Posts Tagged 'Clinton'

6.5/7 US presidential elections predicted from language use

I couldn’t do a formal analysis of Trump/Clinton language because Trump didn’t put his speeches online — indeed many of them weren’t scripted. But, as I posted recently, his language was clearly closer to our model of how to win elections than Clinton’s was.

So since 1992, the language model has correctly predicted the outcome, except for 2000 when the model predicted a very slight advantage for Gore over Bush (which is sort of what happened).

People judge candidates on who they seem to be as a person, a large part of which is transmitted by the language they use. Negative and demeaning statements obviously affect this, but so does positivity and optimism.

Presidential speech word patterns

In the continuing saga of presidential campaign speech language, I’ve been analyzing parts of speech that don’t get much attention such as verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Looking at the way in which each candidate uses such words over time turns up some interesting patterns. I don’t understand their deep significance, but there’s some work suggesting that variability in writing is a sign of health; and Ashby’s Law of requisite variety can be interpreted to mean that the actor in a system with the most available options tends to control the system.

Here are the plots of adjective use (in a common framework) for the 2008 and 2012 candidates (up to the time that Santorum dropped out of the race).

It’s striking how much the patterns over time form a kind of spiral, moving from one particular combination of adjectives to another and another and eventually back to the original pattern. The exception is Obama who displays a much more radial structure, with an adjective combination that he uses a lot, and occasional deviations to something else, but a rapid return to his “home ground”.

You can see (the extremal set of) adjectives and their relationships in this figure:

You can see that they form 3 poles: on the left, adjectives associated with energy policy; at the bottom, adjectives associated with patriotism; and on the right, adjectives associated with defence [yes, it is spelled that way]. This figure can be overlaid on those of the candidates to get a sense of which poles they are visiting. For example, Obama’s “home ground” is largely associated with the energy-related adjectives.

Comparing content in the US presidential campaign 2008 vs 2012

I posted about the content in the 2012 presidential campaign speeches. It’s still relatively early in the campaign so comparisons aren’t necessarily going to reveal a lot, but I went back and looked at the speeches in 2008 by Hillary Clinton, McCain, and Obama; and compared them to the four remaining Republican contenders and President Obama so far this year.

Here’s the result of looking just at the nouns:

The key is:   Clinton — magenta circles; Obama 2008 — red circles, McCain — light blue stars;

Gingrich — green circles; Paul — yellow circles; Romney — blue circles; Santorum — black circles; Obama 2012 — red squares.

Recall that the way to interpret these plots is that points far from the origin are more interesting speeches (in the sense that they use more variable word patterns) while different directions represent different “themes” in the words used.

The most obvious difference is that the topics talked about were much more wide-ranging in 2008 than they have been this year. This may be partly because of the early stage of the campaign, the long Republican primary season keeping those candidates focused on a narrow range of topics aimed at the base, or a change in the world that has focused our collective attention on different, and fewer, topics.

This can be teased out a bit by looking at the words that are associated with each direction and distance. The next figure shows the nouns that were actually used (only those that are substantially above the median level of interestingness are labelled):

You can see that there are four “poles” or topics that differentiate the speech content. To the right are words associated with the economy, but from a consumer perspective. At the bottom are words associated with energy. To the left are actually two groups of words, although they interleave a little. At the lower end are words associated with terrorism and the associated wars and threats. At the upper end are words associated with the human side of war and patriotism.

These two figures can be lined up with each other to get a sense of which candidates are talking about which topics. The 2012 speeches and Obama’s 2008 speeches all lean heavily towards the economic words. In 2008, McCain and Clinton largely talked about the war/security issues, with a slight bias by Clinton towards the patriotism cluster.

Obama’s 2012 speeches tend towards the energy cluster but, at this point, quite weakly given the overall constellation of topics and candidates.

The other thing that is noticeable is how similar the topics for some of the Republican contenders are: their speeches cluster quite tightly.

Content in election speeches

I went back and looked at the collection of speeches by the three contenders in the 2008 U.S.presidential election, not from the point of view of spin, but just looking at what they were about. The results were a little surprising. Despite all of the thinking and polling that goes into a campaign, the speeches were about only three topics.

Structure of word usage in speeches

These three topics are: the economy, associated with words such as crisis, jobs, plan, pay; security, associated with words such as war, threat, Iraq, allies; and family, associated with words such as parents, children, living. This last group features only early in the campaign and a single speech by Obama given on Fathers Day.

