Posts Tagged 'spin'

Canadian election 2015: Leaders’ debate

Regular readers will recall that I’m interested in elections as examples of the language and strategy of influence — what we learn can be applied to understanding jihadist propaganda.

The Canadian election has begun, and last night was the first English-language debate by the four party leaders: Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair, and Justin Trudeau. Party leaders do not get elected directly, so all four participants had trouble wrapping their minds around whether they were speaking as party spokespeople or as “presidential” candidates.

Deception is a critical part of election campaigns, but not in the way that people tend to think. Politicians make factual misstatements all the time, but it seems that voters have already baked this in to their assessments, and so candidates pay no penalty when they are caught making such statements. This is annoying to the media outlets that use fact checking to discover and point out factual misstatements, because nobody cares, and they can’t figure out why.

Politicians also try to present themselves as smarter, wiser, and generally more qualified for the position for which they’re running, and this is a much more important kind of deception. In a fundamental sense, this is what an election campaign is — a Great White Lie. Empirically, the candidate who is best at this kind of persona deception tends to win.

Therefore, measuring levels of deception is a good predictor of the outcome of an election. Recall that deception in text is signalled by (a) reduced use of first-person singular pronouns, (b) reduced use of so-called exclusive words (“but”, “or”) that introduce extra complexity, (c) increased use of action verbs, and (d) increased use of negative-emotion words. This model can be applied by counting the number of occurrences of these words, adding them up (with appropriate signs), and computing a score for each document. But it turns out to be much more effective to add a step that weights each word by how much it varies in the set of documents being considered, and computing this weighted score.

So, I’ve taken the statements by each of the four candidates last night, and put them together into four documents. Then I’ve applied this deception model to these four documents, and ranked the candidates by levels of deceptiveness (in this socially acceptable election-campaign meaning of deceptiveness).

wordseffectsThis figure shows, in the columns, the intensity of the 35 model words that were actually used, in decreasing frequency order. The rows are the four leaders in alphabetical order: Harper, May, Mulcair, Trudeau; and the colours are the intensity of the use of each word by each leader. The top few words are: I, but, going, go, look, take, my, me, taking, or. But remember, a large positive value means a strong contribution of this word to deception, not necessarily a high frequency — so the brown bar in column 1 of May’s row indicates a strong contribution coming from the word “I”, which actually corresponds to low rates of “I”.

deceptdocsThis figure shows a plot of the variation among the four leaders. The line is oriented from most deceptive to least deceptive; so deception increases from the upper right to the lower left.

Individuals appear in different places because of different patterns of word use. Each leader’s point can be projected onto this line to generate a (relative) deception score.

May appears at the most deceptive end of the spectrum. Trudeau and Harper appear at almost the same level, and Mulcair appears significantly lower. The black point represents an artificial document in which each word of the model is used at one standard deviation above neutral, so it represents a document that is quite deceptive.

You might conclude from this that May managed much higher levels of persona deception than the other candidates and so is destined to win. There are two reasons why her levels are high: she said much less than the other candidates and her results are distorted by the necessary normalizations; and she used “I” many fewer times than the others. Her interactions were often short as well, reducing the opportunities for some kinds of words to be used at all, notably the exclusive words.

Mulcair’s levels are relatively low because he took a couple of opportunities to talk autobiographically. This seems intutively to be a good strategy — appeal to voters with a human face — but unfortunately it tends not to work well. To say “I will implement a wonderful plan” invites the hearer to disbelieve that the speaker actually can; saying instead “We will implement a wonderful plan” makes the hearer’s disbelief harder because they have to eliminate more possibilities’ and saying “A wonderful plan will be implemented” makes it a bit harder still.

It’s hard to draw strong conclusions in the Canadian setting because elections aren’t as much about personalities. But it looks as if this leaders’ debate might have been a wash, with perhaps a slight downward nudge for Mulcair.

