Press Release: Hope and Authenticity in Presidential Nominating Speeches Predict Election Outcomes
Robert McGrath of Fairleigh Dickinson University and William Lamson of Weill Cornell Medical College examine language’s hints about character
Teaneck, NJ (January 16, 2020) — People evaluate others on the basis of their character. In a study to be published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, William Lamson and Robert McGrath looked at the use of language suggestive of character in presidential candidate nomination speeches since 1864 and in recent successful movies. They found that references to hope were a better predictor of popular vote and winning than whether the candidate was an incumbent president. A sense of authenticity in the speech also predicted outcomes well. Dialog in successful movies also tended to make fewer references to several aspects of character than other video materials.
“This is the first test of using language in this way to look for hints about character, so it should be interpreted cautiously,” said McGrath. “That said, we were very interested in using language about character to persuade or engage other people. It has often been suggested that character is an important factor in how we think about political candidates.”
A software tool called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count is available that allows text to be analyzed for words referencing any concept that interests the researchers. In this research, lists of words referring to morality and virtue were taken from a previous study. They were combined with word lists for 24 elements of character, such as prudence, fairness, and kindness. For all but one election from 1864 through 2016, convention presidential nominating speeches were analyzed on these 26 dimensions as well as others. Republicans referred to spirituality more than Democrats, while Democrats made more references to love of learning. Differences between the Democrat and Republican were then used to predict the proportion of the popular vote won by the Democrat, and whether or not the Democrat won. In both cases, the use of terms suggesting hope was the single best predictor of the outcome. The next best predictor was the sense of authenticity in the speech. This finding is particularly striking given the nominating speech occurs several months before the actual election.
For each of the years 2013-2016, 15 of the highest grossing films and highest rated films of the year were also analyzed. When compared to a database of movie and television dialog called SUBTLEX-US, these movies included less dialog reflecting morality, fairness, kindness, love, prudence, spirituality, and zest. The finding suggests problems with these elements of character may particularly contribute to dramatic tension. Highest-grossing films used included Fast & Furious 6 and Rogue One: Star Wars, while highest-rated films included Life Itself, Nightcrawler, and Room.
“This study contributes to that discussion by showing the language political candidates choose to use that suggests things about their character can be associated with how well they do in the election,” said McGrath. “It also suggests the possibility that dramatic tension in our favorite entertainment may be related to the lack of character.”
This research should be interpreted with caution. The number of nominating speeches is small, and relatively little of the language in any one speech has to do with character, so the patterns could change with future speeches, especially if these results become known to political candidates. The SUBTLEX-US dataset also has limitations as a comparison for recent films. With these and similar concerns recognized, the findings suggest that the presence of certain elements of character may be desired in a presidential candidate, though less desirable in a movie character.
About the Authors
Robert McGrath is a Professor in the School of Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and a Senior Scientist for the VIA Institute on Character. He has authored over 250 publications and presentations. William Lamson is an assistant professor in the School of Psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medicine. He acts as a clinical and administrative supervisor for postdoctoral fellows in the outpatient department of New York Presbyterian Hospital.
About Fairleigh Dickinson University
Devoted to the preparation of world citizens, Fairleigh Dickinson University offers over 100 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, including doctoral programs in pharmacy, nursing practice, clinical psychology and school psychology; and an AACSB-accredited business school. Degree programs are offered on two New Jersey campuses and at two international campuses: Wroxton College, in Oxfordshire in England, and the Vancouver Campus, in British Columbia, Canada. For more information, visit FDU.edu.
Support for this research was provided by the VIA Institute on Character.