It’s no surprise that these topics appear. What does seem surprising is how little else was mentioned: other topics words are all hidden in the center of the figure indicating that their pattern of appearance in not very interesting.

Concluding thoughts on spin the U.S. presidential election

When people think about spin and politicians, they usually assume that spin has to do with either presenting widely agreed facts in a way that puts a particular politician in the best light, or altering the facts by exaggerating or misremembering. Media people are always slightly puzzled when they reveal this kind of spin and find that it has little or no resonance with voters. Hillary Clinton’s memory of landing under sniper fire was a one-day wonder, not a deal-breaker. And there have been many other examples of this kind of spin on both sides during the U.S. presidential campaign, and they have had little impact.

This is because voters don’t choose politicians because of how clever their ideas are , whether they agree with these ideas, or even whether they are noticeably competent (history shows). They don’t listen to the candidates’ speeches and parse them for content. They vote for candidates with whom they feel some kind of resonance. And so they look for features of the candidates as people with which they can identify.

A simple way to say this is that voters look for character rather than policy. But this is still a bit misleading — they don’t don’t think about character in moral terms, but in relationship terms. Not “Is this candidate a good person” but “is this candidate a bit like me”. Moral issues do come into play, but only for those voters to whom moral issues are part of their own self image.

The kind of spin I’ve been following through the U.S. election campaign addresses this issue of presentation, that is to what extent do candidates present themselves, as people, in ways that are not congruent with who they really are, as people. In other words, to what extent do they present a persona or facade that is designed to appeal to a wider range of voters than the unadorned person would?

For both John McCain and Hillary Clinton, the short version is that they have, in general, presented something close to the real person. (This may, of course, be because they developed a political persona that they’ve been using so long that it has become the real them.) There have been ups and downs, and it’s been possible to see what might be going through the mind of the candidate and/or the campaign at certain critical moments, but overall they have presented a consistent persona that seems close to their real personality.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has consistently presented a persona that does not seem to be very close to the real Obama, about whom we can only guess. This is starting to be more widely appreciated. I’ve heard several commentators say how they find him inscrutable because they simply can’t see the real person behind the presentation.

Spin is only one factor in how voters decide who to vote for, so I can’t make a prediction about who will win tomorrow. What I think is predictable is that, if Obama wins, his approval ratings will drop quite quickly when he becomes president — he simply cannot be all of the things that people are projecting on to him, many of them mutually contradictory. And, as president, his actions will speak louder and more clearly than his campaign speeches about who he really is.

Basic ideas

Because a lot of people are coming here because of the New Scientist article, and perhaps don’t want to have to read through the back issues, I thought it would be worthwhile to review the basics.

Sometimes when people talk about spin they mean attempts to reinterpret generally-agreed facts in a way that makes one or other candidate or party look better. Sometimes this involves mistating facts, but this is usually a risky thing for a politician to do.

When I talk about spin what I mean is the way in which politicians represent themselves as different (nicer) than they are. In a perfect world, politicians might get elected based entirely on their competence, but in our world people seem to prefer to vote for someone that they like, or who seems to be someone like them. Politicians, therefore, have a lot of motivation to assume a persona or facade in which they seem more likeable and attractive than their base personality.

This presentation of an ‘enhanced’ persona has to be subconscious to really work. Only a few of us can do this consciously (people called actors, often paid well if they can do it well). So when it is happening, it can be detected by changes in subconscious behavior, in this case changes in language. Because it is largely subconscious, it provides a window into individuals’ situational view which can often be illuminating, and is often interesting as well.

For a politican, then, spin is a good thing, and a good politician will tend to be good at it. We blame politicians for being hypocritical, but they do it because it works with voters.

The limiting factors, interrelated, are how well a politician can use high spin, and the content of what s/he wants to talk about. A speech about, say, putting elephants on Mars is easy to make high spin because nothing in the speech depends on the person giving it — it’s like an argument at a debating society; there’s nothing personal invested in it. A speech that depends on what a politician has done in the past, or what s/he plans to do because of some individual skill or goal is harder to give with high spin exactly because it relates to the speaker in a tighter way. A politician who can give such a speech in a high-spin way has a huge advantage. A speech that is intended primarily for those who already support a candidate and tries to relate to them in a personal way is even more difficult to give in a high-spin way (part of Bill Clinton’s success might have been because he seems to be able to do this).

Almost all of the speeches in the U.S. election campaign can be understood from this perspective. The convention speeches are especially useful because, as a set, they all try to do more or less the same thing. But the level of spin achieved by the different speakers differs substantially.