You heard it here first

As I predicted on August 8th, Obama has won the U.S. presidential election. The prediction was made based on his higher levels of persona deception, that is the ability to present himself as better and more wonderful than he actually is. Romney developed this a lot during the campaign and the gap was closing, but it wasn’t enough.

On a side note, it’s been interesting to notice the emphasis in the media on factual deception, and the huge amount of fact checking that they love to do. As far as I can tell, factual deception has at best a tiny effect on political success, whether because it’s completely discounted or because the effect of persona is so much stronger. On the record, it seems to me to be a tough argument that Obama has been a successful president, and indeed I saw numerous interviews with voters who said as much — but then went on to say that they would still be voting for him. So I’m inclined to the latter explanation.

Including the results of the third debate

Just a quick update from the persona deception rankings from yesterday, to include the text of the third debate (assuming that each statement is free form, which is slightly dubious).

Here’s the figure:

Persona deception scores after the third debate

You can see that they are running neck and neck when it comes to persona deception. Adding in the third debate changes the semantic space because the amount of text is so large compared to a typical campaign speech. The points corresponding to debates lie in the middle of the pack suggesting that neither is trying to hard to present themselves as better than they are — this is probably typical of a real-time adversarial setting where there aren’t enough cognitive resources to get too fancy.

Update on persona deception in the US presidential election

Recall that persona deception is the attempt, by a politician, to seem more wonderful than s/he actually is. It’s a form of deception, and can be detected fairly readily using the Pennebaker deception model. As I mentioned in the previous post, it relies on the ability to speak in a freeform (i.e. unprompted) way. However, both of the presidential debates so far have used the questions only as faint stimulators of pre-prepared talking points so I’m including them (but some caveats apply).

Here is the picture of the levels of persona deception over time, where I’ve changed to a more conventional red for Romney and blue for Obama.

red – Romney; blue – Obama

Apart from a few high-scoring speeches by Romney, there isn’t much separation between the two candidates. The differentiating between top-left and bottom-right is mostly driven by Obama’s heavy use of “I’m” and one of two other words that Romney doesn’t use much. The debates are labelled by the squares — it’s clear that there isn’t much difference between their debate speeches and their stump speeches, which is interesting because the former are less scripted.

However, this is a big change from my previous analysis just after the conventions. At that point Obama’s levels of persona deception were much higher than Romney’s. The change suggests that Romney has become much better at presenting the current persona (or, alternatively, that the persona he is now presenting is closer to the “real” man). Since the candidate who can  best present a strong persona tends to win, this suggests that the candidates are much closer than they were.

We will see what the 3rd debate brings forth tonight…

Deception in the US Presidential Debates

You might be wondering if I’m going to be posting scores for the levels of persona deception in this evening’s presidential debate (and subsequent ones).

There’s a problem: the deception model relies on the rates at which certain kinds of words occur. In question-and-answer situations such as interrogations, and debates, the language of the questions drives, to some extent, the language of the answer. So we can’t get a clean read on the level of persona deception of the respondent without factoring out that part of the response that doesn’t come, so to speak, from inside the respondent’s head.

We can’t do this factoring yet, although we are making some progress. One of my students has developed a technique for “correcting” the word frequencies in an answer to allow for the prompting effects of words in the question. For example, using “you” in a question tends, not surprisingly, to alter the rates of pronouns such as “I” in the answer. The problem is complicated by the fact that the effects of the prompting don’t seem to be independent of the mental state of the respondent, something that others have noticed in forensic settings.

So the bottom line is that the deception model, thought effective in freeform situations such as speeches, remains problematic in interrogatory settings. The effect of a question seems to die away about 50 words into an answer, so there will be opportunities to look at levels of persona deception in longer responses, of which there will probably not be a shortage.

Update of persona deception in the US presidential election to early September

These results are somewhat limited by the low number of Romney speeches that seem to be posted on the web; and do not include any of the convention speeches.
Recall that persona deception is the attempt by politicians to appear better than they are; that this is a form of deception detectable by the Pennebaker deception model; and that, all things being equal, the candidate who presents him/herself as most wonderful will win.
This figure shows the level of persona deception in speeches, where red is Obama and blue is Romney. The straight line is the axis of deception with high sores at the red end and low scores at the green end.

