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Signs We Want to Speak Rather Than Listen

Emotional language can be used to detect an intent to persuade.

It is difficult to make progress in discussions if neither side wants to listen. As political and ideological divisions grow more entrenched, the quality of public debate appears to spiral downward. Radio and TV talk shows tend to present one point of view or another, while social media attracts people to sites where they can share opinions with the likeminded, rather than discuss views thoughtfully with others who disagree. It seems that everyone wants to talk, and few want to listen to those who disagree with them.

If we are to begin to escape the polarizing influence of this trend, one important step (among many) entails discovering ways to measure the extent to which people are trying to persuade rather than listen. People often claim to be openminded and nonjudgmental when describing their views, and they may sincerely believe this. Yet, listeners may suspect that the expressed views are more dogmatic and predetermined than the speakers admit. How can we know whether such suspicions are correct or unfounded?

An interesting telltale sign of intent to persuade has been documented in innovative social psychological research by Matthew Rocklage and colleagues at Northwestern University. In one of their experiments, these social psychologists asked just over 1,200 participants to write “5-star” reviews for a selected product. The scientists randomly determined whether the participants were also asked to persuade readers to buy the product (high intent to persuade) or simply to summarize the product’s positive aspects (low intent to persuade).

The researchers then coded the participants’ reviews for emotional language, using a text coding system developed by Rocklage and Fazio (2015). In fact, we mentioned this coding system in a post three years ago: “What can we learn from reading online reviews?” In their past research, Rocklage and Fazio found that this “Evaluative Lexicon” can distinguish words that are emotional and positive (e.g., wonderful) from those that are nonemotional and positive (e.g., perfect).

As expected, participants who had been asked to persuade used more emotional words than participants who had been asked only to summarize. Also, a subsequent experiment found that this effect occurred even when participants were simultaneously asked to memorize a random eight-digit number, suggesting that the change to an emotive style when trying to persuade happens spontaneously without much cognitive effort.

To us, this evidence is very helpful to research programs trying to develop interventions to increase open-mindedness in dialogue. The findings suggest that some words are more indicative of persuasion than of open-minded listening. By looking at such text, we can better track the back-and-forth interplay of persuading and being persuaded, and whether dialogue is as open as the interlocutors imagine.


Rocklage, M. D., Rucker, D. D., & Nordgren, L. F. (2018). Persuasion, emotion, and language: The intent to persuade transforms language via emotionality. Psychological Science.

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