Commentary / World

All the American presidents' pronouns

by Faye Flam

Bloomberg

By some scientific measures, Donald Trump’s presidency is not an aberration but part of a long-running trend. In his use of language, Trump is off the charts in his absence of analytical statements, as well as his expressions of confidence. Both of those tendencies are correlated with success in politics.

A trend toward less analysis and more confidence has been going on for a century, according to researchers who are using a technique created a few years ago by psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas. He created a program that analyzes large bodies of text and counts the different kinds of connector words — pronouns, prepositions, articles and auxiliary verbs (like “is,” “have,” “does”). He and colleagues found they could draw inferences from the way people used those words — about whether they were likely to succeed in school, and whether they were of higher or lower status than those they were addressing.

People with a lot of confidence assume higher status in their expressions — mainly in their use of pronouns. Confident people favor “we” and “you” while the meeker tend to use “I.” We’re more likely to follow someone who says “We should go this way” than one who says “I think this might be a good way to go,” Pennebaker says — and that’s true whether or not anyone has any idea which way we should go.

We are, he said, suckers for people who sound confident. And we are also suckers, he said, for simple, storytelling language over analytic language. People want to hear about policy, but we gravitate toward simple solutions, preferably with slogans.

Psychologists and linguists became intrigued with Trump’s elocution from the time he started to rise to prominence in the 2016 primary debates. Trump’s lack of analytical language was striking; he never used if-then statements, said Pennebaker.

Pennebaker said he learned to measure analytical language by studying college admissions essays of students at the University of Texas. There’s a kind of spectrum of language use, he said. The more often people use articles and prepositions, the less they use pronouns and auxiliary verbs. The students who favored articles and prepositions did better in college, he said, because these demonstrate analytical thinking.

The more analytic essays sounded more formal, he said, with a student saying things like, “After careful comparison I’ve found five reasons to choose the University of Texas.” The less analytical essays were more personal: “Ever since I was 6 years old I knew I wanted to be a psychologist.” But lack of analytical language doesn’t necessarily signal low intelligence, said Pennebaker. Listeners and readers relate to simple language, and good writers and orators give people what they like. In almost every U.S. presidential election since 1980 (when debate transcripts were first available), the candidate with less analytical speech and writing won, with the exception of Bill Clinton, who was more analytical than his rivals.

The researchers identified confident language patterns with a series of experiments using real emails that subjects sent to people they considered higher, lower or similar status to themselves, as well as experiments in which people were designated to be leaders or followers.

President Barack Obama was often criticized for using the word “I” too often, Pennebaker said, though he used it less than his predecessors and less than Trump. Pundits critical of Obama assumed the use of the first person revealed a self-centered attitude, but that isn’t necessarily the case. A statement like “I feel there might be a problem with our relationship” shows an understanding that there are other perspectives and that we’re each privy to only our own. I might see a problem with our relationship, while you might think our relationship is fine, or perhaps you didn’t realize we were in a relationship at all.

Then there are what Pennebaker calls the “sledgehammer” verbs — “I changed,” “I blocked,” “I won.” When Obama used these, he said, “it felt like a slap in the face.” But the program showed that Obama was a relatively light user of “I,” and a much heavier user of the confidence-projecting “you” and “we.”

When the researchers looked back into the long history of presidential writings, news conferences, debates and speeches, the result, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed steady decrease in analytical language starting in the era of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Obama is no exception to the trend. His language was very low in analytic content. He used simplicity to inspire people to think we can make headway against complex problems like race relations and access to health care. Trump takes the trend a step further, and employs a different style, with phrases that stick in the mind — from “Lock her up” to “Build the wall.”

Is this some sort of slide into idiocracy? It probably reflects changes in technology, with radio, then television and then social media reshaping the way candidates speak to the public, as well as shifting the kinds of people most likely to win elections. The good news: It may not be possible to get any less analytic or more confident than Trump. The trend could have run its course.

Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.