The pattern is very much as it was a few months ago; and, on this evidence, Obama is still on track to win.

Here’s a great example of high scoring Obama:

“…you are aware that there is a pretty intense campaign going on right now. And the reason it’s intense is because the choice that we face in November could not be bigger. It’s not just a choice between two candidates. It’s not even just a choice between two parties. More than any election in recent memory, this is a choice between two fundamentally different paths for our country’s future.”

Not a first-person singular pronoun to be seen; hardly an exclusive word. And it could have been said by anyone.


Update — persona deception from May to early August in the US presidential race

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I compute “persona deception” scores for political figures. These measure all kinds of deception but, in the political arena, most of the deception is about candidates portraying themselves as better, nicer, wiser, and more competent than they really are (rather than factual misstatements).

Now that the US presidential race is down to two, I’ve done the analysis on their available speeches from the beginning of May up to the present (early August). Obama has made many more speeches (I’ve included both ‘campaign’ and ‘fundraiser’ speeches — I don’t know how he’s found the time to do anything else since there are three and four speeches apparently most days).

Here is the basic figure:

The line is the axis of scores, with high scores at the red end and low scores at the green end. The red crosses are Obama speeches, and the blue crosses Romney speeches. You can see that Obama’s scores (for example, projecting each point onto the line) are much higher. It seems to be the case that, all things being equal, the candidate with the higher persona deception scores wins an election. If this data holds up through the remaining 3 months, this can be considered a prediction. That’s certainly what happened in the 2008 cycle, which you can see by looking back in this blog.

For the technically minded, the two-factor structure here is often seen faintly because an individual’s use of markers such as first-person singular pronouns is often fairly uncorrelated with their use of exclusive words such as “but” and “or”. It’s more pronounced in this case by Romney’s high rate of use of “I” while Obama tends to prefer “I’m”. Overall, Obama’s high scores come from: high rates of “I’m”, high rates of “go” and “going”, and low rates of “but” and “or”. If you want to find out more, this analysis is based on James Pennebaker’s deception model, which we’ve extended by using a dimensionality reduction (so that scores are projections onto a set of eigenvectors rather than sums of marker frequencies).

Negative words in the campaign

Yesterday we looked at the use of positive words in the campaign. Today, I want to present the use of negative words.

We saw the President Obama is much better at using positive words than the Republican contenders; but they are all about the same at using negative words. Note that these two flavors of words are not necessarily opposites; someone can use both positive and negative words at high rates (although that itself might be interesting).

Here are the speeches according to their patterns of negative word use:

Again, distance from the origin indicates intensity of negative word use, and direction indicates different words being used.

Romney has the strongest use of negative words (and the associated words are ones like “disappointments” and “worrying”). Ron Paul also has quite strong use of negative words. His word choices are quite different from those of the other candidates, though; they include “bankrupt”, “flawed” and “inconvenient”.

President Obama and Gingrich have moderate levels of negative word use; the most popular word for both of them is “problem”, followed by “challenge”.

Santorum has the lowest levels of negative word use of all five of them.

The differences are interesting because they shed some light on how each candidate views those aspects of the situation that are not favorable to them. Obama and Gingrich have a more proactive view: negatives to them are problems. The other candidates have a more outward focus on the source of difficulties and, at the same time, a more negative inward focus, that is they use negative words that reflect how they feel about themselves.

I also ran an experiment weighting the positive words positively and the negative words negatively, to see if there is any ranking from, as it were, most positive person to most negative person. It turns out that there isn’t such a ranking. All of them use mixtures of positive and negative words, different mixtures for each, but all of about the same ratio of positivity to negativity.

Content in Presidential Campaign Speeches

Last week I posted details of the level of “persona deception” among the Republican presidential candidates and President Obama. Persona deception measures how much a candidate is trying to present himself as “better” in some way than he really is. This is the essence of campaigning — we don’t elect politicians based on the quality of their proposals; and we don’t fail to elect them because they tell us factual lies. Almost everything is based on our assessment of character which we get from appearance and behavior, and also from language.

