Political persuasion

By | Science & Technology
President Barack Obama laughs with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, 2013.Credit@simplewikipedia

New research on political language elucidates the particular language patterns used by politicians with conservative and liberal philosophies. The reasons for the persuasiveness of political speeches may rest in this language.

Attempts to understand what distinguishes political conservatism have focused on the types of individuals attracted to the philosophy and the psychological traits, which predict this. Philosophically, a resistance to change socially and politically, with traditional views being preferred may define the backbone of conservatism and innovation minimised. The appeal of conservatism may be detected in subordinate and high status individuals, these groups embrace this ideology in circumstances where dissonance, unpredictability and the stability of the economy may be a preoccupation. For those in an advantaged position the philosophy may appeal for self-interest reasons or because of an intention to maintain the status quo.

Conservatism’s resistance to change in the social, economic, cultural, legal, and religious arenas may be expressed in the political arena as a resistance to radicalism. Additionally, a primary factor in the characteristic self-definitions of the left and the right may be displayed in the acceptance of change versus resistance to it. This may lead individuals with a resistance to a change standpoint to be more attracted to language which is certain, confident and therefore more persuasive.

Advancing this previous insight, new research headed by Aleksandra Cichoka at the University of Kent analysed the language used by different political representatives considered to be on either the left or the right in three countries; Poland, Lebanon and the United States. The team analysed 101 speeches made by both conservatives and liberals. US presidents considered conservative (on the right) were found to use a greater proportion of nouns in speeches in comparison to liberals (on the left). This may be illuminated by the conservative’s tendency to refer to objects by a name rather than using adjectives to describe the features of objects.

The team suggested the use of nouns seems to represent stability, familiarity and tradition, which appear to be more highly valued by conservatives in comparison to liberals. Nouns may elicit concrete perceptions of reality compared to verbs and adjectives and may also satisfy a psychological need for structure and certainty within conservative personalities.  For instance, a conservative may say “is an optimist” rather than “is optimistic”.

With the upcoming elections in the United States it may be interesting to apply these findings to the actual language used by individual politicians and if this reflects the particular member’s party philosophy. The actual attitudes, beliefs and perspectives may be surmised more accurately by a politician’s individual use of language.

As the findings are derived from data in three culturally diverse countries this suggests a stable language usage is seen in individuals of different political persuasions, even though the findings specifically concentrated on liberals and conservatives. There is however, evidence of linguistic forms differing in the specific role used in different languages. For example, Italians frequently use more trait adjectives and the Japanese use behaviour-descriptive verbs in person description and memory. This demonstrates how language use is far from stable between different cultures and countries. Cultural learning may explain this; adjectives provide more information about an individual whereas verbs provide more information about a context in both languages. Moreover, a culture cultivates this way of perceiving the world and the language used to describe it.

All languages clearly distinguish between nouns and verbs so it may be improbable these language variables may be confounded when Cichoka and colleagues analysed this data, suggesting a real difference exists in the language used by liberals and conservatives. On the other hand, English speakers place nouns in emphasis positions making them more salient than the Japanese speakers’ placement in topic positions.

Overall this research adds to the understanding of political conservatism and liberalism, future studies might be advised to compare the differences in other parties. The findings demonstrate the psychological realities of politicians, the receiving public and how these factors inter-relate. How this influences the persuasiveness of the message may rest in the psychological traits of the receiver.

How does the language politician’s use influence or persuade an individual?


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