The brief history of the campaign is this: Obama uses moderately high levels of spin throughout, varying because of the kind of speeches he gives. McCain did inded start out with straight talk, but his levels of spin quickly matched Obama once it was clear that Obama was the Democratic nominee. Clinton’s level of spin started fairly low, because she loves to get into policy intricacies. When it became clear that Obama was likely to win the nomination, she moved to a much more personal-appeal strategy with even lower levels of spin. This worked well for her with her base, but not so much outside of it, which is what you would expect for this kind of strategy.

At their conventions, Obama gave a fairly typical speech. McCain tried a risky strategy in which he used very (!!) low levels of spin. It’s not clear whether it worked for him, because both speeches were so overshadowed by the choice of Palin as VP nominee.

Election spin results covered by New Scientist

There’s an article on, among other things, my work on spin the US election campaign in this week’s issue of New Scientist. You can find it online here. There are also some interesting results from the people who look at facial expressions (pioneered by Ekman) and so voice analysis.

What’s in a name?

In the first phase of the U.S. election campaign, John McCain was “McCain”, Barack Obama was “Obama”, and Hillary Clinton was “Hillary”. It wasn’t clear that this meant anything, since “Clinton” was ambiguous (Bill or Hillary) and it was tedious to have to say “Hillary Clinton” or “Senator Clinton”.

However, now John McCain is still “McCain”, Barack Obama is still “Obama”, but Sarah Palin is “Sarah” in the media.

I’m not trying to make any claim of sexism here. I’ve noticed over many years that, given a free choice, women tend to choose userids based on their first name, while men choose userids based on their surname. But it’s an interesting example of gender differences.

Men who use a single name tend to do so because they’re very powerful or well-known: Donald, Bill (ambiguous), Napoleon. It’s not so clear that this applies to women.
Finally, a slightly relevant joke. A British general arrives at his car to find that he’s been assigned a new ATS (female) driver.

“What’s your name?”

“Mary, Sir”

“I can’t call you Mary. What’s your surname?”

“Darling, Sir”

“Drive on, Mary”

Comparing the Democratic and Republican convention spin

Just to round out the picture, here’s data comparing the levels of spin across the speeches from both conventions.

Spin levels in both conventions

Spin levels in both conventions

As usual, high spin is indicated by the red end of the line. Here are the spin scores for all of the speeches analyzed (positive numbers are high spin):

1. Bush 0.40
2. Thompson 1.71
3. Lieberman -0.73
4. Romney 4.36
5. Huckabee -1.8
6. Giuliani 2.97
7. Palin -0.62
8. McCain -7.38
9. M. Obama -1.24
10. Hillary Clinton 2.43
11. Bill Clinton 0.99
12. Biden -1.35
13. Obama 0.31

The relative positions don’t change much when compared to the other party. Within each party, there’s the same division into high- and low-spin speakers. McCain’s overall spin is still so low that it makes all of the other politicians look as if they are clustered quite close together, but there are actually quite large differences between them.

Note the cluster of Bush, Palin, Bill Clinton, and Biden who have very similar speech patterns. Perhaps this is the sign of a successful politician?

Update on spin in presidential elections

I was away for three weeks, and it’s taken me three weeks to catch up and be able to post again (although sporadically for a while).

I’ve worked through the candidate speeches since the beginning of the year. There’s  a lot to look at: what was the effect of Clinto dropping out of the race, and the transition to general-election mode?

Here’s the short version: Obama continues to use high levels of spin, after a brief period (between the time he had the primary won and the Pastor Wright affair) when his levels of spin were reduced. McCain has increased his level of spin so that it’s little different from that of Obama — his straight talk levels dropped off a cliff once Obama became the presumptive nominee.

Here’s the overall plot of spin:

Spin levels to July 16th

Spin levels to July 16th

The red dots are McCain speeches; the blue dots, Clinton speeches; and the blue stars, Obama speeches. The speeches for each candidate are numbered in time order: 1-32 Clinton, 33-77 McCain, 78-128 Obama. Note that Clinton now looks like the straight-talking candidate, because the calculation of spin is done relative to all of the speeches over the past 7 months.

Here are the spin scores for each candidate individually, in time order:

Clinton Jan 2008 to her withdrawal

Clinton Jan 2008 to her withdrawal

McCain Jan 2008 to July 16

McCain Jan 2008 to July 16

Obama Jan 2008 to July 16th

Obama Jan 2008 to July 16th

The change in McCain’s levels of straight talking are by far the most noticeable. Obama has had a few flashes of straight talk, but he seems most comfortable using moderate levels of spin.

