Off to the Races: The First Obama-Romney Debate

Jamie Pennebaker, professor of psychology

Professor James Pennebaker, along with research associate Cindy Chung, used text analysis to assess the debate performances of President Obama and Governor Romney.

The WordWatchers team from the Department of Psychology, Jamie Pennebaker and Cindy Chung, used text analysis tools to analyze the first presidential debate. Find out why Mitt Romney might have come across as more authentic, and why President Obama was perceived as more optimistic in the Wordwatchers blog, excerpted here. 

By James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung

It was the beginning of the World Series for word counters. After a four-year break, the WordWatchers team came out of hibernation to analyze the first presidential debate of the 2012 election. Using LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, LIWC) and other text analysis tools, we analyzed the ways that Romney, Obama, and the moderator Jim Lehrer used words.

As a brief refresher, much of our research focuses on the ways people use function words, such as pronouns (I, you, she), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, of), auxiliary verbs (am, was), and a handful of other word categories that most people overlook. Function words are the most forgettable words in our vocabulary. Nevertheless, they usually account for over 55% of the words we read, say, and hear. Their magic is that they often reveal honesty, emotional state, status, and the quality of social relationships. Function words, then, are the hidden words that tell us a great deal about people. And that would include the presidential contenders.

Envelope Please

The analysis of the language of the participants in the October 3rd debate yielded some interesting if not surprising results. Tonight, we have four awards to present. All are based on scientifically validated research methods. Drum roll please.

Mr. Authenticity: Mitt Romney

This is a bit of a surprise. Linguistic authenticity is calculated based on the rates that people are self-referential (use of the word “I”) plus markers of cognitive complexity (exclusive words such as without, but exclude), while at the same time avoiding negative emotion words. Overall, Romney rated a 4.35 to Obama’s 3.46. Authenticity is something that Romney has been criticized for in the past but tonight he connected.

Mr. Optimism and Warmth: Barack Obama

Across previous analyses, Obama has consistently come across as emotionally distant. He rarely uses I-words and his rates of both positive and negative emotion word use is low. Tonight’s debate was a subtle departure from his usual emotional tone in that he used slightly more positive emotion words than Romney (3.6 versus 3.0). In reality, the battle between Obama and Romney for the Mr. Optimism and Warmth title is a fairly sad race. Although Obama won, his competition barely made it to the plate (warmth score for Obama was 2.5 and Romney’s was 1.1).

Go to the Wordwatchers blog to read more

James W. PennebakerJames W. Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts and the Departmental Chair in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He and his students are exploring the links between traumatic experiences, expressive writing, natural language use, and physical and mental health. His studies find that physical health and work performance can improve by simple writing and/or talking exercises. His most recent research focuses on the nature of language and emotion in the real world. The words people use serve as powerful reflections of their personality and social worlds. Author or editor of 9 books and over 250 articles, Pennebaker has received numerous awards and honors.

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