Today I’ll post a description of the different content of the speeches so far in 2012. This is less informative than levels of deception, but it does give some insight into what candidates are thinking is of interest or importance to the voters they are currently targeting. Here is an overview of the topic space:

You can see that most of the Republican candidates are talking about very similar things. In fact, the speeches in the upper right-hand corner are associated strongly with words such as “greatness”, “freedom”, “opportunity”, “principles” and “prosperity” — all very abstract nouns without much content that could come back to haunt them.

Gingrich’s speeches towards the bottom of the figure are quite different, although still associated with quite abstract words: “bureaucracy”, “media”, “pipeline”, “elite”, “establishment”. These are almost all things that he is against — stay tuned for an analysis of negative word use later in the week.

Obama’s speeches, on the left-hand side, are heavily oriented to manufacturing associated with words such as: “cars”, “hi-tech”, “plant”, “oil”, “demand”, “prices”.

What a candidate chooses to talk about seems to be a mix of his personal hobbyhorses (at the time) and some judgement of what issues are of interest to the general public, or at least which can create daylight between one candidate’s position and the others. From this perspective, Gingrich separates himself from the other Republicans quite well. Somewhat surprisingly, Ron Paul’s content is not very different from that of Romney and Santorum. Probably this can be accounted for as a function of the three of them all trying to appeal to a very similar segment of the base. Whether Gingrich is consciously trying to address different issues, or whether his history or personality compel him to is not clear.

2012 US Election, Republicans plus President Obama

Yesterday I posted details about the levels of persona deception in the speeches by the Republican candidates since the beginning of 2012. In striking contrast to the 2008 cycle, the speeches fall along a single axis, indicating widespread commonalities in the way that they use words, particularly the words of the deception model.

Today I’ve included President Obama’s speeches this year in the mix. I’ve tried to select only those speeches where there was an audience. Of course, for a sitting president, the distinction between an ordinary speech and a campaign speech is difficult to draw. Almost all of these are labelled as campaign events at

Here is the plots of the persona deception levels, with Obama’s speeches added in magenta.

Generally speaking, Obama’s levels of persona deception (see yesterday’s post to be clear on what this means) are in the low range compared to the Republican presidential candidates. This is quite different from what happened in the 2008 cycle, where his levels were almost always well above those of McCain and Clinton. It’s not altogether surprising, though. First, he can no longer be the mirror in which voters see what they want to see since he has a substantial and visible track record. Second, he doesn’t have to try as hard to project a persona (at least at this stage of the campaign) since he has no competitor. I expect that his values will climb as the campaign progresses, particularly after the Republican nominee becomes an actual person and not a potential one.

The interesting point is the outlier at the top left of the figure. This is Obama’s speech to AIPAC. Clearly this is not really a campaign speech, so the language might be expected to be different. On the other hand, if it were projected onto the single-factor line formed by the other speeches, it would be much more towards the deceptive end of that axis. Since the underlying model detects all kinds of deception, not just that associated with persona deception in campaigns, this may be revealing of the attitude of the administration to the content expressed in this speech.

Republican presidential candidates — first analysis of persona deception

Regular readers of this blog will know that I carried out extensive analysis of the speeches of the contenders in the 2008 US presidential election cycle (see earlier postings). I’m now beginning similar analysis for the 2012 cycle, concentrating on the Republican contenders for now.

You will recall that Pennebaker’s deception model enables a set of documents to be ranked in order of their deceptiveness, detected via changes in the frequency of occurrence of 86 words in four categories: first-person singular pronouns, exclusive words, negative-emotion words, and action verbs. Words in the first two categories decrease in the presence of deception, while those in the last two categories increase. The model only allows for ranking, rather than true/false determination, because “increase” and “decrease” are always relative to some norm for the set of documents being considered.