Of course, spin works and that is why both candidates are using it. But neither can really claim that their campaign is not politics as usual.

Spin in the US Presidential Primaries — Summary

As we enter what looks like it might be the end phase of the primary season, I thought I would summarize what I’ve written about spin during the process.

  1. What is spin? People often talk about spin as messing with the content of a communication: leaving bits out, or changing the emphasis. What I’m talking about here is a mental (unconscious) process where a person presents themselves or their content in a way that does not reflect what they know to be true about it. Politicians (and the rest of us) do this, to some extent, all of the time — trying to make a good impression. For a politician, outright lying is a poor idea (recall Clinton under sniper fire) but there is a lot of pressure to be “all things to all men”. Because the communication is not the speaker’s natural persona, this kind of spin produces a detectable signature in the communication.
  2. What is the model of spin (deception)? This work is based on Pennebaker’s empirically-derived model of word-usage changes when people are being deceptive. This model is characterized by (a) reduced rates of first-person singular pronouns; (b) reduced rates of exclusive words, words that mark the beginning of a phrase or clause that qualifies or refines what has gone before; (c) increased rates of negative-emotion words; and (d) increased rates of action verbs. These changes are unconsciously produced, so cannot be directly altered by a speaker, even one who knows the model. Although the model was developed for plain deception (outright lying) it seems to detect deception across the full range from lying, through spin, to negotiating and dating.
  3. Why does there have to be a context? Because the model relies on increases and decreases in word-usage rates, there must be some kind of context of similar communications or documents to be able to tell whether a given frequency represents an increase or a decrease. Therefore, absolute spin scores cannot be determined — instead we can only rank a set of communications from most to least spinful. Even within the context of the presidential primaries, underlying language use has changed, most obviously from a ”getting to know me” phase to a “getting to know my policies” phase.
  4. The early primaries. From the beginning of 2008 until the 3rd week of February, all three candidates were introducing themselves. In the speeches given during this period, McCain has the least spin, followed by Clinton, followed by Obama, with noticeably higher levels of spin. McCain generally used (and uses) high rates of first-person singular pronouns, justifying his ‘straight talk” claim; Clinton generally used high rates of exclusive words, adding refinement and qualification to many of her statements. Obama’s speeches were lacking in both: he used “we” at extremely high rates (and “I” hardly at all), and his statements were simple and declarative. This makes for speeches that are light on content but, when well delivered, emotionally uplifting. (Reading Obama’s speeches rather than hearing makes one wonder what all the fuss is about — the speeches themselves are rather dry, and the delivery is everything.)
  5. Obama decides he’s won. Over the weekend of February 24th, Obama’s language patterns changed dramatically, becoming very similar to Clinton’s. I conclude that this weekend his campaign did the calculations and decided that Clinton could not win the nomination (which seemed, and seems, mathematically true). He cannot have consciously altered his speech patterns, so this must the result of reframing what’s going on to himself — presumably stepping out from behind the persona he had been using before that and presenting something closer to his real self.
  6. The past month. In the past month, both Obama and Clinton show higher levels of spin whenever the pressure on them has increased, and they have become defensive. For example, Obama’s levels of spin jumped back to January levels when the Wright controversy became public. In such situations, Obama’s level of spin is characteristically higher than Clinton’s.
  7. Responses versus statements. It is difficult to analyze and compare the debate statements of the candidates with their speeches. The question and answer form naturally changes the rates of word usage: for example, if the question is “Would you…” it’s much more likely that the answer will begin “I will…”. And, to make matters worse, debates are not really question and answer since candidates have prepared statements for likely questions and they will use them regardless of the form (and sometimes the content) of the question. It is not yet clear how applicable the deception model is in question and answer situations, so I have not analyzed the debates, except for the most-recent — where Obama still shows up having higher spin than Clinton.
  8. Does spin work? Spin is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it does work in the sense that it can make a speaker appealing to people who would otherwise not be attracted to him/her — which is why,  of course, politicians use it. On the other hand, if a candidate steps out of character, even briefly, people may realize that it is a facade and react in a strong negative way. And, to make it harder, the facade and the language usage are largely subconscious, so a candidate may misstep without realizing it.
  9. “I” versus “we”. There’s a lot of (positive) discussion of Obama’s high rates of use of “we”. This pronoun is irrelevant to deception — people who are being honest or deceptive may use “we” at either high or low rates. However, the difference between using these two pronouns is partially understood. People who are being open and not status conscious typically use “I” a lot, while those who are being closed and status conscious typically use “we” a lot. In particular, “we’ is often code for “you” — commanding without creating the impression of command. In other words, “we” is a weasel word.
  10. Growing into a persona. It’s possible that Clinton and McCain have been in politics so long that a persona that they originally assumed has now become so much a part of them that it has become their real personality; and that is why their levels of spin are low. By this explanation, the reason that Obama has such high levels of spin is that he’s a relative newcomer to the US national arena, and so he still “puts on” a persona. This doesn’t seem all that convincing — first, he has a long history in public life, although on a smaller stage; second, he seems to be able to step out from behind the persona when things are going well.

