Counting the candidates’ words

James W Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, counts words, or, more precisely, has a program that does that.   His blog, which focuses on the language of the leading candidates in the presidential race,  is full of interesting ideas about connections between words and character traits.  In the debates, who is the more complex thinker?  Whose language is more  personal?  And whose indicates deceptiveness?  The answers, and the reasons he has for them, are sometimes surprising.  Philosophers might find themselves worried about some of the analyses, but the project has a lot to say.

6 thoughts on “Counting the candidates’ words

  1. Really interesting, though of course there’s lots to object to. Still, shocking to learn that McCain is the big user of optimistic language, and that Palin is not much for angry language. Perhaps that just shows that counting angry words is a poor way to measure level of anger conveyed, etc.

  2. Exactly right, Jender! Body language is all important in communication. And that includes blinking, grinning through grinding teeth, winking, cutely tossing one’s head, etc etc

  3. Yes, it is curious. He doesn’t seem to see context as making that much difference to the interpretation of words, as though “we” is always the royal “we”. And then “but” counts as conjunctive, as opposed to contrastive.

    I ssearched the blog was surprised to see that we don’t have much on here about mirroring others’ emotions and actions. It turns out Hume was right in saying that seeing someone in a particular emotional state can cause that same emotion in us. He’s wrong about the mechanism, which is hardly surprising. That’s all the ‘mirror neuron’ stuff that the Italians (who else?) discovered.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I’m familiar with Pennebaker’s important finding that the mere act of writing for a few minutes about a traumatic effect is enough to lessen its grip on one’s life, but I hadn’t yet taken the trouble of looking at any of his text analysis stuff. For me, the ideas he’s generating make more sense as hypotheses than findings. However, for my own research, I’m intrigued by this idea that the relative use of articles and verbs might serve as an indicator of categorical vs. process-oriented thought, because that’s a difficult thing to assess by asking people survey-type questions.

  5. Sure, jj. This is something I hope eventually to know much more about. I can think of four contexts where categorical- vs. process-oriented thinking are relevant.

    First are environmental and social networks. Is it more useful and sensitive to think of them as being made up of separate things seen as static units with relatively fixed essences, or are the processes of the interactions between them, the relationships and how they play out over time, more important? (If I’d read more Whitehead I’m sure I’d have more insight into this, but I lean towards believing that focusing on relationships is more important than focusing on discrete units.)

    Next, the issue is relevant to how we interact with ideals. If we’re focused on whether a situation matches an ideal (and that’s desirable) or not (and that’s bad), that is, classifying situations into either/or categories of acceptability and focusing on these classifications, then we’re bound to be disappointed, resulting in perfectionism, cynicism, etc. If instead we’re focused on the process of moving toward our ideals, without worrying whether we’ll ever be in that perfect state, then we can take advantage of the positive energy that comes from hopefulness and a sense of progress.

    I also think of category-based thinking as related to universal, rule-based ethics (like a computer program written with if-else commands for each possible category of state of being), and process-based thinking as related to context-sensitive, situational ethics, since the latter is more closely related to narrative. Again, I favor the latter.

    Finally, I’m really interested in the ethical implications of the sense of wonder, and it seems apparent that wonder is most likely to arise in situations where one cannot readily categorize the experience at hand. (So is dread, though.) In Piaget’s terms, when we encounter something novel and strange, we can either assimilate it to an existing category, so that we know what to do with or about it, or we can stretch our conceptual system to accommodate the newness, but such accommodation, I think, requires a sensitivity to process.

    In each case – and I hadn’t realized this until I saw it in the Pennebaker blog – there is a much stronger place for verbs in the discussion of processes than in the discussion of discrete categories. I’m going to look and see what else he’s done on this – whether he’s just hypothesizing, or whether he’s done studies using some valid external measure of categorical and process-oriented thinking.

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