How does this apply to politics? First of all, the point isn’t to detect when a politician is lying (Cynical joke: Q: How do you tell when a politician is lying? A: His lips are moving). Politicians tell factual lies, but this seems to have no impact on how voters perceive them, perhaps because we’re come to expect it. Rather, the kind of deception that is interesting is the kind where a politician is trying to present him/herself as a much better person (smarter, wiser, more competent) than they really are. This is what politicians do all the time.

Why should we care? There are two reasons. The first is that it works — typically the politician who is able to deliver the highest level of what we call “persona deception” gets elected. Voters have to decide on the basis of something, and this kind of presentation as a great individual seems to play more of a role than, say, actual plans for action.

Second, though, watching the changes in the levels of persona deception gives us a window into how each candidate (and campaign) is perceiving themselves (and, it turns out, their rivals) from day to day. Constructing and maintaining an artificial persona is difficult and expensive. Levels of persona deception tend to drop sharply when a candidate becomes confident that they’re doing well; and when some issue surfaces about which they don’t really have a persona opinion because, apparently, it takes time to construct the new piece.

So, with that preliminary, on to some results.

The figure shows the speeches in a space where speeches with greater person deception (spin) are further to the right, and those with less persona deception are further to the left. Ron Paul shows the lowest level of persona deception which is not surprising — nobody has ever accused him of trying to be what he is not. In contrast, Romney shows the highest level of persona deception — again not surprising as he has had to try hardest to make himself appealing to voters. Note that this also predicts that he will do well. Both Gingrich and Santorum occupy the middle ground; both are running on a very overt track record and are not trying as hard to make themselves seem different from who they are. Indeed, candidates with a strong history tend to have lower levels of persona deception simply because it’s very difficult to construct a new, more attractive persona when you already have a strong one. (The two points vertically separated from the rest are the result of a sudden burst of using “I’d” in these two speeches.)

The following figures break out the temporal patterns for the four candidates:

What’s striking about Romney is how much the level of persona deception changes from speech to speech. In the last election cycle, this wasn’t associated with audience type or recent success but seemed to be much more internally driven. This zig-zag pattern is much more the norm than a constant level of persona deception — some mystery remains.

Language in Presidential Elections — 2012 Season Opener

Readers of this blog will know that we spent a lot of time analyzing the speeches of the U.S. presidential candidates in the 2008 election. Our primary interest was in the use of the deception model, a linguistic/textual model of how freeform language changes when the speaker/writer is being deceptive.

In the political arena, factual deception, saying things that just ain’t so, plays very little role, perhaps because voters have very low expectations of politicians in this area. What we call persona deception, presenting oneself as a better,wiser,  more powerful, more able, more knowledgeable person than one really is is the heart of successful campaigning. It turns out that the deception model captures deception across the whole range from factual to persona deception, so it gives us a lens to look at candidates and campaigns. What’s more, because language generation is almost entirely subconscious, this lens is hard to fool.

The most important skill candidates and their campaigns have is the ability to reach out to potential voters to convince them that they are better than the other possibilities. The language that they use is an important channel, especially in settings where everyone is conservatively dressed, and standing behind a podium that conceals most of their body language, as the Republican presidential field was in Iowa yesterday.

Strong candidates understand, at least instinctively, that they are not making arguments to convince voters, but presenting themselves as more compelling human beings. Our analysis of the speeches of candidates in the 2008 U.S. presidential election showed that candidates use three different kinds of speeches: blue skies speeches that promise generically good things and could be delivered interchangeably by any candidate – they are aimed at a wide audience; track record speeches that use past achievements to imply special qualifications for future achievements – they are aimed at swing voters; and manifesto speeches that describe a candidate’s personal qualities directly – they are aimed at a candidate’s base and reinforce common identity. But in all three cases, it’s not the content of the speech that matters, but what it implies about the speaker.

Our analysis in the last election cycle showed that Obama was by far the best as presenting himself as a wonderful person, and many voters, and certainly many in the media, projected onto the persona  positive qualities that were perhaps not there. Interestingly, yesterday was the first time I have seen open Democratic buyers remorse about electing Obama, something I predicted would happen from the analysis we did.