The analysis on which this summary is based (and the figures that go with it) can be found in earlier postings.

Clinton and Obama spin including Penn debate

Here are the results of the analysis of spin for Clinton and Obama, using speeches from 2008, and the Penn debate last night. 19 is Clinton, and 39 is Obama.
Obama and Clinton including Penn debate

Clinton: blue dots; Obama: blue stars.

As I’ve noted before, Clinton in general uses less spin than Obama, except when she’s under pressure. It’s also clear from this figure that there is a significant difference between the two orthogonal to the line that indicates level of spin. This is almost entirely due to Clinton’s liking for action verbs, to which Obama is relatively allergic.

It’s not quite fair to compare debate content to prepared speeches, because a debate requires some level of responsiveness to questions (which changes the model of deception). However, it was clear that most of the answers last night were heavily prepped, so perhaps it’s not too different.

The striking thing is that both performances represent all-time lows in spin for both candidates. This is somewhat surprising since Clinton is presumptively in the last few days of her candidacy. Both candidates seem to have decided that they can only be who they are — which has to be a good thing.

Mind you, Obama is still in love with the pronoun “we”. He almost said “when we become president” last night!

US presidential election spin — recent speeches

As promised, I’ve updated the plot of candidate spin to reflect only the speeches given in March.

The significance of this is that spin is always relative to some set of similar documents; and, in the Democratic campaign at least, the substance and tone of the conversation has changed substantially in the past few weeks. All candidates have moved away from presenting themselves as people to presenting their policies (McCain is back talking about himself, but this isn’t captured in this set of speeches).

Spin in speeches in March

9 is Obama’s race speech, 10 is his Iraq speech.

McCain still shows low levels of spin. However, the position of Obama and Clinton has largely reversed. Clinton shows high levels of spin, suggesting that her policy speeches are being simplified from the way she would usually speak (which is plausible). Obama continues to increase his level of first-person singular pronoun use, suggesting that he remains confident that he has won the nomination, despite the media’s attempts to keep stirring the pot.

Update: US presidential election spin

I’ve updated the spin analysis to reflect the speeches given up to the last weekend in March.

Spin to March 28th

McCain: red dots, Clinton: blue dots; Obama: blue stars.

You can see a transition in the type of speeches, as candidates move away from speeches intended to introduce themselves as people to speeches that express policy. These look inherently more spinful compared to the earlier speeches, at least for McCain and Clinton. Arguably some of Obama’s movement is also because of the same transition.

The trends in spin are shown in the following figures:


McCain to March 28th


Clinton to March 28th


Obama to March 28th

Although there is a general trend to speeches that score higher on spin than earlier in the campaign, Obama still leads the pack in levels of spin. I will pull out the recent speeches and repeat the analysis to get a new baseline from current content, and see whether this pattern holds true. Results in a day or two.

Changing spin over time

I’ve updated yesterday’s results to include the prepared text of Obama’s speech on Iraq yesterday. The new speech, numbered 39 in the figure, is one of his most spinful.

Spin in speeches to March 19th

I’ve also looked at how Clinton’s and Obama’s spin has changed over time.

Clinton started out talking fairly straight, but her spin has been increasing (lower on the graph) recently.

Clinton spin over time

Obama’s level of spin has always been quite high. However, after a patch of much less spin, his last two speeches, on race and on Iraq, have had very high levels of spin.

Obama’s spin over time

It’s also interesting how much variation there is from speech to speech. Some of this is probably due to the topic; speeches that involve telling one’s own story naturally produce lower spin scores, and all three candidates spend some time helping people get to know them (or their personas 🙂 ). There may be some variation because of which speechwriter(s) actually created the text. We were surprised, initially, that there were typical levels of spin because any speech is the product of several people, not just one. But it seems like a good speechwriter must produce something that the candidate is able to say in a natural way, and so aligns with what the candidate would have said.

