Spin — the technical basis

The work on spin that I’ve written about here is based primarily on the work of Pennebaker’s group at the University of Texas, Austin. The primary reference is here. The model is based on empirical studies of deception in settings where the ground truth is known, and has, by now, been validated many times. When someone is being deceptive, there will be characteristic changes in the ways they use certain words. Deception here means, of course, saying things that the speaker does not believe to be (entirely) true, not things that are factually incorrect.

Of course, this is domain dependent, so we can’t judge how deceptive politicians are in comparison to, say, used-car salesmen or nuns.

The use of the word “spin” rather than deception acknowledges the fact that there are differences between explicit intent to deceive and implicit, unconscious desire to present oneself as better (along some set of dimensions) than one actually is. This kind of self-improvement happens in job interviews, dating, and in politics.

And we don’t condemn someone for being deceptive when they make an initial offer in a negotiation, but the same kind of signals will appear in their language use.

The interesting thing is not so much that politicians try to appeal to as many people as possible, at the expense of strict accuracy, but that there are differences in how much this happens — changing over short time scales for a single person, and at longer time scales for a campaign; and that there are systematic differences between campaigns. There is a great deal of evidence that the properties mediated by changes in language patterns are not under conscious control (see e.g. Pennebaker and Chung) so they provide an insight into campaigns that is hard for the campaigns to obscure.

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