The Republican candidates’ debate in Ames showed what a shaky grasp many of the candidates have on how to be a convincing candidate. Of course, this venue was a difficult one. Its overt purpose was for candidates to explain themselves to the local Republican base ahead of the Ames Straw Poll,which would have required largely manifesto content; but national television coverage made it an unmissable opportunity to reach out to a wider, but much more diverse audience, suggesting track record content. Blue skies content is always dangerous in the early stages of a campaign because grand but potentially unwise statements can come back to haunt a candidate.

Manifesto content was indeed popular – for example, we learned how many children almost every candidate has – typical content aimed at the base (“I’m a parent just like you”). Several candidates also tried for track record content, but got it quite wrong. The purpose of a track record speech is not for candidates to read their resumes to the audience; it’s to make the argument “I was able to do A, so you can trust me to be able to do similar-but-larger B” and this second part was notably absent.

Voters also want candidates to be sincere — recall the famous quotation “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made” (Jean Girardoux). This is not just a cute quotation; this is what good politicians are able to do. In Iowa, this was another area where almost everyone stumbled. It was clear that most of the candidates had not only prepared talking point responses to probable questions, but has also rehearsed actual answers. Delivering from a prepared and memorized script and seeming sincere is a difficult business, and actors who can do it reliably command high rewards.  Most of the candidates failed at seeming sincere. Several managed the worst of both worlds by trying to combine their prepared scripts with some ad libbing and came across as quite incoherent. One of the reasons for Gingrich’s strong showing is that he stayed away from scripts and delivered his answers as if he had just thought of them. Huntsman and Romney, in contrast, were especially wooden.

When humans listen to humans, the content matters. But when character is the issue, other aspects of language matter more. Much language generation is subconscious, and therefore beyond a candidate’s control. This is good for voters because it means we can sometimes see through to the real person no matter how sophisticated their speech writers and spin doctors.

Reagan vs Obama and McCain

I thought it would be interesting to look at the level of spin in Reagan’s speeches. He shares some characteristics with Obama; not in political opinions but in his ability to motivate an audience, and to be resistant to potentially embarrassing factual issues.
Here is the plot from yesterday’s post comparing Obama and McCain since their conventions, with five campaign speeches (all I could find) by Reagan between the convention and the 1980 election.

Comparing the spin of Reagan, Obama, and McCain

Comparing the spin of Reagan, Obama, and McCain

The points with red stars are Reagan’s speeches. As you can see, his level of spin is much higher than either of today’s candidates. The ability to use high levels of spin without coming across as phony is, of course, what makes an actor, so this is not entirely surprising. And I’ve argued all along that high levels of spin pay off for a politician, and the ability to give high-spin speeches especially to people who do not already like you is a key asset for a politician. Reagan is a good example of this in action.

Spin scores to the end of October

Here is the analysis of levels of spin in Obama and McCain’s speeches up to a few days ago. Usual labelling (refer to previous posts for background).

Spin scores (red - McCain, blue - Obama)

Spin scores (red - McCain, blue - Obama)

The most obvious thing to see in this plot is how McCain’s speeches all tend to lie on one side of the deceptiveness axis while Obama’s tend to lie on the other side. This is because McCain has started using motion words at high rates (and Obama does not). This has a small effect on deceptiveness score, but rates of use of motion verbs are not all that important to signalling deception.

The individual levels of spin from the convention to the end of October are here:





The last time I posted was during the period where Obama’s level of spin was quite low. As you can see, it has risen sharply again in the past week. This suggests that he is not as confident of winning now as he was then — he has consistently shown a pattern of stepping out from his facade and using lower spin when he feels confident about winning.

Update — Spin in US Presidential Election

I’ve looked at the spin in the speeches in the last few weeks, more or less since the convention. The overall picture has remained very similar to earlier stages: Obama’s levels of spin are relatively high compared to McCain’s.