I don’t know why these figures render so poorly. Any suggestions appreciated.

This is the beginning of the Easter weekend. I won’t post again until Tuesday, unless something time-sensitive happens.

Obama — return of the spin

The big speech on race that Obama made yesterday stimulated me to bring my analysis of the level of spin the candidates are using up to date.

Small clips of Obama talking about issues around his pastor sounded like they contained very high level of spin, especially wonderful phrases like “we need to think about that” (code for “YOU need to think about that”)

The figure below shows projections of all of the candidates speeches (as they appear on their websites), projected onto a axis that represents spin. The red dots are McCain speeches; the blue dots are Clinton speeches; and the blue stars are Obama speeches.

For each candidate, the speeches are in data order: 1-5 McCain; 6-21 Clinton; and 22-38 Obama.


Link to a copy for better readability (maybe)

Obama had a major reduction in spin in all of his speeches around Feb 24th. Although his speeches contain more spin than either of the other two candidates, even his speeches are of two different kinds. Some, such as 37 (US Admirals and Generals) and 28 (Reclaiming the American Dream — autobiography) have quite low spin. Others, such as yesterday’s (38), his speech when he lost Texas and Ohio (36), and his Great Need of the Hour speech (23) have high levels of spin.

You can see that the amount of spin in yesterday’s speech worked. The pundits are impressed; it’s the greatest speech about race in a generation, apparently. It was a good speech. But, perhaps, it wasn’t quite the real Obama.

I stick my my interpretation of the changing spin. Around Feb 24th Obama became convinced that he had won the nomination. Every time since then that something has happened to shed doubt on that, any kind of pressure, and he retreats behind his higher-spin language.

Clinton is also feeling the pressure. 3 of her 4 most recent speeches have had much higher levels of spin than she usually uses.

Levels of spin are not consciously controlled (see earlier posts), so they provide an insight into the mental landscape and framing that is driving each of the candidates.

Segment: CBC Radio’s “The House”

I did an interview with CBC Radio’s parliamentary news program “The House” which will be on air on Saturday morning from 9 a.m. on CBC Radio 1 (in Canada and the northern tier of the U.S.).

I talked about spin and deception in the U.S. presidential campaign and the Ethics Committee hearings about the so-called Airbus affair (Mulroney and Schreiber).

Results from the analysis of the Ethics Committee hearings are inconclusive so far, but I will eventually do some more analysis, and perhaps write about the results here.

The audio is

“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.

Obama thinks he has the nomination

In my previous post, I pointed out that Obama has changed the way in which he uses first-person singular pronouns — increasing them dramatically, a strong signal that he has reduced the amount of spin he is using.

I wasn’t sure why this was happening. In the debate this evening, he’s using the same increased level of first-person singular pronouns.

The change is truly dramatic.

I think perhaps he has decided that he has the nomination, and he’s stepping out from behind the careful facade that he’s used to get this far. Certainly he learned something this weekend that has changed his attitude to the campaign. I don’t think that this much of a change could be managed consciously.

It’s a big change.

“I” versus “we”

A number of people have noticed that there are substantial differences in the way Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama use pronouns. This is part, but not the whole story about deceptiveness and spin in communication, as I’ve talked about in earlier postings.

The conventional explanation goes something like this:

“Clinton says “I” a lot because she’s egotistical, or because she plans to get things done, with or without the help of other people. Obama says “we” a lot because he is inclusive and wants to develop a shared dream that all can be involved in.”

This view is completely wrong, although it’s probably true that Obama, at some time, developed his use of “we” because he thought or was told that it would create an inclusive impression.

The reality is almost exactly the opposite. People who use first-person singular pronouns (“I”, “me”, “my”) do so, unconsciously, because they are being open, warm, and low status.

People who use first-person plural pronouns (“we”,”us”,”ours”) are not being as open, especially if the speaker is a man. Men use such pronouns as a velvet glove around an iron fist, a way to command without the appearance of command.

How do I know this? The models of language have been derived empirically, much of it the work of James Pennebaker and his group. They have studied the language that people use in known situations, and derived word usage profiles that have enabled them to draw these kinds of conclusions.

Obama uses the language he does because it works — people do perceive him as inclusive. But that doesn’t mean that that’s his real view of the situation. Clinton has adopted, consciously or not, an approach that presents her real self much more directly

It’s not all about pronouns. Other important components are exclusive words (“but”,”nor” which both McCain and Clinton have used in the past week!); negative emotion words (“angry”); and action verbs (“going”).