecting deception on the fly; we think of this as making tiny, unimportant deviations from the script, but they may actually be extremely important.


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