Here is the overall spin plot:

Spin between the conventions and the last week of October

Spin between the conventions and the last week of October

Here are the plots over time for McCain:

McCain's spin

McCain's spin

and Obama:

The most interesting thing here is how much Obama’s level of spin has dropped in the last few speeches. This is very similar to what happened in the weeks (late February) when it became clear that he would get the Democratic nomination. When he feels sure of himself, he steps out from behind his election facade and presents himself much more openly. The extremely low-spin speech is his comedy routine at the Al Smith dinner — presumably the expectation that he should be funny rather than serious made him feel as if he had permission to be himself.

McCain’s high-spin speeches are those when he gives economic history lessons, unlike his typical speech in which he puts more of himself.

Canadian Federal Election – 1 day to go

The results for the three English-speaking party leaders are shown below. I have not tried to track Duceppe because we don’t fully understand how to move the deception model across languages. I think there’s a fair amount of confidence that the same (types of words) are significant in other languages, but the details are difficult. In the case of French, the pronoun “on” sometimes plays the role of “I” and sometimes not, and the differences are hard to pick out, and might perhaps be especially significant as a distancing mechanism.

The Canadian federal party leaders have all tried to run presidential style campaigns (Vote the man, rather than the party, or the local member). But they can’t bring themselves to talk about themselves, so the speeches they all give are extremely abstract blue-skies policy speeches, with hardly an “I” to be seen. Relative to the U.S. election, all of the speeches would rank as high spin. This may be partly a perception (probably accurate IMHO) that Canadians are not ready for prime minister = president and so the leaders are trying to be the face of their party, but not the single leading figure. This middle-ground approach seems to be a bit clunky, and produces some odd speeches. Can you imagine an American politician at any level giving a speech titled “New Support for Apprentices”?

Here is the spin ranking for the speeches available up to today:

Spin rankings over the entire election campaign

Spin rankings over the entire election campaign

The pattern has been reasonable consistent over the campaign. Stephen Harper’s (blue) speeches tend to be high-spin; Stephane Dion’s (red) speeches are more moderate in spin, but much more variable; and Jack Layton’s speeches (such as they are) (magenta) are relatively low spin. This would indicate that Stephen Harper will tend to do better than the other two, but these speeches play such a small role in the campaign that not much should be read into this prediction.

Obama in the rest of the world

There’s a story in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning making the point that three-quarters of Australians want Obama to win. This is consistent with the reaction to Obama in Europe and, I suppose, many other parts of the world.

But how do they know? Part of the answer at least is that they’ve heard snippets of his speeches — and this is exactly what you’d expect of blue-skies policy speeches. Such speeches reach out to those who are far away.

The danger is that increased exposure to blue-skies policy speeches backfires because the lack of connection to the actual person starts to make them seem too artificial. This doesn’t happen in far-away places because there isn’t enough exposure. But it’s a real possibility in the U.S..

Canadian election — some results

Although the party leaders are trying to run a presidential election (vote for Harper, Dion, Layton, Duceppe rather than vote for a party or (heaven forbid) a local member), they are not doing a very good job of presenting themselves as people. The speeches that are available online are little more than press releases read out loud. The contrast with the speeches of the U.S. contenders couldn’t be more stark.

However, here are the spin values for the available speeches, 12 from Harper in blue, 3 from Dion in red, and one from Layton in magenta.

Party leaders spin to Sep 29

Party leaders spin to Sep 29

Speech 13 from Dion has such (apparently) low spin on the strength of a few paragraphs near then end in which he becomes slightly personal. The Harper speeches are all blue-skies policy speeches. He does not tend to take credit personally, but rather attributes the policies to the government or to the Conservative Party.

High-spin speeches are usually a good strategy, so Harper is probably doing better than the other two leaders. But this kind of generality seems not to attract anyone very strongly. Maybe that’s all Harper is going for — a safe pair of hands argument. But you can’t help but think that Bill Clinton could give all three of them pointers.

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.

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.